Winners and losers in journalism 2008


People looking for news continued the recent trend of flocking to the internet, according to the 6th annual State of the News Media Report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The surprising stat is that they were going mainly to sites of organizations with non-internet roots, rather than to sites born on the internet – unfortunately, old media profit margins are not yet traveling with the news audience.

The tunnel-vision coverage of the hot 2008 elections benefitted the cable news channels, and although they’ve lost some of the election viewers, a significant number have hung around. And since these channels have a steady revenue stream in the form of subscriptions, they haven’t been hit as hard by the recession as their competitors.

The network news shows are actually enjoying somewhat of resurgence, at least in terms of audience. PEJ’s Tom Rosenstiel suspects part of it is their focus on news during trouble times minus the jawing back and forth of the much more opinionated cable alternatives. However, nothing can aid any of the broadcast media short of a return to the airwaves by advertisers.

The advertising slump is also hurting local news broadcasts, and the stunner of the new millennium is that television revenue declined 7% overall in 2008, something which never, never happens during an election year, especially a presidential election year.

News and talk make up only a part of the radio universe, and the numbers there were very steady. The pain is felt again in the cash register, as advertisers lick their wounds and pull their schedules.

Newspapers still make a profit – PEJ says they cleared 11% in 2008, but total revenues were down 23%. PEJ estimates that one in five jobs that existed in 2001 will be gone by year’s end. Also hurting are the weekly news magazines.

Rosenstiel does not see much future in micronews on the web. Small non-profit journalists supported by donations may be a niche, but will not replace traditional journalism’s role. Rosenstiel strongly believes, however, that a workable internet revenue model must be found to sustain newsgathering efforts. Display internet advertising does not seem to be the sole answer – the vastness of virtual space halved the value of such an add just from 2007 to 2008, to about 26 cents per thousand clicks.

Rosenstiel thinks a subscription model borrowing from the cable m.o. may be where the future lies. There would be no direct fee to anybody under this plan, rather an add-on cost to every internet user’s ISP bill, which would be divided among journalist organizations according to use. It would be supplemented by advertising and other revenue streams, not the least of which would be the carefully tended and maintained legacy platforms of groups based in the broadcast or print worlds.

RBR/TVBR observation: Of course, something like this may literally require an act of Congress which, far from even having had a hearing on it, may be reading it for the first time right now, just as you probably are. Still, it is an idea that merits further study – it would allow journalistic organizations to better weather the unavoidable advertising slumps, would provide room for generalists and niche players alike, and would reward each organization democratically – by the click.