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The State of the News Media 2015

One of my favorite annual reports is the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2015. Now in its 14th year, the report is one of the best indicators of the health of the news media industry. The major theme from this year’s report is the rising challenge news organizations face managing mobile and social media audiences. Most notably, 39 of the top 50 digital websites have more traffic coming from mobile than from desktop computers.

For those of you working in digital marketing or related fields, this should come as no surprise to you. More consumers are accessing all kinds of websites via mobile devices than from desktop computers. What’s surprising is how slow news organizations are adapting to the rise of the mobile consumer. This may be intentional, as mobile visitors are less valuable to advertisers (and therefore publishers) according to Pew (validated by comScore data).

Why are mobile visitors less valuable? They are ‘hit and run’ visitors – they don’t stay around as long as desktop visitors. They hit the site, consume the content they were looking for, and move on to the next shiny thing that catches their attention. There is a silver lining though – 10 of the top 50 news sites report mobile users stay around longer than desktop users, so perhaps some news organizations are evolving to serve the needs of mobile, less attentive visitors.

What other trends are revealed in this year’s installment of the State of News Media?

  • The legacy news industry – traditional newspapers and magazines – have made little progress securing digital ad revenue. According to the report, digital ad revenue grew 18% in 2014 from 2013 – to more than $50 billion. This sounds great to me, but apparently traditional news outlets are only getting a small slice of that pie. Five technology companies took half of all display ad revenue, with Facebook accounting for 24% (it looks like Facebook has figured out how to make money).
state of news media - economic trends 2015
  • Local television is seeing an uptick in viewership, particularly around the evening news. The audience for evening network news broadcasts is up 5% from 2013 to 2014, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Early evening and local morning news viewership is also up for a second year in a row. It appears more consumers are tuning in to get their news via TV, which is promising for the local news business.
  • Newspapers continue to struggle as an industry, which should come as no surprise to those working in journalism. Newspapers aren’t alone though – cable news also saw significant declines in 2014 vs. 2013, according to Nielsen Media Research. How big is “significant”? Prime-time viewership for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC was down 8% in 2014. Despite the decrease in viewership, revenues were up 4% (according to SNL Kagan, as reported in the State of News Media report). Newspaper circulation only declined by 3% (according to Alliance of Audited Media data) – unfortunately, that equates to a decrease of 19% over the past decade – and newspaper ad revenues are now less than half what they were back then.
  • One surprise from the report is the increased popularity of podcasting. I know, I was surprised too. According to NPR, downloads of podcasts were up 41% in 2014. I’m skeptical about this large an increase year-over-year, but it makes sense when you consider the improved ease of use in downloading podcasts to a mobile device. According to Edison Research, 17% of Americans have listened to a podcast in the past month (up from 9% in 2008). Most promising for the news business is that one-third of Americans ages 12 and over have listened to a podcast, up from 11% in 2006. Now I don’t know about you, but I haven’t listened to a podcast lately. I’ve watched a lot of news videos via social networks – if that counts as a podcast, then maybe the numbers add up. Regardless, this is an area for further exploration as part of a news organizations multimedia strategy.
  • To expand further on the mobile vs. desktop insights presented in the report, the ten digital news outlets that have more mobile time on site than desktop time on site (mobile users staying longer per visit than desktop users) include some obvious players (more sophisticated mobile offerings): CNN Network, BleacherReport, Chicago Tribune, Vice.com, Chron.com, Gawker.com, Salon.com, Boston.com, Mashable and LATimes.com. Not surprising, most of these news organizations are know for having sophisticated digital operations.
state of news media 2015 - mobile vs desktop

If there is one criticism I have of this year’s report, there is little analysis of the news consumption behavior of consumers via social media – a significant factor impacting the performance of traditional digital and digital-native news models. The report does mention the growth of mobile relates to the rise of social media, where the flow of information takes on a new dynamic. Nearly half of all Internet users report getting their news about politics and government on Facebook for example – a platform where influence is driven by friends and algorithms.

Like most consumers, I now find a majority of my news content via social channels. Breaking news makes itself known to me on Twitter, or my friends share via Facebook instantly. I learn about news well in advance of the evening news – which I do watch when I’m home from the office in time to catch the broadcast. Changing news habits have an incredible impact on how and to what extent people receive information. More and more of the “power of the press” is in the hands of technology companies like Facebook – and more accurately, the behavior of users in how they find, consume and share news content.

The news industry has little control over how or if its content reaches its intended audiences via social channels like Facebook. But we all need news organizations to have more control over how they get their information to consumers, right? This leaves publishers with only a few options: pay to expand reach via social, ignore social as a ‘push’ channel and rely on social sharing from better (and more engaging content) via owned channels, or develop a hybrid model that combines the best of digital news with social prioritization of content.

When you look closer at the social media dynamic of news distribution and consumption, I don’t think the problem is as bad as it sounds on the surface. Content shared on social still has to originate somewhere – and that somewhere is often a mainstream news outlet that has wisely integrated social sharing functionality at the article level. I would have liked to see more analysis on this dynamic in this year’s report, but trust Pew will provide additional research around this topic throughout the year.

If one thing is obvious in reviewing this reporting year after year, it’s that consumer behavior continues to outpace publisher innovation. News organizations appear to have a much better handle on what’s going on than in years past, and I expect to see continued innovation across digital publishing to address these changing consumption patterns.

What do you think? What findings were most surprising to you in this year’s State of the News Media report? Where do you think the biggest area of opportunity is for publishers? What would you do if you were in charge of the digital operation for a top 50 news organization?

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