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Major Trends

In past years we have tried to identify major trends emerging in the coming year, and many of those still apply now. For 2010, we want to emphasize six points.

As we learn more about both web economics and consumer behavior, the unbundling of news seems increasingly central to journalism’s future. The old model of journalism involved news organizations taking revenue from one social transaction — the selling of real estate, cars and groceries or job hunting, for example, — and using it to monitor civic life — covering city councils and zoning commissions and conducting watchdog investigations. Editors assembled a wide range of news, but the popularity of each story was subordinate to the value, and the aggregate audience, of the whole. And the value of the story might be found in its consequence rather than its popularity. That model is breaking down. Online, it is becoming increasingly clear, consumers are not seeking out news organizations for their full news agenda. They are hunting the news by topic and by event and grazing across multiple outlets. This is changing both the finances and the culture of newsrooms. When revenue is more closely tied to each story, what is the rationale for covering civic news that is consequential but has only limited interest? The data also are beginning to show a shift away from interest in local news toward more national and international topics as people have more access to such information, which may have other effects on local dynamics.

The future of New and Old Media are more tied together than some may think. A new multi-university study released in this report finds that even the best new-media sites in the country still have limited ability to produce content. No doubt they will evolve. Yet their reportorial capacity ultimately still will depend on finding a revenue model far larger than what exists today or than is projected to come from conventional online advertising. While there are some competing values and different reportorial cultures, in the end new and old media face the same dilemma and may be much more aligned in their search for revenue than many have thought. In some cases, there will be formal alliances or networks of new and old media. One concept that will get more attention is collaborations of old media and citizens in what some call a “pro-am” (professional and amateur) model for news. Yet how traditional news organizations cope with such partnerships, the rules for what is acceptable and what is not, remain largely uncharted.

The notion that the news media are shrinking is mistaken. Reportorial journalism is getting smaller, but the commentary and discussion aspect of media, which adds analysis, passion and agenda shaping, is growing — in cable, radio, social media, blogs and elsewhere. For all the robust activity there, however, the numbers still suggest that these new media are largely filled with debate dependent on the shrinking base of reporting that began in the old media. Our ongoing analysis of more than a million blogs and social media sites, for instance, finds that 80% of the links are to U.S. legacy media. The only old media sector with growing audience numbers is cable, a place where the lion’s share of resources are spent on opinionated hosts. One result may be the rising numbers in polling data that show 72% of Americans feel now most news sources are biased in their coverage and 70% feel overwhelmed rather than informed by the amount of news and information they see. Quantitatively, argument rather than expanding information is the growing share of media people are exposed to today.

Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial accounts of events. For now at least, digital technology is shifting more emphasis and resources toward breaking news. Shrinking newsrooms are asking their remaining ranks to produce first accounts more quickly and feed multiple platforms. This is focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive. It is also leading to a phenomenon in which the first account from newsmakers — their press conferences and press releases — make their way to the public often in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim. Those first accounts, sculpted by official sources, then can rapidly spread more widely now through the power of the Web to disseminate, gaining a velocity they once lacked. That is followed quickly by commentary. What is squeezed is the supplemental reporting that would unearth more facts and context about events. We saw this clearly in a study of news in Baltimore, but it is reinforced in discussions with news people. While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.

The ranks of self-interested information providers are now growing rapidly and news organizations must define their relationship to them. As newsrooms get smaller, the range of non-journalistic players entering the information and news field is growing rapidly. The ranks include companies, think tanks, activists, government and partisans. Some are institutions frustrated by the shrinking space in conventional media and the absence of knowledgeable specialists to cover their subjects. Others are partisans and political interests trying to exploit a perceived opportunity in journalism’s contraction. There are varying degrees of transparency in these efforts about the financing and intentions. Some are quite clear. Others present themselves as purely journalistic and independent when in fact they are funded by political activists, yet only by digging and cross-referencing websites can the agenda and financing be divined. In an age where linking and aggregation are part of journalism, news organizations must decide how they want to interact with this growing cohort of self-interested information players. Will they pick up this material and disseminate it? Can they possibly police it? Can they afford to ignore it? The only certainty is that these new players are increasingly vying for the public’s and the media’s attention, and their resources, in contrast to that of traditional independent journalism, are growing.

When it comes to audience numbers online, traditional media content still prevails, which means the cutbacks in old media heavily impact what the public is learning through the new. An analysis in this year’s report of online audience behavior, extrapolated from Nielsen Net Ratings data, finds that 80% of the traffic to news and information sites is concentrated at the top 7% of sites. The vast majority of the top news sites (67%), moreover, are still tied to legacy media financed largely by their shrinking end of the business.1 New media are growing, but their ranks among the most trafficked sites are still small. Another 13% of these news sites are aggregators, whose content is derived from legacy media. Only 14% of these sites are online-only operations that produce mostly original reportorial content rather than commentary. In short, the cutbacks in old media are drastically affecting not only traditional media but still significantly impact online content as well.