Beyond our broadest conclusions, we identify six new trends emerging in 2009, which build off those we have identified in past years.
- The growing public debate over how to finance the news industry may well be focusing on the wrong remedies while other ideas go largely unexplored. Much of the discussion has centered on whether consumers would make micro-payments for online content and the possibility of nonprofits assuming ownership of the press. The micro-payment idea, however, was already tried and rejected by users early on and has run headlong into resistance from online advocates. Nonprofit financing, even with ad revenue, may make sense in targeted subject areas—health or investigative reporting, for instance—but it is unlikely that there is enough funding to become a general ownership model. The scale of the commercial media is too large and the potential losses too great. A host of other ideas, with more potential, are worth considering. While hardly a complete list, they include: 1. Adopt the cable model, in which a fee to news producers is built into monthly Internet access fees consumers already pay. News industry executives have not seriously tested this enough to know if it could work, but these fees provide half the revenue in cable. 2. Build major online retail malls within news sites. This could both create a local search network for small businesses and link them directly with consumers to complete transactions, not just offer advertising—with the news operation getting a point-of-purchase fee. 3. Develop subscription-based niche products for elite professional audiences. These are more than subject-specific micro-sites. They are deep, detailed, up-to-the-minute online resources aimed at professional interests, and they are a proven and highly profitable growth area in journalism. There are other ideas as well, including news companies collaborating to seriously challenge aggregators, especially Google, to start sharing more revenue. Several new revenue streams most likely are needed. The closest thing to a consensus right now is that no one source is a likely magic bullet.
- Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions. The trend is still forming and its potential is uncertain but the signs are clear. Through search, e-mail, blogs, social media and more, consumers are gravitating to the work of individual writers and voices, and away somewhat from institutional brand. Journalists who have left legacy news organizations are attracting funding to create their own websites. Experiments like GlobalPost are testing whether individual journalists can become independent contractors offering reporting to various sites, in much the way photographers have operated for years at magazines. It would be a mistake to overstate the movement at this point. But for a few journalists at least, there are signs of a new prospect: individual journalists, funded by a mix of sources, offering expert coverage to many places. The movement offers the possibility of more skilled reporting from the field. Yet it would also require consumers to be discriminating and raises questions about how news organizations would ensure quality and reliability.
- On the Web, news organizations are focusing somewhat less on bringing audiences in and more on pushing content out. The shift reflects the news industry more fully recognizing the viral nature of the Web and the rise of social media. What began as a few podcasts, RSS feeds and e-mail alerts a year or two ago has mushroomed into a more serious emphasis on developing multiple forms of distribution. One form involves helping citizens grab and share information with one another. Another involves placing content on as many platforms as possible. Most news websites now have links attached to stories so readers can more easily share that content, and many have gone further, creating their own Twitter or Facebook accounts to put more content into consumers’ hands and allow them to pass it along. News Corp. and NBC Universal jointly purchased Hulu.com—a site where users can view streaming video free of cost—giving both companies another outlet for their products. The economics of all this is unresolved and home websites still matter. The industry is also late in arriving. But the movement represents a dawning realization that the nature of the Web is something the news industry cannot fight and might even begin to employ.
- The concept of partnership, motivated in part by desperation, is becoming a major focus of news investment and it may offer prospects for the financial future of news. Partly to cut costs, partly to make up for lost or more narrowly focused content and partly an effort to remain relevant, news organizations are beginning join forces with institutions they once saw as rivals. Papers in South Florida and Texas now share copy rather than simply compete. The local television affiliates of NBC and Fox are sharing video of breaking news events. Online, CBS Radio began a joint venture with AOL and Yahoo , pooling its stations together on one platform. The efforts are just taking root and, as with other experiments, there is little sign yet of how much success there could be in attracting new audiences or revenue. But the partnerships represent a small step toward individual companies in trouble beginning to pool ideas and resources in a way they traditionally have resisted. The move toward partnership also reflects change of another sort. The appeal of a news organization in the future increasingly will be not just the content it produces but also the fuller package of information it assembles from multiple sources.
- Even if cable news does not keep the audience gains of 2008, its rise is accelerating another change—the elevation of the minute-by-minute judgment in political journalism. In 2008 cable news came close to becoming the primary television platform of American political discourse. It was the only medium to be a clear winner in 2008, profits rising by a third and audiences growing 38%. But with cable’s singular fascination on politics, the biggest impact may be a sense of accelerating journalistic judgment. The minute-by-minute assessment of daily campaign maneuverings, many offered by partisan spin doctors in ways deliberately coarse and provocative, are now snap judgments about governance. The notion of a media honeymoon has become passé. The journalist who earned perhaps the most attention in Obama’s first month was a cable news financial “editor” who ranted on a Chicago trading floor, became a YouTube star and accused the White House of “threatening” him when Obama’s press secretary chastised him by name. Add to that the rising role of blogs, and now political figures “tweeting” from the Senate and House floor their immediate personal feelings. Even President Barack Obama has warned the press and public about listening to “cable chatter” and cautioned Republicans not to take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh, whose role as a political leader is now news. Incrementally, it feels as if the line between unfiltered personal thought and public discourse is evaporating a little more.
- In its campaign coverage, the press was more reactive and passive and less of an enterprising investigator of the candidates than it once was. In 1992, the Washington Post produced 13 major profiles examining the past record and biography of the eventual winner of the race. In 2008, the paper’s ombudsman found, it produced three. At the Los Angeles Times, the number of such enterprise stories about the winning candidate fell by two-thirds. Many factors have contributed to this less pro-active press. Smaller newsrooms leave people less time for enterprise. Blogs and websites are deep wells of information, but they consume time and attention. The campaigns have become more disciplined about controlling their message, keeping their distance and putting out their own information directly to the public (see Lessons of the Election). Similar to 2000, most of what we know about the new president came from his campaign rather than from media enterprise. And very quickly his political agenda, whether changed by events or there but not always clear, has proved more sweeping than advertised.