A massive set of data outlining the health of the news media in 2012 suggests that even the defibrillation of a presidential campaign couldn't shift the long-term trend: less money, fewer resources, more distractions, an unclear path forward.
Pew Research Center's annual State of the News Media, out today, analyzes the industry's economics, viewership, and year-over-year statistics in every sector. Studying the report for clues about how the news media will evolve, though, is a bit like taking the pulse of an accident victim: it doesn't look good, but it doesn't offer much in the way of treatment suggestions. There are clear trends — mostly negative — and some suggestions for how they'll evolve, but it's otherwise a look at who's winning the Titanic's furniture rearranging contest.
The report outlines a number key issues. First among them: people are noticing the toll of media budget cuts.
The story is told in graphs. People are increasingly turning away from traditional media sources in favor of digital.
Most Americans also know that the media industry is facing economic challenges.
31 percent indicate that they've abandoned a media outlet that "no longer serves their needs" …
… which mostly means that the stories are "less complete" than expected.
This is likely due to shifts in coverage. Local news broadcasts now devote 40 percent of their coverage to traffic, weather, and sports.
The number of newspapers continues to decline …
… as does the size of newspapers' workforce.
In fact, cumulative newspaper staff size has dropped below 40,000 for the first time since 1978.
The reason links to another trend cited by Pew: the ongoing evaporation of funding for reporting and news outlets.
A presidential election year always means a bonanza for local TV stations. Sure enough, stations saw record ad spending last year.
But local TV stations still saw reduced viewership — and local and cable TV news were perhaps the brightest spots in the media.
Cable news viewership was up only slightly, thanks in part to the election …
… and revenue was flat for everyone except Fox News.
(An interesting aside: Pew also found that MSNBC was far more likely to show opinion pieces than were CNN or Fox.)
Newspapers saw continuing declines in overall revenue, though digital revenue grew.
But, in a bit of good news, the decline of revenue from want ads has slowed.
News magazines (including The Atlantic) have seen a big drop in single copy sales.
And in each issue, fewer pages of ads.
Demographics aren't helping either newspapers or magazines. Both are favored by older, wealthier consumers — and aren't being replaced very quickly.
Perhaps the most remarkable trend Pew identified is the extent to which traditional media has been cut out of the news-sharing equation. The report notes that 72 percent of people report getting their news from friends or family.
Once they do, they typically then seek out more information on news stories — though less often than when they discover a news story over social media.
What they find may not be actual reported news. Pew notes the rising trend of businesses and other interested parties in side-stepping traditional media:
[N]ewsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media. They are also seeing more success in getting their message into the traditional media narrative. …
A Pew Research Center analysis revealed that campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans.
For Pew, that trend is inextricable from the economic imbalance. Businesses and hyper-rich campaigns have the money to put into public relations, tripling the ratio of spokespeople to reporters between 1980 and 2008. Combined, the effect is grim. "This adds up to a news industry," it writes, "that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands."
And without a clear path — or source of revenue — to resolve those issues.