SPECIAL REPORT / The news industry is struggling with a shift to mobile, getting scant revenues as more readers turn to smartphones and tablets for information, according to new research published in April.
These are among the findings of the latest Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media report, highlighting an ongoing shift in the US and European news industry landscape.
The report found that 39 of the top 50 digital news websites had more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop computers in early 2015, although researchers said people generally spend more time reading news on PCs.
Overall, the news media is seeing much of the same trend as it has over the past few years – declines in print circulation and advertising, and a rise in digital news consumption, albeit with more limited revenues, Pew found.
The continued decline in advertising revenues has coincided with digitisation and growing concentration in the media industry, which journalist unions and EU lawmakers warn could put press feedom at risk.
“Tycoons have been buying media outlets and in many countries appear to exert media control,” warned the European Federation of Journalists. According to the EFJ, “new actors including Google threaten not only [threaten] media pluralism but increasingly the survival of many freelance journalists, who often only face one media employer, especially at local level”.
Among the bright spots for the US industry was television news, where some segments managed to gain viewers.
Pew said broadcast network newscasts boosted viewership by five percent last year, but cable news channels had another difficult year — with prime-time viewership down eight percent across the three major news channels.
Bad news for print
For newspapers, it was more bad news: daily and Sunday circulation fell another three percent in 2014.
Advertising revenue dropped four percent to $19.9 billion – less than half of what it was a decade ago.
That was only partly offset by a one percent rise in circulation revenue, which suggests rising prices for print editions and subscriptions.
Pew said that for “legacy” media like newspapers, data is not available to separate the digital-only segments at each organisation.
But the report said digital revenues “remain largely on the wish list” for news organisations, and offered no breakdown on mobile ad revenues for news properties.
The news media, however, is unlikely to get much from mobile ads since five firms – Apple, Facebook, Google, Pandora and Twitter – took in two thirds of mobile ad revenue, the report said.
Digital ad revenue across all media grew to $50.7 billion in 2014, according to eMarketer figures cited by Pew.
Mobile ad spending now accounts for 37% of all digital ad spending, with Facebook getting 24% of all display ad revenue and 37% of mobile display.
The Pew researchers found the digital side of the news industry is continuing to grow, but unevenly.
Large capital injections were reported by Vice News – which raised a reported $500 million last year – and Vox Media, which publishes Vox.com and The Verge, and is valued at some $380 million after its $46.5 million funding round.
Meanwhile BuzzFeed, which has been expanding with its own new capital, had to deal with “ethical questions surrounding the removal of posts that spoke negatively of key advertisers”, the Pew report said.
And longtime tech journalism outlet Gigaom shut down in March, when it was unable to pay its creditors.
Pew said the number of entries in digital news are now “so numerous and varied that they are difficult to keep track of” and that “the pace of technological evolution and the multiplicity of choices… show no sign of slowing down”.
The researchers said the top “digital news entity” was Yahoo-ABC News, with more than 127 million users, including 93 million who access from a mobile device.
The others in the top 10, in order, were CNN, NBC News, Huffington Post, CBS News, USA Today, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, Fox News and Mail Online. Each of the top 10 had more users on mobile than desktop.
For large newspapers, digital audience numbers far outpaces circulation. The New York Times, for example, had an average weekday print circulation of less than 650,000, while its website and apps attracted nearly 54 million visitors in January 2015.
But Pew said online visits averaged just 4.6 minutes for The NYT, indicative of the “fly-by” nature of online news.
Newspapers have done little to alleviate their financial woes.
Overall advertising revenues fell to $20 billion last year, down from a peak of $47 billion in 2005. But digital has failed to make up more than $3.5 billion of the total.
Newsroom employment was down another three percent in 2013, the latest year for which data was available, Pew said, after a six percent drop in 2012.
Long before the economic crisis struck, the media landscape was undergoing fundamental structure change. The major losers have been print publications as advertising revenue migrates to online platforms.
However, media critics say a deeper malaise has taken hold, with media cutting back on the production of original news content. In Brussels, for example, the number of journalists covering EU affairs has been shrinking.
There are fears that fewer journalists will mean powerful institutions are subjected to less scrutiny, and some advocate various forms of intervention to support journalism.
Others argue that the media is undergoing a necessary revolution and that market forces will deliver a new, equally-effective, media landscape.