News

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What to watch for

After completing this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe in broad strokes how new media is changing the news media
  • Outline the present state of various forms of news media
  • Discuss the major areas of concern for various forms of news media

As we’ve discussed several times in the course so far, the internet is a tool for communication, and one of the most essential things we use it to communicate is news. The news media ranks alongside the music business in terms of industries that have been simultaneously dramatically improved and radically disrupted  by the internet.

Required readings:

State of the News Media 2016“, Pew Research Center.

(35,010 words / 176-185 minutes)

Just like the software lesson, we’re going to focus on a single, meaty reading here. I chose this report as the basis for our readings here because it offers a broader look at the news media, situating digital news products and advances among larger industry trends. The report is pretty substantial, and I’d like you to at least skim all of it, but be sure to read completely “State of the News Media 2016” (page 4), “Digital News — Audience” (page 44), and “Podcasting” (page 61).

State of the News Media

  • “Average weekday newspaper circulation, print and digital combined, fell another 7% in 2015, the greatest decline since 2010. While digital circulation crept up slightly (2% for weekday), it accounts for only 22% of total circulation. And any digital subscription gains or traffic increases have still not translated into game-changing revenue solutions. In 2015, total advertising revenue among publicly traded companies declined nearly 8%, including losses not just in print, but digital as well.” In short, the news business is struggling. Though digital news circulation is growing, it hasn’t been nearly enough to offset the continued decline of print.
  • Cable and network TV are still going strong—there’s still a fair amount of advertising spend there—but again, digital is stealing attention and revenue, especially as the ranks of cord-cutters and cord-nevers continue to grow: “The Center’s survey data reveal that dramatic generational differences already exist, with those under 30 much less likely than those 30+ to watch any of the three programming streams. Instead, younger adults are more likely to name social media as a main source of news. Even beyond the young, fully 62% of U.S. adults overall now get news on social media sites – many of which took steps over the last year to enhance their streaming video capabilities.”
  • “With audience challenges already in view and few immediate financial incentives to innovate, the dilemma facing the TV news business bears an eerie resemblance to the one faced by the newspaper industry a decade ago, except for the fact that the digital realm is much more developed and defined today.”
  • Here is, literally, the money quote (bolding mine): “It has been evident for several years that the financial realities of the web are not friendly to news entities, whether legacy or digital only. There is money being made on the web, just not by news organizations. Total digital ad spending grew another 20% in 2015 to about $60 billion, a higher growth rate than in 2013 and 2014. But journalism organizations have not been the primary beneficiaries. In fact, compared with a year ago, even more of the digital ad revenue pie – 65% – is swallowed up by just five tech companies. None of these are journalism organizations, though several – including Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Twitter – integrate news into their offerings. And while much of this concentration began when ad spending was mainly occurring on desktops platforms, it quickly took root in the rapidly growing mobile realm as well.”
  • Another important lengthy quote that’s actually remarkably succinct for how much it communicates (again, bolding mine): “Increasingly, the data suggest that the impact these technology companies are having on the business of journalism goes far beyond the financial side, to the very core elements of the news industry itself. In the predigital era, journalism organizations largely controlled the news products and services from beginning to end, including original reporting; writing and production; packaging and delivery; audience experience; and editorial selection. Over time, technology companies like Facebook and Apple have become an integral, if not dominant player in most of these arenas, supplanting the choices and aims of news outlets with their own choices and goals. The ties that now bind these tech companies to publishers began in many ways as lifelines for news organizations struggling to find their way in a new world. First tech companies created new pathways for distribution, in the form of search engines and email. The next industry overlap involved the financial model, with the creation of ad networks and app stores, followed by developments that impact audience engagement (Instant Articles, Apple News and Google’s AMP). Now, the recent accusations regarding Facebook editors’ possible involvement in “trending topics” selections have shined a spotlight on technology companies’ integral role in the editorial process. The accusations, whether true or not, highlighted the human element involved in any machine learning tool, not only Facebook’s. The messaging app Snapchat reports having about 75 editorial- level staff members and announced in mid-May that they will begin using an algorithm for news story selections. Original reporting and writing are the two industry roles largely left to news organizations (though there are a handful that are using machines to produce news). None of the others carry much worth without these two key elements – so these roles are in some ways critical to tech companies. But it is also true – and some nonprofits have found this in their struggle to get audiences – that well-reported news stories are also not worth much without the power of strong distribution and curation channels. What is less clear is how the tug and pull between tech and journalism companies will evolve to support each other as necessary parts of the whole, and what this rebuilt industry will ultimately mean for the public’s ability to stay informed.
  • Another key quote: “There is no audited, sector- wide audience or financial data for digital-native news outlets such as the Huffington Post and Vox, but what the Center is able to collect suggests growth in total audience and time spent on these websites. Beyond their home pages, these sites are also pouring efforts into social media, mobile apps and even giving a resurgence to email newsletters. Podcast programming and listenership grew again in 2015, though podcasts overall (beyond just news) still reach a minority of Americans (36%) and bring in a fraction of revenue compared with other news genres.”
  • And one more, while we’re at it (hey, this is a good report): “There were also, in the past year, some exciting developments and experiments in the original reporting and storytelling in the digital realm by those producing original reporting. Several news outlets including The New York Times and The Des Moines Register are experimenting with virtual reality journalism that can let consumers “experience” the news themselves; others like the Washington Post and Quartz have built “chatbots,” which (like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana) [Note from John: This is an overstatement of these app’s capabilities.] provide personalized, interactive headlines through texts or mobile messaging services like Facebook Messenger; ProPublica has delved into the big data space, including a deep examination of how criminal profile algorithms are biased; and Univision Digital launched Univision Beta, in collaboration with MIT – experimenting with new ways to tell stories, especially on social and messaging platforms such as their new hub for their online election reporting, Destino 2016. But even for these, the lines of dependencies with technology companies are deep. As these lines continue to solidify it will be important to keep in mind that the result is about far more than who captures the upper hand or the revenue base. It is determining how and with what kinds of storytelling Americans learn about the issues and events facing society and the world.

Newspapers

  • A really interesting take-away about the differences between the reality and people’s perception of how and from where they consume online news: “However, in the modern era, looking at newspaper subscribers as the only readers of newspaper content misses an important part of the story. The share of newspaper readers who report reading a newspaper in digital form, or who have digital subscriptions, is not the same as the share of Americans more broadly who come across individual stories hosted on a newspaper’s website as they surf the web. The findings reported above are based on survey questions asked of individuals who self-reported reading a newspaper online or in print in the past 30 days. However, it does not include everyone who lands upon a newspaper website while searching for news information or following a link from an email or social networking post. These consumers of individual bits of information may not remember having read a newspaper, or have even realized that they did. (We have found that most people who read an article on a website do not read any other articles on that site in a given month, suggesting that this kind of incidental readership is common.) Indeed, as revealed in the digital audience section below, when it comes to all newspaper website visitors – not just subscribers – the newspapers analyzed all had more digital traffic than print subscribers.”
  • “Digital revenue is making up an increasingly large portion of publicly traded newspaper companies’ ad revenue, though this has more to do with the decline of print revenue than the growth of digital.”
  • “In 2015, the online audience for newspapers continued its shift to mobile devices…[yet] minutes per visit on a mobile device fell even as unique mobile visitors grew.” More people are reading news on mobile, yet each person is spending less time doing so.
  • “For the 49 of these U.S. papers reporting Sunday circulation (The Wall Street Journal does not publish a Sunday edition), average monthly unique visitors for the third quarter of 2015 was anywhere from two to 78 times greater than average Sunday circulation for the same period.”
  • “And, like other news organizations, newspaper companies considered how to address the new wave of ad-blocking technology. There were some notable successes in the digital realm: The New York Times reached a million digital-only subscribers, while The Washington Post massively increased its web traffic.”

Cable news

One quick quote: “ComScore data suggest that the cable news web presence is large and increasingly mobile, though visitors still spend more time with these brands on desktop computers.”

Network news

A single quote here, too: “The networks continue to invest in digital, as more young people turn to digital platforms for their news. In August 2015, for instance, NBCUniversal formed partnerships with Vox Media and BuzzFeed in an attempt to reach younger audiences.”

Digital news — Audience

  • “As digital audiences expand and move beyond news websites to social media, mobile apps, podcasting and even email newsletters, news publishers are making an effort to be in those places as well. This often means, though, ceding more control to tech companies such as Apple and Facebook, both financially and in the ability to systematically measure one’s reach. The lack of consistent digital metrics also makes it harder to get a sense of the online news audience as a whole across the myriad of digital news providers and platforms. But a combination of audience analytics, survey data and auditing of publishers’ digital practices can give at least a sense of this evolving space. Together, these various data sources suggest that audiences are continuing to turn to digital sources for their news, and the momentum is driven by users on their mobile devices rather than on their desktops. And with the majority of U.S. adults now getting news on social media, publishers are making an effort to be present in a variety of social media settings; a closer look at the publishing practices of digital-native news sites shows that this is true not only for Facebook and Twitter, but for Snapchat and Instagram as well.”
  • The section on digital native news site traffic is pretty interesting, and affirms the continued importance of desktop audiences—even though most growth is in mobile, desktop engagement remains higher.
  • Email newsletters are a big and growing deal: “In addition to social media, digital publishers have been experimenting with other ways of reaching audiences, in some cases, revisiting formats that have been around for more than a decade. The large majority of the sites (35) have email newsletters that readers can subscribe to and receive directly in their inbox. While having a newsletter can be a way to digest the content produced by a publisher, the data show that some publishers use them as a way to pursue more directed interests. Fourteen of the sites had multiple newsletters, many of which were on specific topics of expertise, with one site that had 41 different newsletters available.”

Podcasting

  • “Podcasting continued to grow in both audience and programming in 2015, though listening is still limited to a minority of the American public, and roughly half of the country is not even familiar with the term “podcasting.” Podcast producers continued to experiment with potential revenue streams during the year, while some in the industry took steps to try to begin to move beyond downloading as the standard of measurement for listenership.”
  • “According to Edison Research data from their Share of Ear Survey conducted in the fourth quarter of 2015, only 2% of all audio listening is spent using podcasts, compared to 54% of time that is spent listening to AM/FM radio.”

There’s so much more great stuff in the report, but we’ll leave it at this for now.

Non-required readings

Digital Journalism“, Wikipedia.

If the Pew report hadn’t been so darn good (and comprehensive!), this would’ve certainly made the required list.

Monday Note by Frederic Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassée.

Though it also covers technology more broadly, Monday Note frequently covers the impact of technology on the news media. Spend a bit of time scrolling through the archives and read through an interesting story or three.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you get your news?
  • Do you use any news apps?
  • Do you listen to any podcasts?
  • Do you ever read a newspaper?
  • How does how you get news differ from how your parents get news?
  • What do you think about the increasingly large role large technology companies play in the news ecosystem?

 

Words on / reading time for this page: 2,458 words / 12-15 minutes

Words in / reading time for required readings: 35,010 words / 176-185 minutes

Total words in / reading time for this lesson: 37,468 words / 188-200 minutes