It hard enough in the news business to follow current trends. Extrapolating them to the future can drive you nuts. For example, just when we have all decided Americans will be flooding on-line to get their news, evidence pops up that the trend may be slowing.
When it comes to online news in particular, however, there are clearer signs that the size of the audience has leveled off. That was true both for occasional news consumption and for the percentage of those going online for news more frequently.
As of December 2005, 68% of Americans report ever going online for news, down slightly from the last time this question had been asked by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans going online for news frequently may not be growing either. In last year’s annual report, we discussed that while the overall online news audience wasn’t growing much, every-day use had increased. [More - same source for following quotes as well.]
Before the industry yells, "It's a trick - retreat!!" we need to notice what else is happening to the news biz. Namely, newspapers aren't exactly pulling out of their nosedive.
In 2006, the traditional indicators were all negative:
*Circulation fell even faster than in 2005 — down 2.8% daily and 3.4% Sunday for the six months ending in September compared to that period a year earlier.3
*Industry revenues were flat, a poor showing in a non-recession year. On the print side, retail, national and automotive classified all showed weakness. Online growth left most companies roughly even in revenues for the year.
*Earnings fell. Wall Street responded by marking shares of publicly traded companies down by about 14%, after a tumble of 20% in 2005.4
*At big metro papers, such as the Dallas Morning News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, there were deep newsroom cuts. Together with some closings of national and international bureaus, the trend was to smaller, local papers with diminished ambitions.
Network TV ended up in a draw, and magazines looked to cross boundaries.
Time, the giant of the news weeklies, took the lead in promising change. It announced a new publication date and a new way of measuring audience that it hoped might soon combine print and online. It redesigned its Web site to de-emphasize the print magazine. It also hinted, more cryptically, at a new editorial approach, one that is more interpretive. Then it slashed more of its staff.
My guess on all this is the first ones to tie them all together will be the winners. One interesting note is since online research is so much easier and reliable, online readership gets much more scrutiny.
It is also critical to deliver news to the right people in the right way. The final product - what I think of as "merged media" - will look like all these traditional sources from some angle, perhaps.
Our sense remains, too, that traditional journalism is not, as some suggest, becoming irrelevant. There is more evidence now that new technology companies have had either limited success in news gathering (Yahoo, AOL), or have avoided it altogether (Google). Whoever owns them, old newsrooms now seem more likely than a few years ago to be the foundations for the newsrooms of the future.
But practicing journalism has become far more difficult and demands new vision. Journalism is becoming a smaller part of people’s information mix. The press is no longer gatekeeper over what the public knows.
Journalists have reacted relatively slowly. They are only now beginning to re-imagine their role. Their companies failed to see “search” as a kind of journalism. Their industry has spent comparatively little on R&D. They have been tentative about pressing for new economic models, and that has left them fearful and defensive. Some of the most interesting experiments in new journalism continue to come from outside the profession — sites such as Global Voices, which mixes approved volunteer “reporters” from around the world with professional editors.
Regardless, we will be inventing the new "news" as we go along. Those of you reading this will help build ag journalism's future format.