Newsies dread this time of year. It’s when the Pew Research Center releases its annual State of the Media report. And the findings, for print newsies, are bad, bad, bad.
Ad revenue down. Trust measures down. Newsroom staffing down. Circulation down.
Oh, look — digital ad revenue up. You remember back in the early Oughts when newspapers began to chase that digital ad revenue, right? They were hoping as print ad dollars fell, digital ad dollars would offset the loss, maybe even bring the same high profits. All would be good.
Well, Pew says digital ad revenue is up 20 percent to nearly $60 billion. Wow.
But that digital ad revenue isn’t going to news companies. It’s going to … (drum roll) … Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter. Technology companies that rarely hire journalists and practice accountability journalism are getting nearly two-thirds of the digital ad money newspaper companies once thought they’d get.
Worse, readers are now rarely paying news companies for the products the readers consume. That’s because news companies gave away too much of their “content” (no one says “stories” anymore) for free. Readers got used to that license to steal. In its Digital News Report 2016, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows data that in America, only 9 percent of those surveyed paid for digital news — and only 4 percent of those from 18 to 24 years old.
In the blink of an eye, an audience was lost.
The readers news companies want … want little to do with them. Young readers, those millennials who could become middle-aged readers then older readers in decades to come, do not seek out newspaper companies’ stories in those companies’ venues.
Social media, principally Facebook, have become the news destination of millennials. Notes Reuters:
Half of our sample (51%) say they use social media as a source of news each week. Around one in ten (12%) say it is their main source. Facebook is by far the most important network for news. More than a quarter of 18–24s say social media (28%) are their main source of news – more than television (24%) for the first time.
Matthew Ingram, writing in Fortune, paints the ugly picture: Print and traditional news outlets are waning, while Facebook’s dominance continues to grow.
From the Pew study:
In the pre-digital era, journalism organizations largely controlled the news products and services from beginning to end, including original reporting; writing and production; packaging and delivery; audience experience; and editorial selection. Over time, technology companies like Facebook and Apple have become an integral, if not dominant player in most of these arenas.
In just 12 years, Facebook has accumulated 1.65 billion users, dominated the social and conversational training of a generation, laid waste to traditions of privacy, undercut nuances of critical thinking, driven personalization of information for users to the point of homogenization of thought, changed hiring practices and vetting of applicants for all kinds of jobs, and upended a global news media industry.
In just 12 years.
Newspapers companies never had a chance. Their executives, who’d ridden to riches for more than a century on plentiful advertising dollars, never recognized the adept competitors that the internet encouraged and enhanced. News executives’ thinking today, which has already turned Facebook into a global printing press for newspaper companies, does not deal with realities. Their thinking is driven by panic for a solution — any solution.
Mark Thompson, the CEO of The New York Times, wrote a thoughtful perspective on the economics of journalism for the Reuters Institute report. His blunt assessment about the relationship between advertising and journalism?
“The plain truth is that advertising alone will not support quality journalism.”
Thompson, like so many other newspaper executives, thinks marrying the words “digital” and “video” will produce viable advertising sufficient to float the journalism boat. He writes:
Video, sponsorship, audio, virtual reality, and other innovations at the frontier of storytelling are all also part of our advertising growth strategy. Display still has a place, but we believe that the digital advertising of the future will be dominated by stories conceived by advertisers, clearly labelled so they can be distinguished from newsroom journalism, but consumed alongside that journalism on their
own merits. [emphasis added]
Stories conceived by advertisers? Clearly labeled as such? Sorry — we’re seen native advertising, which the late David Carr of The Times defined as “advertising wearing the uniform of journalism, mimicking the storytelling aesthetic of the host site.”
Video isn’t the solution news execs envision. Writes Max Willens in the International Business Times:
This sprint toward video is just the latest leg of a race to the bottom, fueled by an industry-wide reliance on a terrible advertising currency. Digital publishers have been attempting to prop up the prices of their ads since the first banner ad was sold 20 years ago, but because of an excess of inventory, fraud and questionable business practices, their efforts have been unsuccessful.
The most significant roadblock to a successful future for journalism that matters is readers’ (and viewers’) loathing of so much shitty advertising thrust incessantly at them. For a top media executive to opine that advertising can be made “better” because it’s “digital video” is preposterous. To believe that large, transnational corporations will happily allow news companies to “clearly label” those corporations’ “digital stories” as distinct from journalism is equally preposterous.
Newspaper companies are almost obsessively focused on increasing advertising dollars. But they’ve done little to improve the product they sell — news.
In fact, it’s difficult to absolve newspaper companies of actually devaluing their product. They allowed one generation and the beginning of another to believe what journalists work hard to produce does not need to be paid for. Newspaper companies did not fight against the “all information should be free” meme that has floated information architecture in this century.
Newspaper companies got rid of 33,000 people who gather, report, assess, and present information as journalism. Fewer horses pull the news wagon. That means fewer sources checked and double-checked. Too many one-source stories. Too many stories assigned only on the basis of click potential.
News has been devalued. Journalists have been devalued. Until newspaper companies can demonstrate to readers their product — the journalism readers need and want — has value, they’ll never succeed in getting people to pay for it.