Digital disrupts news media, but offers opportunities, too

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2014 - 6:40 PM

Pew Research Center report offers optimism about journalism’s momentum.

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Media is mostly additive, not reductive. TV didn’t kill film — it spawned American Movie Classics and HBO. VCRs and DVRs didn’t neuter network TV — the technology made shows more available. Radio and recorded music have been mostly symbiotic. And e-readers didn’t stop printing presses — they increased reading.

This doesn’t mean that new media forms aren’t disruptive. Digital media, for instance, has significantly shifted news media consumption, revenue, employment and impact. Yet it’s also creating opportunities that are energizing journalism, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 State of the News Media report released on Wednesday.

“The level of news activity this past year is creating a perception that something important, perhaps even game-changing, is going on,” the report said. “If the developments in 2013 are at this point only a drop in the bucket, if feels like a heavier drop than most. The momentum behind them is real, if the impact on citizens and our news system remains unclear.”

In fact, the bucket seems overflowing, given the evidence in the extensive report. Last year, for instance, 83 percent of Americans received news in some digital format. Increasingly, it’s through social media. Half of Facebook and Twitter users get news from those sites. While this has a big upside for the news media, the downside is that most news usage is incidental: 78 percent of Facebook users see news when they are using the service for other reasons. Just 22 percent think of Facebook as a “useful way to get news.” Not surprisingly, given the social nature of the media form, dessert is served first: Entertainment news tops the list at 73 percent, while eat-your-peas international news comes in ninth at 39 percent.

And yet the new news media sites sprouting online will help fill a void in international coverage, Pew predicts. Local news and investigative journalism — two other content areas that have been scaled back during the digital disruptions rocking the news media industry in recent years — also stand to gain.

For foreign affairs coverage in particular, this is important. The number of network news stories with a foreign dateline has halved since the late ’80s, and Pew data calculate that despite an increasingly interconnected world, in most recent years only about a tenth of overall news space is dedicated to overseas events.

Increased digital news usage also means more Internet journalism jobs: 3,000 at the 30 top digital news sites, per Pew’s count. Conversely, significant job losses at legacy print organizations continued last year.

The online hiring spree includes some big names jumping journalism ships. Among the many notables, Nate Silver moved his prescient prediction site from the New York Times to ESPN; the Washington Post’s Wonkblog leader Ezra Klein is now at Vox Media; the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who published Edward Snowden’s revelations, will write for First Look Media; and former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller will focus on criminal justice issues at the Marshall Project.

Conversely, citizen journalists are increasingly contributing content — especially video — to news organizations. Eleven percent of online news consumers reported doing so in 2013. Many more are viewing: 63 percent watch online video and 36 percent watch news videos. As with most digital use, online news video usage is higher among younger, more educated and affluent people, particularly because they’re more likely to have smartphones.

Just as with social media, fun wins. Humorous videos are the top digital draw, while news is fourth. (Cat videos, it appears, are more compelling than the Russian bear that came out of hibernation in Crimea.)

As audiences and content go, revenue follows. Here, too, significant shifts are taking place. Advertising still accounts for the majority of media money — 69 percent — with increases for digital formats and declines for legacy media, including newspapers. Audience revenue (24 percent) is growing because of cable fees and online content subscriptions. And while news industry headlines have focused on Washington Post purchaser Jeff Bezos and Boston Globe buyer John Henry, deep-pocketed owners still account for only a skinny slice of 1 percent of investment.

Digital news isn’t the only category undergoing rapid transformation. Local TV news is a headline in its own right, with record station acquisitions and consolidation resulting in one in four stations airing — but not producing — newscasts.

Pew’s reams of research suggest an ever-evolving news media environment, with digital continuing to disrupt legacy media in audience, revenue, investment and ownership. Yet as always, creating compelling content draws readers. Visitors to news sites who arrive via Facebook stay for 37 percent of the time and read 17 percent as many pages as those who seek a site directly.

Digital may have upended the news business, but good journalism still matters most.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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