Opinion: Is the Internet killing the news media?

Newspapers are having a tough time adapting to a digital world

The latest Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the state of the U.S. news media makes for sobering reading if you're a student thinking of pursuing a career in journalism or if you're already in the business. The bottom line is that the business is toast unless you're on 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 past 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 to work in the future.

It's not a pleasant picture if you're in the journalism biz. And it's not 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 people get their news. The three most important observations are that power is shifting from institutions (like newspapers) to individual journalists; people increasingly want news "on demand" rather than scheduled, like the evening news; and there has been a rise in importance of "minute-by-minute judgment in political journalism." Those 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). Local sites, like newspaper Web sites, are seeing a bleak outlook.

The report also notes it's 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.

Bradner is Harvard University's technology security officer. Reach him at sob@sobco.com.

This story, "Opinion: Is the Internet killing the news media?" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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