When news of the Orlando shootings first broke, the Orlando Sentinel faced a scary reality: They had to cover the biggest, most chaotic, fastest-breaking story of their lives with less than one-third the staff they once had. At its peak, the Sentinel had 350 journalists, but cutbacks in recent years had reduced it to 100.
Yet, the reality is that even with its decimated ranks, the Sentinel is the biggest newspaper in Central Florida – and the biggest force of working journalists there. That’s always been the case: Even when we first tune in to CNN or one of the other TV networks, the bulk of the reporting muscle in any city is in the newsroom of the local paper.
Poynter did a nice story on the Sentinel’s heroic efforts, but my focus is on the bigger picture. As it happens, Pew just released its annual State of the News Media report – a comprehensive look at how we’re getting our news, who’s reporting it, and how they’re getting paid.
I spent the morning poring through the numbers, looking for some good news. Something to build on. Something to temper my pessimism. I didn’t find find much.
If you’re depression prone, you should probably stop reading now. Otherwise, let’s plow into the high spots, if you can call them that. As noted, the newspapers have always been the reservoir of reporting capacity – the ones with the time and talent and budget to investigate the claims of politicians, cover important meetings, identify trends, and tell us what we need to know as voters and consumers.
So how are things in the newspaper newsrooms? I’m sorry you asked. Circulation fell 7% on weekdays (a mere 4% on Sundays). Advertising revenue took an 8% nosedive. Newsroom employment shrank 10% — the worst since the disastrous 2009. (The 10% is 2014 number, and anything more recent is based on increasingly sketchy data, because some organizations have just given up on counting. But the report notes that we’ve already seen major staff cuts at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Orange County Register, the Denver Post and the Boston Globe.)
Among others. You get the idea.
Need more? OK, here goes. Since 2004, more than 100 daily newspapers have gone ten toes up. Most of the readership of newspapers is still, believe it or not, print. The papers are getting more mobile traffic, but the visitors are spending less time there. Digital revenues are making up a larger percent, but that’s mostly due to the steady decline of print revenue.
Then there’s local television. The best thing you can say here is that it’s not as bad as the state of newspapers, but it’s nothing to write home about. Average viewership of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC newscasts fell for all three key timeslots – morning, early evening and late night.
All media, of course, are reaching more consumers via the internet, with mobile traffic making up a growing share. Accordingly, the money is flowing into digital media. But here’s the problem: The money isn’t going to the organizations that produce the news. Five companies make up 65% of all digital advertising: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter. So how much are the news producers getting? That’s hard to figure out, because there’s no comprehensive data on that. The biggest beneficiaries seem to be the native digital media companies like Vox, BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Huffington Post.
Local digital publishers have made a splash in some areas, but a survey of 94 of them found that fewer than half turned a profit.
By comparison, cable television had a pretty good year, boosted by the presidential campaign and presidential debates. Longer term, the industry still has to worry about the impact of cord cutters – people who have dropped their cable.
Beyond the numbers
My overriding concern in reviewing these trends is with the long-term viability of journalism in the United States. Our democracy presumes an informed electorate. We don’t all have time to follow our candidates for office around, or to evaluate their claims, or to attend the meetings and review records to see how they’re doing their job once they’re elected. I personally live in a major city that is no longer served by a daily newspaper.
In the long term, reporters have to be able to make a living. For reasons that are too complicated to explain here, we now find ourselves in a situation where the money spent on media is not getting to the people who create the product. Increasingly, we’re getting our news on Facebook and Twitter, so that’s where the advertising dollars are flowing. The news media who no longer have paid subscribers are in trouble, because they gave up subscriptions for ad dollars, and those aren’t materializing.