Featured image: “News-media-standards” by Sollok29, licensed under CC0.
For media industry professionals, 2016 is either a fantastic year full of promise or a continued march to an inevitable death. In an ever-changing, volatile industry, there seems to be only extremes, with media outlets and publishers struggling to work through the haze created by social media and weak revenue models to capture and retain readers.
The murky media landscape is detailed by the Pew Research Center, which released its annual State of the Media report in June 2016. The report is as a general check up for the entire industry, and looks at factors for growth or decline in readership and revenue, general trends and patterns, and predictions for where the industry might be headed. This year, the report confirmed what many industry professionals and perhaps even readers already know: The industry is still in the midst of a total reorganization that has been ongoing for years, with digital platforms and social media outlets rising to dominance in the media landscape.
You can find the full 17-page report here, but we’re going to focus on the newspaper and digital publishing industries.
Newspapers still can’t seem to catch a break. Rather ominously but perhaps not surprisingly, the summary of the report suggests the industry is “past the point of no return.”
The report found that 2015 was the worst year for the newspapers since the Great Recession in 2008. Numbers are down across the board in terms of jobs, revenue and readers. Weekday readership was down 7 percent across print and digital platforms, while total advertising revenue among publicly traded companies declined nearly 8 percent. What’s more, shrinking budgets means shrinking newsrooms. The report found the industry supports 33,000 full-time newsroom jobs, which is 20,000 positions smaller than 20 years ago. The latest employment figures show newsroom staffs decline by 10 percent in 2014, which is the steepest decrease since 2009. To cut costs and aid dwindling human staffs, some companies have started replacing human reporters altogether with algorithms and other automated newsgathering tools.
The bloodshed will likely continue, and 400 cuts, buyouts, or lay-offs have been announced in 2016. They’re also close to home. Popular industry blogger Jim Romenesko reported The Seattle Times announced in December 2015 that the company was offering buy-outs to staffers in anticipation that 2016 would be a “tough budget year.” Fifteen people left the paper, including longtime photographer John Lok, news desk editor Richard Seven, general assignment reporter Jack Broom and crime reporter Jennifer Sullivan. The Seattle Times is the only print daily newspaper in the city after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer transitioned to an all-digital format in 2009. Daily print newspapers overall are becoming increasingly rare, and there are 126 fewer daily papers in 2014 than in 2004.
But despite the decline in readership, circulation and revenue, the newspaper industry has yet to find a solution to slow the hemorrhaging. Survey data still indicates a heavy reliance on print products, and 75 percent of newspapers’ advertising revenue still comes from non-digital sources. More broadly, this illustrates the challenge of trying to move traditional print readers to online sources. The Pew newspapers fact sheet finds 51 percent of those who consume a newspaper read it exclusively in print, while just five percent read it on desktop only, five percent read it on mobile only and seven percent read it on both mobile and desktop.
While newspapers are essentially dead in the water, the public’s appetite for news is still alive and well.
Those numbers, however, are only reflective of those who still actually read newspapers. While newspapers are essentially dead in the water, the public’s appetite for news is still alive and well. “Incidental readership,” whereby a reader lands on a newspaper website while searching for news or following a link from an email or social media post, has become the norm. This is bad news for publishers who have long relied on a gatekeeper model where they enjoyed a monopoly on news. Companies that have tried to bridge the legacy print and digital gap have sometimes failed spectacularly, as was the case when the Tribune Publishing Company rebranded itself as tronc. The rebrand was mercilessly mocked by other media outlets, but only time will tell if the joke is actually on them.
I think “TRONC” is the sound journalists make the second before they barf after seeing company memos about “content and monetization”
— Kim Bellware (@bellwak) June 2, 2016
The majority of American adults now get their news from social media. The report finds nearly four in 10 American adults get their news from digital sources, which include news websites, apps and social networking sites.
Digital news sources
While newspapers struggle to transition readers online due to a number of factors, digitally-native platforms have enjoyed a rise because of those same factors.
Platforms that were “born on the web,” including Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Quartz and Vox, play an increasingly large role in the news-media landscape. Pew found more than half of these platforms grew their average monthly unique visitors from the fourth quarter of 2014 to the fourth quarter of 2015, with 19 of these sites increasing 10 percent or more.
Mobile browsing remains king, and thirty-five out of 40 digitally-native sites studied by Pew served cellphone and tablet audiences a website optimized for mobile browsing. All 40 had a strong presence on established social networks. Broadly, these sites have an advantage over legacy print media companies because they don’t have to “train” their readers to visit them online. They’re also often first to adapt new social platforms which helps them reach larger and younger audiences. But despite news sites’ ability to draw readers on the web, some struggle just as their print counterparts do to bring in cash. The digital ad revenue environment is dominated large technology and social media companies, and the top five ad revenue generators — Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter — accounted for 65 percent of all digital ad revenue in 2015.
With that said, the news isn’t all bleak for digital media. Available data from high-traffic digital news startups suggest some are generating tens of millions of dollars in display and native advertising. This revenue is bolstered by investments from venture capital firms and legacy media firms. NBC Universal has been investing aggressively investing in digital news, and sunk $200 million in both Vox Media and Buzzfeed in 2015.
Change remains a constant theme in industry, and a number of layoffs at major digital outlets indicate many are still trying to establish a viable strategy to hold onto readers. Mashable pivoted to focus on entertainment video content in early 2016, resulting in a number of layoffs. Gawker too shifted focus and rebranded as a politics site in 2015. The changes will continue as the industry shifts, particularly to accommodate the whims of major players like Facebook. The social networking site announced in June that video content will be heavily prioritized in the future, and the platform could be “all video” in as little as five years. Some media outlets have adjusted their teams and newsrooms accordingly to capitalize on the impending shift.
Print media is dead, mobile is king and social networking companies now find themselves in an awkward position as news platforms.
As far as the future of the industry goes, media professionals seem to have only past failures to call upon to predict future successes. Some things are for certain: Print media is dead, mobile is king and social networking companies now find themselves in an awkward position as news platforms.
Moves and changes announced daily by news outlets — both legacy and digitally native — reveal an environment where everyone seems to be trying something different just to see what sticks. Many are experimenting with virtual and augmented reality, and Pew notes that “some of the more notable journalistic virtual reality storytelling has come from legacy organizations, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal,the Des Moines Register, CNN and PBS Frontline.” Still others are looking to social media and third-party publishing platforms. The Washington Post has been experimenting with reaching readers on Medium for months, while Curbed announced it was putting together whole teams of editors and producers to create Facebook Live content.
Video content will likely take center stage with mobile as more companies such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter prioritize the medium, and publication-specific loyalty is likely to continue to fall. The result is a media landscape that more decentralized, more publisher-neutral and more reliant on social media and social sharing than ever before.
In this increasingly globalized, connected and networked world, it seems only those platforms flush with cash and willing to relinquish control and abandoned the homepage for the broader world of social and experimental media are likely to succeed. And even then, who can say what ” success” will actually look like?
Editor’s note: Kirsten O’Brien is the social media manager for seattlepi.com, which transitioned from a print newspaper to a digital-only outlet in 2009.