Is the Internet killing the news media?

Pew report on state of American journalism paints bleak picture

The latest Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the state of the U.S. news media makes for sobering reading if you are a student thinking of pursuing a career in journalism or if you are already in the business. The bottom line is that the business is toast unless you are in the Internet side, and even there it's toast.

The report's first few sentences tell most of the story:

* Newspaper ad revenues are down more than 20% in the last two years.

* Twenty percent of the journalists who worked in newspapers have lost their jobs in that time period.

*  Ad revenues were down last year in local TV news more than 5% (even in an election year).

* The traffic at the top news sites went up more than 25% last year.

*  The ad-based model for funding journalism is unlikely for the future.

Not a pleasant picture if you are in the journalism biz. Not even a pleasant picture if you like to read newspapers -- one of the two newspapers that I get delivered to my house is on the list of the 10 papers most likely to fold in the next few years.

The report makes for very interesting, if a bit depressing, reading. There are a number of observations that portend a fundamental restructuring of the way that Americans, and likely folks in other countries, get their news. The three most important observations to me are that power is shifting from institutions (like newspapers) to individual journalists; that people increasingly want news "on demand" rather than scheduled, like the evening news; and that there has been a raise in importance of "minute-by-minute judgment in political journalism." These trends greatly benefit the Internet and Internet-based journalists. The latter two trends also benefit the full-time cable news channels, but only when the cable is available. And, in the office, cable is not generally available.

So far, most newspapers have had a hard time figuring out how to move to the Internet. Overall, the report says, online ad revenue for newspapers fell slightly in 2008 and represents less than 10% of newspaper revenue. Search engines, such as Google, are doing fine -- they are getting much of the growth in ad revenue (up almost 15% in the first three quarters of 2008). The local sites, like newspaper Web sites, are seeing a bleak outlook.

The report also notes it is unlikely that the news business of the future will be able to support the current worldwide news gathering with revenue from banner ads.

My overall take from the report is that the news business -- like the music and movie businesses -- will need to completely rethink its business model. Newspapers that try to block search engines to preserve obsolete models, as the ones in Belgium did a few years back, will just ensure that they will have fewer readers, and go out of business sooner.

In any case there may just be a lot fewer dots on the Newseum map by this time next year when the next edition in the excellent series of Pew reports comes out.

Disclaimer: With all the financial issues, it's hard to predict how many dots there will be on Harvard's map a year from now, but the above is my report review since I know of no university one.

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