Pew Research Center Issues Its Bleakest-Ever Report On The State Of The News Media in the United States

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpolitical, nonpartisan research institute, recently published its Sixth Annual Report on the State of the News Media in the United States. The Project editor called it “the bleakest report ever issued.” I found the report fascinating. I grew up reading newspapers, and still subscribe to two print-edition dailies for my news sources. For those readers who, like me, grew up reading newspapers, the Pew Center’s report also will be shocking. It is clear that the news industry is undergoing radical change.

According to the report, newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23% in the last two years. Some papers are in bankruptcy, and others have lost three-quarters of their value. By the reporter’s calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet. In local television, news staffs, already too small to adequately cover their communities, are being cut at unprecedented rates; last year’s revenues fell by 7%.

Perhaps least noticed yet most important, the audience migration to the internet is now accelerating. The number of Americans who regularly go online for news jumped 19% in the last two years; in 2008 alone traffic to the top 50 news sites rose 27%. In fact, 2008 appears to have been a milestone in the history of the Web as a news destination. For national and international news, according to survey data, the Web surpassed all other media except for television as a destination.

Blogs, which were once thought of as the new media source for news, are far less likely to provide straight news content rather than commentary. The report noted that legacy sites provided the greatest percent of news (89%), three times that of blog content (27%).

The old media have held onto their audience even as consumers migrate online. In 2008, audience gains at sites offering legacy news were far larger than those for new media. The old norms of traditional journalism continue to have value. Although mainstream news sites got the lion ’s share of the growing online audience, the rise in the Web ’s news audience in 2008, even at legacy news sites, only added to the crisis in facing journalism.

The report noted that it became patently clear during 2008 that the economic model largely responsible for financing journalism in the old media, advertising, will not do so in the new. Online advertising overall began to slow down, and display advertising in particular, the primary ad-revenue source for news, appeared to actually decline. Thus, it appears settled that advertising revenue—the model that financed journalism for the last century—will be inadequate to do so in this one.

Fundamentally, according to the Pew report, the problem facing American journalism is not an audience problem or a credibility problem. It is a revenue problem—the decoupling of advertising from news. More importantly, little progress appeared to be made in developing any new revenue models, the biggest challenge the news industry faces in its fight for survival.

The entire report by the Pew Center can be found here. It is well worth a look.