Online media is replacing newspapers and TV. Is that a bad thing?
How the new online media landscape is changing the way the public gets its news.
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In fact, when you look at all of it – people turning to reliable news outlets with constantly updated headlines supplemented by crowd-sourced news and links from friends to stories you might have missed – you might wonder what exactly there is to be afraid of in the new media culture. Could it be we are walking into a new news utopia – anchor chairs and newsprint nonwithstanding?Skip to next paragraph
Not completely. There are some serious growing pains coming out of the way we increasingly get our news.
Who'll do the reporting?
One of the biggest and potentially most troubling aspects of the new-media culture is the cuts that have come to news organizations of all forms around the country due to lost revenues. The rise of the digital outlets through laptops and tablets and smart phones has left a gaping hole in revenues for news outlets.
The Web, in the form of Craigslist and similar sites, has destroyed classified advertising for newspapers while falling circulation hurts commercial print ads. The disappearing and aging audiences from the evening news have meant reductions there as well. The ads heavily weighted toward ailments of all sorts and their medications can make the viewer feel like a pharmaceutical convention is taking place on their televisions.
In the past four years, newspaper revenue has dropped 48 percent. Network TV saw a better 2010, but the trend since 2000 is unmistakably down – or up only because of staff cuts.
And that's one of the most serious challenges of the new media world. There is money spent in advertising online, but much of it is spent on search advertising, and that money does not flow into newsrooms, but rather to the Googles and Yahoos of the world. Online revenues for the legacy media have not been able to keep pace with the loss of revenues that have come with shrinking audiences. The result: smaller staffs.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that newspaper newsrooms, on the whole, are 30 percent smaller than they were in 2000. ABC News cut its staff by 25 percent last year. CBS News slashed its personnel by 75 people. And cuts for both those news divisions came after cuts earlier in the decade.
What's more, all those cuts come as we enter this age of round-the-clock news updates – which actually requires more staff. So staffs are pushed to do more with less year after year. Eventually, maybe even now, those cuts will have an impact on the constant headlines on phones and iPads. It's hard to know the stories you are missing until a news event blows up and you think, "Why have I not heard of this before?" Maybe it's because your friends on Facebook didn't link to stories about it in the past, but it also may be that there simply weren't any stories about it.
Until the news media can solve the online revenue problem, it's hard to imagine how they will have the money to invest in more reporting.
That's why The New York Times's experiment in charging users for online content is being watched so closely by other newsrooms. The system is complicated – the first 20 articles a month are free of charge, then users can pay $15 every four weeks for access to the website and a mobile phone app, $20 for website access and an iPad app, or $35 for an all-access plan. And of course, all that digital access is free of charge with a subscription to the paper version. But it is important because it flies directly in the face of the Web ethos that everything should be free of charge.
Should the Times succeed, it might pave the way for other outlets to find a way to regain years of losses. That's critical, because if the news media can't find a way to fill the revenue hole the Web has created, all the tablets in the world won't save news. And all the customized news consuming may actually offer more in terms of convenience, but less in terms of content than in those good old-media days.