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The State of the News Media, 2009

The State of the News Media, 2009
By Eric Black

For those who want to understand the changing media landscape, the publication of the annual “State of the News Media” report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism is a major event. Today is the day. PEJ is careful, calm, thoughtful, smart and thorough. It has been building its data and its analytical approaches over several years. The full report is long and deep and not for the faint of heart. This year’s edition begins:

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 our 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; revenues fell by 7% in an election year—something unheard of—and ratings are now falling or are flat across the schedule. In network news, even the rare programs increasing their ratings are seeing revenues fall.

Now the ethnic press is also troubled and in many ways is the most vulnerable because so many operations are small.

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Only cable news really flourished in 2008, thanks to an Ahab-like focus on the election, although some of the ratings gains were erased after the election.

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, by one survey, jumped 19% in the last two years; in 2008 alone traffic to the top 50 news sites rose 27%. Yet it is now all but settled that advertising revenue—the model that financed journalism for the last century—will be inadequate to do so in this one. Growing by a third annually just two years ago, online ad revenue to news websites now appears to be flattening; in newspapers it is declining.

The chapter on newspapers begins thus:

The newspaper industry exited a harrowing 2008 and entered 2009 in something perilously close to free fall.  Perhaps some parachutes will deploy, and maybe some tree limbs will cushion the descent, but for a third consecutive year the bottom is not in sight.

We still do not subscribe to the theory that the death of the industry is imminent. The industry overall in 2008 remained profitable.

But the deep recession already threatens the weakest papers. Nearly all are now cutting so deeply and rapidly that simply coping with the economic downturn has become a major distraction from efforts to reinvent the economics of the business. And even once the downturn ends, growing or stabilized revenues are no sure thing.

If the industry’s death isn’t imminent, the more pertinent question may be this: can newspapers beat the clock? Can they find a way to convert their growing audience online into sufficient revenue to sustain the industry before their shrinking revenues from print fall too far? And if some succeed and some don’t, what are the characteristics of a newspaper organization that survives and one that doesn’t?

I haven’t read the full report yet. I heard PEJ chief Tom Rosenstiel (disclosure: Tom and I went to college together less than one century ago; he’s a nice guy) on the radio today say that he doesn’t believe the day when a major American city will have no newspaper is imminent. I agree with that (although what’s happening in Detroit, where you can only get home delivery three days a week is frightening). The papers that have been folding are in two-newspaper towns.