State of the media: The cracks are still widening, but some light is also getting in

If you’ve been following the media industry over the past year, you probably don’t need anyone to tell you the waves of disruption continue to increase in both height and frequency — so the news that widespread cutbacks have caused dissatisfied readers to flee won’t come as much of a surprise. But while those waves have swamped some traditional players, other parts of the industry have been able to ride the tide, and non-traditional sources continue to play a growing role in how people get their news — although whether that is good or bad is still open for debate.
All of that and more is contained in the latest State of the Media report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which was released on Monday morning (Note: We will be discussing many of these issues and more at our paidContent conference in New York on April 17). There’s a lot to take in, but here are what I believe to be some of the key takeaways:

The Bad News:

  • Cutbacks continue, and consumers are leaving: Close to one-third of U.S. adults say they have stopped using a news outlet because of dissatisfaction over the content — in other words, because they weren’t getting the news they wanted, or the news they expected to get. Survey respondents mentioned both fewer stories in general and less complete reporting, and while it’s impossible to know whether this phenomenon is related to the repeated rounds of cutbacks and job losses, it seems likely.
  • Pew state of the media - news

  • No one cares about the industry’s financial problems: One interesting aspect of Pew’s research is that only a small number of respondents were even aware of the financial woes of the media industry — and even worse, those who were the most aware of the situation were also the most likely to have stopped using a traditional news outlet. Are some readers choosing to desert what they see as a sinking journalistic ship? It certainly looks that way.
  • The disruption of advertising is accelerating: Although digital advertising rose by 17 percent last year, that was not nearly enough to make up for the ongoing decline of print advertising, Pew said. In 2012, approximately $16 in print revenue was lost for every $1 in digital revenue — an even worse ratio than the already dismal 10-to-1 relationship that existed in 2011. And much of the growth in digital is benefiting Google (s goog) and Facebook (s fb).
  • It’s not just newspapers any more: The Pew research shows that local television is also being decimated by the disruption in both viewership and advertising revenue — to the point where viewers have started to notice the difference. Whether because of cutbacks or a desire to appeal to more viewers, Pew says that local TV news is also focusing more on sports and entertainment, and less time on crime and political coverage.

Pew state of the media - TV

The Good News:

  • Demand for news is growing, not shrinking: Although it may be coming at the expense of some traditional players, there is clearly a large and growing appetite for news, since the top news sites saw traffic increase by 7 percent in 2012, according to Pew. And the impact of social media seems to be clearly positive, in the sense that those who have heard about news from friends and family through such channels show a stronger interest in finding out more.
  • Some outlets are having success with subscriptions: In the wake of the success of the New York Times paywall, many newspapers have erected their own subscription walls, and this is generating some reader-provided revenue that has helped to stanch the bleeding for some publishers (although even for the NYT and the Financial Times, this has not filled the gap entirely).
  • The sources are going direct: This is probably one of the most contentious aspects of the disruption in media — namely, the fact that social tools such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms produce a “democratization of distribution” that allows everyone from celebrities to politicians, and even brands and companies themselves, to reach an audience directly. Is that good or bad for journalism? The debate on that question continues to rage.
  • New forms of advertising are emerging: This is another contentious topic in media — that is, the rise of what some choose to call “native advertising,” or sponsored content, and in some cases “brand journalism.” To detractors such as political blogger Andrew Sullivan it is ethically dubious, and to many traditional journalists such as former NYT executive editor Bill Keller it is a “slippery slope,” but new media entities like BuzzFeed and even The Atlantic are using it to some success.

Is the glass half full or half empty?

As with any overview of the media business, there will be those who see this picture as a glass half-empty, and those who see it as a glass half-full — and perhaps a growing number who have completely lost interest in the glass because they are already getting their water elsewhere. As Emily Bell of Columbia and her fellow authors Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson pointed out in their recent report on “Post-Industrial Journalism” and author Clay Christensen noted in a recent interview at Harvard, upheaval is the order of the day in the media business and will likely be so for some time.
Shirky said in an essay in 2011 that we as a society actually need the media business to be chaotic, as unpleasant as that may be, because we literally don’t have any idea what the future of the industry will look like. Even now there are new entities being born, and new models being applied — like the Forbes “BrandVoice” model, or Sullivan’s direct-to-readers model — that could either be the savior of the industry or a dangerous distraction. If you like bumpy rides with an uncertain ending, the media industry is definitely the place for you.
Post and thumbnail image courtesy of Shutterstock / Scorpp