Newspapers Are The Major Losers In Content Consumption Shift

Last year, multiple news companies began hopping on the digital subscription bandwagon courtesy of the iPad. The hope was that Apple's 9.7" behemoth would drive a new wave of people to sign up for tablet versions of their favorite news media (paper subscribers were often, but not always, given access to the digital edition for free). After years of losses, traditional print media were desperate to find a replacement engine for plummeting advertising revenue.

It hasn't worked. The Pew Research Center has released data showing that while digital advertising with newspapers increased by $207 million in 2011, print advertising fell by more than 10x that amount, to $2.1B. The 10:1 offset is worse than the 7:1 swap tracked in 2010 and makes 2011 the sixth straight year that print advertising has declined. Digital advertising is growing at a ferocious pace, but print ads still account for a whopping 92% of advertising revenue.

The gains and losses in advertising mediums, however, aren't the whole story. There's evidence that people actually consume more news than they used to, a definite positive for the journalism industry -- but changing trends in where and how that news is consumed doesn't favor newspapers. The following charts from NPR shows the change in audience for various news outlets. Newspapers are the big losers here. That's partly due to do the physical nature of the medium -- a newspaper is something that must be purchased or subscribed to; TV news, by contrast, is accessible at any time provided you subscribe to cable.

Data suggests that Facebook and Twitter may have become trendy places to break news or catch hot topics, but they aren't actually driving the news discovery process; the majority of readers either visit websites directly or surf in via a news organization's website/app. This suggests that part of the reason newspaper subscriptions and advertising has plummeted is that the dead-tree media businesses have been slow to cultivate an online news presence.

Quick -- how many print media websites do you visit for daily tech news? The author occasionally checks the New York Times -- and that's about it. When it comes to the daily news crawl, Reuters and Bloomberg are more useful than most print sites. In a few cases, that's thanks to hard paywalls (like the Wall Street Journal's), but mostly, its due to story quality. Tech news as carried by print media is often dumbed down, late, or factually wrong. The NYT bucks this trend with hard-hitting reports on big industry trends or expository pieces and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has done some great technology journalism. Most of the rest is better done elsewhere.

The plight of newspaper journalism might seem to have little to do with the online sphere of websites like Hot Hardware, but there are subtle connections between the two. Read any discussion on ad-blockers and you'll quickly find readers who proudly use ad blocking software and proclaim that information "wants" to be free, while ignoring the fact that websites and staff both cost money. Big assignments can take days or weeks of work or involve substantial traveling. Digital advertising is significantly less valuable than print, but newspapers are still tasked with creating high-impact stories. Trimming waste and cutting expense accounts can only take you so far, at a certain point, companies have to start passing on potentially huge stories because they can't afford the up-front cost of the investigation either in dollars or in terms of lost daily productivity.

When even the heavy hitters in journalism can't afford that type of story, the entire industry suffers -- including ours. The question over how best to monetize journalism and ensure fair compensation while delivering good value to readers isn't going to end, even if print media does.