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Overview

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report. Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978. In local TV, our special content report reveals, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink. On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012. Across the three cable channels, coverage of live events and live reports during the day, which often require a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take fewer resources and can be scheduled in advance, were up 31%. Time magazine, the only major print news weekly left standing, cut roughly 5% of its staff in early 2013 as a part of broader company layoffs.  And in African-American news media, the Chicago Defender has winnowed its editorial staff to just four while The Afro cut back the number of pages in its papers from 28-32 in 2008 to around 16-20 in 2012. A growing list of media outlets, such as Forbes magazine, use technology by a company called Narrative Science to produce content by way of algorithm, no human reporting necessary. And some of the newer nonprofit entrants into the industry, such as the Chicago News Cooperative, have, after launching with much fanfare, shut their doors.

This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. And findings from our new public opinion survey released in this report reveal that the public is taking notice. Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.

At the same time, newsmakers 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.  

So far, this trend has emerged most clearly in the political sphere, particularly with the biggest story of 2012—the presidential election. 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.  That meant more direct relaying of assertions made by the campaigns and less reporting by journalists to interpret and contextualize them. This is summarized in our special video report on our Election Research, only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists  in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans. That is a reversal from a dozen years earlier when half the statements originated with journalists and a third came from partisans. The campaigns also found more ways than ever to connect directly with citizens.  

There are signs of this trend that carry beyond the political realm, as more and more entities seek, by various means, to fill the void left by overstretched editorial resources. Business leaders in Detroit, Mich., for example, have created an organization to serve as a kind of tour guide to journalists with the goal of injecting more favorable portrayals of the city into media coverage. The government of Malaysia was recently discovered to have bankrolled propaganda that appeared in several major U.S. outlets under columnists’ bylines.  A number of news organizations, including The Associated Press, recently carried a fake press release about Google that came from a PR distribution site that promises clients it will reach “top media outlets.” And recently, journalist David Cay Johnston in writing about a pitch from one corporate marketer that included a “vacation reward” for running his stories, remarked, “Journalists get lots of pitches like this these days, which is partly a reflection of how the number of journalists has shriveled while the number of publicists has grown.”  Indeed, an analysis of Census Bureau data by Robert McChesney and John Nichols found the ratio of public relations workers to journalists grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2008—and the gap has likely only widened since.

In circumventing the media altogether, one company, Contently, connects thousands of journalists, many of them ex-print reporters, with commercial brands to help them produce their own content, including brand-oriented magazines. In early March, Fortune took that step, launching a program for advertisers called Fortune TOC—Trusted Original Content—in which Fortune writers, for a fee, create original Fortune-branded editorial content for marketers to distribute exclusively on their own platforms.

Efforts by political and corporate entities to get their messages into news coverage are nothing new. What is different now—adding up the data and industry developments—is that news organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover the stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever.

While traditional newsrooms have shrunk, however, there are other new players producing content that could advance citizens’ knowledge about public issues. They are covering subject areas that would have once been covered more regularly and deeply by beat reporters at traditional news outlets—areas such as health, science and education. The Kaiser Family Foundation was an early entrant with Kaiser Health News. Now others, such as Insidescience.org, supported by the American Institute of Physics and others, and the Food and Environment Reporting Network with funding from nonprofit foundations are beginning to emerge. In the last year, more news outlets have begun to carry this content with direct attribution to the source. The Washington Post, for example, regularly carries articles bylined by Kaiser Health News and NBC.com runs Insidescience.org stories with a lead-in identifying the source.

For news organizations, distinguishing between high-quality information of public value and agenda-driven news has become an increasingly complicated task, made no easier in an era of economic churn.

This is the tenth edition of the State of the News Media produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Among the features this year are a special report on changes in television news; a special video report on lessons of the 2012 election; a new public opinion survey on how people get news from friends and family—and what they do next; a special survey on public awareness of the financial struggles facing the industry; a close look at African American news media, and an infographic that visually displays the overview and key trends. The chapters on each sector of the news industry contain two parts, a Summary Essay and a separate section called By the Numbers, where all the statistical information is more easily searchable.

Looking across these chapters, we identify six major trends of the year:

The effects of a decade of newsroom cutbacks are real – and the public is taking notice. Nearly a third of U.S. adults, 31%, have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were accustomed to getting. Men have left at somewhat higher rates than women, as have the more highly educated and higher-income earners—many of those, in other words, that past Pew Research data have shown to be among the heavier news consumers. With reporting resources cut to the bone and fewer specialized beats, journalists’ level of expertise in any one area and the ability to go deep into a story are compromised.  Indeed, when people who had heard something about the financial struggles were asked which effect they noticed more, stories that were less complete or fewer stories over all, 48% named less complete stories while 31% mostly noticed fewer stories. Overall, awareness of the industry’s financial struggles is limited. Only 39% have heard a lot or some. But those with greater awareness are also more likely to be the ones who have abandoned a news outlet.

The news industry continues to lose out on the bulk of new digital advertising. Two new areas of digital advertising that seemed to bring promise even a year ago now appear to be moving outside the reach of news: mobile devices and local digital advertising. Over all, mobile advertising grew 80% in 2012 to $2.6 billion. Of that, however, only one ad segment is available to news: display. While mobile display is growing rapidly, 72% of that market goes to just six companies—including Facebook, which didn’t even create its first mobile ad product until mid-2012. Local digital advertising, a critical ad segment for news as the majority of outlets cater to a local audience, is also growing—22% in 2012. But improved geo-targeting is allowing many national advertisers to turn to Google, Facebook and other large networks to buy ads that once might have gone to local media. In addition, Google and Facebook are also improving their ability to sell ad space to smaller, truly local, advertisers, again taking business that once went to local media. It is hard to see how news organizations will secure anything like their traditional share.  Google is now the ad leader in search, display and mobile.  Once again, in key revenue areas, it appears the news industry may have been outflanked by technology giants.

The long-dormant sponsorship ad category is seeing sharp growth. This is one area of growing digital ad revenue where news organizations have taken early steps to move in. Promoted tweets on Twitter account for some of the growth, along with the rise of native ads—the digital term for advertorials containing advertiser-produced stories—which often run alongside a site’s own editorial content. Though it remains small in dollars, the category’s growth rate is second only to that of video. Sponsorship ads rose 38.9%, to $1.56 billion; that followed a jump of 56.1% in 2011. Traditional publications such as The Atlantic and Forbes, as well as digital publications BuzzFeed and Gawker, have relied on native ads to quickly build digital ad revenues, and their use is expected to spread. According to tech website PandoDaily, major publishers including Hearst, Time and Condé Nast are investing in formats to run native ads, as are many newspapers. The development, however, runs the risk of confusing readers about the difference between advertising and news content.  In January, The Atlantic found itself rapidly taking down from its website a vaguely identified advertorial from the Church of Scientology, explaining afterward: “We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand.”

The growth of paid digital content experiments may have a significant impact on both news revenue and content.  After years of an almost theological debate about whether digital content should be free, the newspaper industry may have reached a tipping point in 2012. Indeed, 450 of the nation’s 1,380 dailies have started or announced plans for some kind of paid content subscription or pay wall plan, in many cases opting for the metered model that allows a certain number of free visits before requiring users to pay. (The trend has also spread beyond newspapers, as highlighted by popular blogger Andrew Sullivan’s recent decision to attach a fee to his site, The Dish.) With digital ad revenue growing at an anemic 3% a year in the newspaper industry, digital subscriptions are seen as an increasingly vital component of any new business model for journalism—though, in most cases, they fall far short of actually replacing the revenue lost in advertising. Thanks in good part to its two-year-old digital subscription program, The New York Times reports that its circulation revenue now exceeds its advertising revenue, a sea change from the traditional revenue split of as much as 80% advertising dollars to 20% circulation dollars. Going forward, many news executives believe that a new business model will emerge in which the mix between advertising and circulation revenue will be close to equal, most likely with a third leg of new revenues that are not tied directly to the news product. The rise of digital paid content could also have a positive impact on the quality of journalism as news organizations strive to produce unique and high-quality content that the public believes is worth paying for. That goal is in keeping with the philosophy of Clark Gilbert, the chief executive of the Deseret News Publishing Company and digital innovator. A staunch advocate of news organizations focusing editorial muscle in key areas where they can bring real value and distinction, Gilbert told the Pew Research Center that in the digital age, news outlets have to be differentiated. “Invest where you can be the best in the world,” he explained.

While the first and hardest-hit industry, newspapers, remains in the spotlight, local TV finds itself newly vulnerable.  Local TV audiences were down across every key time slot and across all networks in 2012. And the off-peak news hours like 4:30 a.m. that stations had been adding for years seem to have hit their audience ceiling. While local TV remains a top news source for Americans, the percentage is dropping—and dropping sharply among younger generations.  Regular local TV viewership among adults under 30 fell from 42% in 2006 to just 28% in 2012, according to Pew Research survey data.   What’s more, the topics people go there for most—weather and breaking news (and to a lesser extent traffic)—are ripe for replacement by any number of web- and mobile-based outlets.  While many stations ramped up their digital news offerings in the past year, they are late to the digital game. Advertising revenues were up for the year, but that was largely due to a windfall of $2.9 billion in political advertising revenue, something that cannot be replicated in non-election years. Over all, average revenue for news-producing stations declined by more than a third (36%) from 2006 to 2011.

Hearing about things in the news from friends and family, whether via social media or actual word of mouth, leads to deeper news consumption. A majority of Americans seek out a full news story after hearing about an event or issue from friends and family, a new Pew Research survey released here finds. For nearly three-quarters of adults (72%), the most common way to get news from friends and family is by having someone talk to them—either in person or over the phone. And among that group, close to two-thirds (63%) somewhat or very often seek out a news story about that event or issue. Social networking is now a part of this process as well: 15% of U.S. adults get most of their news from friends and family this way, and the vast majority of them (77%) follow links to full news stories. Among 18-to-29 year-olds, the percentage that primarily relies on social media for this kind of news already reaches nearly one-quarter. And the growing practice of dual-screening major news events adds more opportunity to share news electronically. Friends and family are still just one part of most consumers’ news diets –and a smaller part than going directly to news outlet themselves, as an earlier Pew Research study revealed.