Facebook Dominates the News Landscape as Print Continues to Crumble

June 15, 2016, 3:08 PM UTC
Photograph by Hachephotography/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Two reports on the health of the news business dropped this week, one from the Pew Research Center and one from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The former concentrates on the landscape in the United States, while the latter is more global, but the picture they paint is fundamentally the same: Print and traditional news outlets are waning, while Facebook’s dominance continues to grow.

More than half of the consumers who were surveyed by the Reuters Institute (50,000 people in 26 countries) said that they find news via social media every week, and about 12% of them said it was their main source, with Facebook by far the largest single source. For the 18-24 age group, almost 30% said that social media is their main source when it comes to getting news. The results on the industry have been dramatic, said the report:

Across our 26 countries, we see a common picture of job losses, cost-cutting, and missed targets as falling print revenues combine with the brutal economics of digital in a perfect storm. Almost everywhere we see the further adoption of online platforms and devices for news – largely as a supplement to broadcast but often at the expense of print.

The Pew Center study, which was released on Wednesday, has more detail on how the print newspaper business has been decimated by the shift to digital. Last year, the sector “had perhaps the worst year since the recession,” the study notes, and even the industry’s online efforts aren’t really helping much. Average circulation—print and digital combined—fell another 7% in 2015, the largest drop since 2010. Total advertising revenue fell by nearly 8%, including both print and digital.

Pew report on news

Driven by these shifts, the number of people employed in the newspaper business has also been shrinking rapidly. According to the Pew report, the latest newsroom employment figures (from 2014) show declines of 10%, which is greater than in any year since 2009. The number of people employed by newspapers has fallen by more than 20,000 or almost 40% since 1994. When it comes to being a source of news, the report says:

Data suggests the hourglass may be nearing empty: A January 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that just 5% of U.S. adults who had learned about the presidential election in the past week named print newspapers as their “most helpful” source – trailing nearly every other category by wide margins.

In an essay written to accompany the Reuters Institute study, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson summed up the landscape with a phrase taken from the TV series Game of Thrones. “Winter is coming,” he said. Ad-based models are not working, even for large digital players, because “publishers enjoy far less pricing power, and even the largest of us are dwarfed by those who dominate the field, players like Facebook and Google whose immense scale allows them to undercut everybody else.”

What about the move towards digital paywalls and other subscription models, which the New York Times (NYT) has championed? The data from the Reuters report is not encouraging. No English-speaking country surveyed by the Institute had a payment rate of more than 10%, and some were substantially lower than that, including the U.K. at just 7%. Some countries in Europe have made subscription models work, but only because they are protected geographically and through language barriers.

According to Pew, the TV news business in the U.S. seems to be holding up much better than the newspaper industry, at least so far. “Television news sectors face serious challenges, but have benefited from the fact that despite all the growth in digital, large swaths of the public—and thus advertisers—remain drawn to that square box in the middle of the room.” Cable and network TV both saw revenue growth in 2015, the study found.

When it comes to digital, the Pew Center notes that “there is money being made on the web, just not by news organizations.” Digital ad spending grew by 20% in 2015 to about $60 billion, faster growth than in either 2013 and 2014, the report says, “but journalism organizations have not been the primary beneficiaries.” In fact, more of the digital ad spending has been going to giant technology companies such as Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB), with just five companies responsible for 65% of the market.

Reuters report on news

But the impact that large players such as Facebook have on the news business goes far beyond just their control over the advertising pie, the Pew report says. “In the pre-digital era, journalism organizations largely controlled the news products and services from beginning to end, including original reporting; writing and production; packaging and delivery; audience experience; and editorial selection. Over time, technology companies like Facebook and Apple have become an integral, if not dominant player in most of these arenas.”

One risk for news companies and publishers is that as more of their content is found via social networks such as Facebook or aggregators like Apple News (AAPL), the power of their individual brands tends to decrease. According to the Reuters Institute study, news brands get noticed by users less than half the time in the United Kingdom and Canada, and only about a quarter of the time in Japan and South Korea. For these users, social platforms are the only brand they recognize.

“The move towards a more distributed environment offers publishers opportunities to reach new audiences on an unprecedented scale,” according to Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute. “But as people increasingly access news via third party platforms, it will become harder and harder for most publishers to stand out from the crowd, connect directly with users, and make money. This development will leave some winners and many losers.”

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