Death of news – final impact?

March 29, 2010

I have been looking over Pew’s annual “State of the News Media,” and it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the meteor has just struck for the large, slow-moving lizards of the newspaper business.

The problem isn’t readership, even though that’s down for the “paper” kind of newspaper.  The problem is advertisers.  Here’s the dirty little secret of the news media:  it was never funded by readers avid to learn of important world events.  The money came from car dealerships and lingerie sales.

Online newspapers get plenty of readers, but advertisers in this environment have moved off to other sites.

Add the effect of the downturn on both the remaining advertisers and anyone willing to pay for a dead-tree newspaper, and sudden extinction becomes a possibility.

From the report’s overview:

The numbers for 2009 reveal just how urgent these questions are becoming. Newspapers, including online, saw ad revenue fall 26% during the year, which brings the total loss over the last three years to 41%.

Local television ad revenue fell 24% in 2009, triple the decline the year before. Radio was off 18%. Magazine ad revenue dropped 19%, network TV 7% (and news alone probably more). Online ad revenue over all fell about 5%, and revenue to news sites most likely also fared much worse. [. . .]

The estimates for what happens after the economy rebounds vary and even then are only guesses. The market research and investment banking firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson projects that by 2013, after the economic recovery, three elements of old media — newspapers, radio and magazines — will take in 41% less in ad revenues than they did in 2006. [. . .]

The losses are already enormous. To quantify the impact, with colleague Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute we estimate that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30%. That leaves an estimated $4.4 billion remaining. Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010.

Network news division resources are likely down from their peak in the late 1980s by more than half — which amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars — and new rounds of cuts came in the last 12 months. Local television is harder to gauge, but one estimate puts the losses in the last two years at over 1,600 jobs, or roughly 6%. Staffing at the Time and Newsweek since 1983 is down by 47%.

The hope, as the report observes, is for a “new model” that will save newspapers and the news media generally.  That won’t happen.  Even if the news survives as an art form – doubtful, and the subject of a future post – it is finished as a business.  The newspapers are the canary in the mine shaft.  They are going fast.  The news weeklies won’t outlast them.

TV news, both cable and broadcast, will probably endure in some mutated form – most likely of the Katie Couric, ruwaway-bride, reality-TV variety.  It will be cheap and hollow, instead of expensive and hollow like today.

Denial is supposed to be a stage in the art of  dying.  I imagine that, as the blaze from the meteor strike was enveloping the dinosaurs, a few of the more lumbering types experienced a happy last thought:  “New business model, anyone?”