Monday, April 8, 2013

The State of (US) Newspapers

When speaking of newspapers, the focus generally is on major metro dailies - and they've been in trouble recently.  Advertising revenues have fallen dramatically, readership is on the decline, and more than a few have folded or ceased print operations and gone online.  So the recent Pew Research Center State of the News Media 2013 report tried finding some good news.  
  • There are some buyers for newspaper companies and/or their stock. 
    The big newspaper buyer was Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, which acquired a sizable number of small- and mid-market newspapers.  But the big urban dailies up for sale aren't finding much buyer interest, and their newspaper operations are dragging down their corporate stock prices.
  • Circulation revenues are holding steady, and for some increasing slightly.
    Total circulation revenues are steady in the face of increased subscription prices, and with the supplement of daily sales and digital (paywall) subscriptions.
  • The economy is maybe looking up, with the hope of more ad revenues to follow.
    There's been a rise in auto ad revenues, but real estate and recruitment (ads for jobs) ad revenues continue to plummet.
  • Newspapers' online efforts are starting to generate revenues.
    Newspapers continue to experiment with a range of online efforts - and seeing gains in local online revenues, and in paywall subscriptions.  Total online advertising revenues now exceeds those of newspapers, but the newspapers' share is small and has been decreasing in recent years.
  • Mobile and Tablets are building new news consumption habits and audiences.
    Adoption is growing, and studies of mobile use suggest that strong news consumers are using their devices to keep in touch, and even consuming more news of interest.
On the other hand, there's a number of bad news indicators as well.
  • As mentioned, print advertising revenues are still falling - down 7.3% in 2012.
    More critically, newspapers have largely lost whole segments - classifieds are down more than 90%, real estate down 75%, automotive down 80% (even with slight recovery).  National ads are falling most rapidly, with indications that the big national firms are shifting their ad campaigns to other media.
  • Digital advertising accounts for only 15% of total ad revenues, and while growing, isn't replacing print losses.  In 2012, newspapers lost, on average, $16 in print ads for every $1 in digital advertising.  And its starting to look like display ads won't be a major revenue source in mobile.
  • While most newspapers remain profitable, margins are down, and many will continue to struggle with debt and pension obligations.  For an industry that had become used to 20-30% profit margins, large chains saw margins well below 10% (Scripps, Gannett, A.H. Belo).  Major dailies New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times  and News Corp. all experienced significant losses in newspaper operations.
  • Newspapers continue to trim print news staff, and many are trading the once-grand downtown headquarters for smaller and more spartan offices.  Some are experimenting with publishing print editions only 3-4 times a week.
That's all on the business side - What about the news content?  The Pew report didn't look directly at newspaper content in this report - but noted that newsroom staffing continues to fall, and that is impacting the quality of news being produced.  (They were particularly critical of political news, which too often acted as megaphones rather than investigators - too frequently just repeating favored talking points, even if they were demonstrably false).
For news organizations, distinguishing between high-quality information of public value and agenda-driven news has become an increasingly complicated task, made no easier in an era of economic churn.
The report also notes that news consumers are beginning to notice the decline in the quality and quantity of news coverage.  While the report doesn't break this information by medium, a recent Pew survey found that 31% of news consumers reported that they had "stopped turning to a particular news outlet because ... (news outlets) were no longer providing them with the news and information (they) were accustomed to getting."  In addition, those with the most awareness of the news industry's financial problems were the most likely to drop a particular outlet (43%).  Of those leaving an outlet, two-thirds did so because they felt that coverage was incomplete - and nearly a quarter noted there was less coverage overall (there is some overlap in the two responses). 
Furthermore, the decline in coverage is more widely noticed - and that the quality and thoroughness of coverage was the bigger problem.  In the wider sample of those who had at least some awareness of media's financial problems, two-thirds noted a decline in the completeness of stories, and two-fifths noted a decline in the number of stories.  The study notes that the impression that thoroughness was the bigger problem carried across all demographic groups.
It is clear from these data that much of the country recognizes little if anything about the economic challenges the industry is grappling with—and that much of the knowledge and concern about the economics and the future of the news business may be largely confined to the industry itself. But the news consumers who are more aware of the problems and their impact on news are more likely to act on those concerns by abandoning a news organization. And, based on demographics, they also are likely to be more ardent news consumers who are willing to invest in a product they value. They appear to be making informed choices. The job of news organizations is to come to terms with the fact that, as they search for economic stability, their financial future may well hinge on their ability to provide high quality reporting.
  These perceptions aren't helping with newspapers' long-term problem with declining readership.  The generational drop in readership remains, and even within generations, readership is falling.  And that's even with changes in how readership is measured that was designed to include online and occasional reader (i.e., counts those who read a newspaper of visits a newspaper online site at least once a week).

 For our students, here's the bad news.  The number of newspapers continue to decline, as does the number of editorial staff on the print side.  Total editorial staff employment is at the lowest level since 1978.  There is some growth in employment for newspapers' digital operations, but as with ad revenues, the gains from digital remain far from replacing print losses.

Source -  State of the News Media 2013, Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism report.

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