Excuse me for not cheering the renaissance of journalism in the digital era, which I would be pleased to toast if there were one.
But the reality is that the businesses that historically have funded local journalism are cutting coverage at the same time that most of the hundreds of new digital entrants are struggling to achieve financial sustainability.
We know this – and much more – from the annual State of the News report from the Pew Research Center, which was released last week. The key findings in this report are must-reading for anyone who worries about who in the future will produce comprehensive, consistent local coverage and rigorous public-interest journalism.
Here are the most salient, and sobering, points in Pew’s data-rich report:
Fully 93% of the 70,000 journalists in this country actually continue to be employed by newspapers and local TV stations, not the digital newcomers. All but a handful of large and well-funded digital news start-ups have no more than four overworked and under- or un-paid employees. (Pew did not count radio journalists, though the Radio Television News Directors Association reports that the average is one newsperson per station.) Here’s where most American journalists work: With newspaper advertising revenues plunging by more than 50% since hitting a record $49 billion in 2005, newsroom staffing at the chief industry employing journalists has dropped by a third from its peak in 1990. Because the remaining reporters are required to tweet, blog, take pictures, make videos and more – sometimes even held to demanding productivity quotas like these at the Portland Oregonian – there is less time than ever to mind beats and chase enterprise projects. As you can see from the annual newsroom employment census conducted by the American Society of News Editors since 1978, the ranks today are at a historic low: Although Pew reports that network news divisions have been trimmed by nearly half in recent years, staffing has remained flat at local TV stations, which employ the second greatest number of journalists after newspapers. But local station owners have thinned the gruel by increasing the number of daily hours they broadcast news by an average of 46% since 2003 without increasing news-gathering resources. As illustrated below, 235 of the 952 of local TV stations – fully 25% of them – have no news staff at all, preferring to fill their air with recycled coverage provided by other broadcasters in their markets. The number of outsourced newscasts is likely to rise in the wake of $8 billion in consolidations last year that saw more than 300 TV stations purchased by companies who in many cases already operate a competing channel in the market served by the new acquisition. Pew says the number of outsourced newscasts “has grown exponentially in just the past two years.” Stay tuned for more. Pew reports that most digital news start-ups, including the likes of the Huffington Post and Global Post, have yet to figure out sustainable, profitable business models. This is especially true, as discussed here, in the case of non-profit ventures. As an indication of how far digital news organizations have to go to approximate the economic strength of the traditional media, digital news outlets have captured barely $5 billion, or 7%, of the $60 billion in annual advertising and subscription revenues generated by news organizations. Here’s the breakdown: Noting that “many native digital outlets are still unprofitable,” Pew concludes that “the question of whether digital news outlets can ultimately replenish the loss of legacy jobs and reporting resources hinges on creating the kind of successful business model or models that have proved elusive…. Most analysts say this growing investment in digital news does not mean the industry has figured out a consistent formula for monetizing that news.”
Amen to that.
While the digital revolution has created unprecedented capabilities for everyone to publish and promote content (which may or may not qualify as journalism), we are a long way from the point that the newcomers are strong enough to replace the traditional media whose businesses are being challenged by said revolution.
So, the State of the News at the moment is, at the very least, shaky. If not a little scary.