News Executives and the Future

Posted on March 5, 2012

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America’s news executives are hesitant about many of the alternative funding ideas being discussed for journalism today and are overwhelmingly skeptical about the prospect of government financing, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in association with the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).

Many news executives also sense change for the better in their newsrooms today, despite cutbacks and declining revenue. Editors at newspaper-related companies praise the cultural shifts in their organizations, the younger tech-savvy staff, and a growing sense of experimentation. Many broadcast executives see so-called one-person crews—in which the same individual reports, produces and shoots video—as improving their journalism by getting more people on the street.

But the leaders of America’s newsrooms are nonetheless worried about the future. Fewer than half of all those surveyed are confident their operations will survive another 10 years—not without significant new sources of revenue. Nearly a third believe their operations are at risk in just five years or less.  And many blame the problems not on the inevitable effect of technology but on their industry’s missed opportunities.

“Our mantra this year is experiment and fail quickly,” one newspaper news executive volunteered. “Don’t be afraid of change and don’t stick with something too long if it doesn’t work.”

“Outside funding options are a bad idea overall,” one broadcast news executive offered. “They are being used to ‘save’ old models of journalism that are no longer economically viable and will die out over time no matter what.”

The survey found some significant differences in the attitudes between leaders of newspaper-based newsrooms and those of broadcast. Among them was their view of journalism’s future. Broadcast news executives were strikingly more pessimistic, with those who see journalism headed in the wrong direction outnumbering those who think it is headed in the right direction by almost two-to-one. Leaders of newspaper newsrooms, by contrast, are split, with a slight tilt toward optimism.

These are some of the findings of the survey, conducted from December 2009 through January 2010, of members of the two major groups representing news executives from the newspaper industry and the broadcast industries, ASNE and RTDNA, conducted with the Project for Excellence in Journalism. In all, 353 news executives responded, representing 36% of those surveyed from ASNE and 24% from RTDNA.

Among the findings:

  • Many of the new revenue options being debated today receive only limited or divided support from news executives. When it comes to the often-discussed option of pay walls for online content, for instance, only 10% say they are working on them, though that could change. Another 32% are considering them and just 11% have written off the idea. More than a third (35%) have not even considered them at all. Still, as they look ahead, only 15% of news executives believe pay walls will be a significant source of revenue in three years.
  • There is significant resistance, however, to other discussed revenue streams, particularly from the government or from groups that engage in advocacy. Fully 75% of news executives have serious reservations about receiving government subsidies, and 78% have significant resistance to financing from interest groups. Roughly half have significant worries about funds from government tax credits and more than a third have significant doubts about private donations.
  • Most of the effort online is focused instead on more conventional revenue sources. Display and banner online advertising, for all that it has failed to grow, is still the No. 1 area of effort and the one that news executives pin their greatest hopes on. But second is revenue from products outside of news.
  • Broadcast news executives are noticeably more pessimistic about journalism’s future than editors at newspaper-based operations. Broadcasters think their profession is headed in the wrong direction by a margin of nearly two-to-one (64% versus 35%). By contrast, editors working at newspapers were split (49% wrong direction versus 51% right direction). A year ago, journalists who were members of the Online News Association surveyed by PEJ fell in between these two, 54% wrong direction, 45% right.
  • And most news executives think the Internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism. Six out of ten feel this way—though executives from broadcast operations (62%) do so more than executives from newspapers (53%). And their biggest concern is loosening standards of accuracy and verification, much of it tied to the immediacy of the Web.
  • Mobile applications are becoming increasingly important. Three-quarters say mobile applications are essential or very important while just 35% say that of YouTube postings or other video websites.Overall, most news executives are worried about journalism’s future. Nearly six in ten, 58%, believe the profession is headed in the “wrong direction,” while 41% see things moving in the “right” one.

    But there is a noticeable split here between newspaper executives and broadcast news executives. Members of ASNE, a newspaper-related organization, are narrowly more optimistic than pessimistic about journalism’s direction; 51% see things getting better vs. 49% who see them getting worse.

    Direction of Journalism Today

     
    Question: “Thinking about journalism overall in the U.S. today, do you think it is generally going in the right direction or the wrong direction?”

    Broadcast news executives who are members of RTDNA, by contrast, are strongly pessimistic. Only 35% of those who run TV or radio station newsrooms said the profession was headed in the right direction, while 64% thought it was going in the wrong direction.

    Another broad area of inquiry asked about fundamental values of the news business. The majority of news executives believe that the Internet is altering basic journalistic ethics, and more often in ways they find worrisome. Fully 59% said they thought “the Internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism.” Meanwhile, 40% said they thought those values are “transferring to the Internet.”

    Here again, however, we see a split between news executives working at newspapers and those from broadcast operations. Editors who came from newspaper organizations are less likely to think the Web is changing their values. Among this group, 53% think values are changing while 46% do not. Among broadcast news executives the number is 62% to 36%.

     

    Is the Internet Changing Fundamental Values of Journalism?

    Question: “Do you think that the Internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism or would you say that journalism’s fundamental values are transferring to the Internet?”

    Among those who see values changing, there is a broad consensus about the direction—  and it is primarily negative. When asked to explain what they meant, majorities of both groups appeared most worried about loosening standards (62% of newspaper executives and 67% among broadcasters), and the bulk of these responses referred to a decline in accuracy, a lessening of fact-checking, and more unsourced reporting.

    That was followed by, and closely linked to, an emphasis on speed, mostly in a negative light.

    “I worry that journalistic standards are dropping in that blogging and celebrity gossip and Tweets are being confused with reporting and editing that passes a rigorous standard,” wrote one broadcast executive.

    A newspaper executive echoed that, offering, “There is too much emphasis, I believe, on getting information fast—even at the expense of accuracy, thoroughness and fairness.”

    One broadcast leader cited coverage of the Tiger Woods story as an example of “a culture in which we don’t double check facts like we used to.” The respondent added, “We (the media) reported he was seriously hurt, then not seriously hurt, then involved in a scuffle with his wife.”

    Another concern, volunteered by over 10% of respondents, was increased opinion and bias. “[The] Internet is replacing facts with conjecture,” explained one broadcast news executive. “Opinion [is] being disguised as fact,” echoed another.

    Neither group of news executives, however, finds the growing role of citizens as significantly influencing the fundamentals of the industry. Just 5% of the news executives mentioned citizen engagement as a source of changing news values (with newspaper executives slightly higher at 7% and broadcast executives at 4%).

    Nor is the loss of the press’s exclusive role as gatekeeper of public knowledge at the forefront of change. Only 3% of newspaper executives and 1% of broadcasters volunteered greater access to news and information as an issue in changing standards.  

    How the Internet is Changing the Fundamental Values of Journalism

    Question: “If yes [the Internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism], in what way(s) is the Internet changing the fundamental values of journalism?” Note: Open-ended question; total may exceed 100% due to multiple responses.

    Executives have a complex and in some ways divided view of technology, seeing it as something that embodies risk and opportunity—the latter of which many feel they were slow to embrace. When we asked news executives to volunteer what they would do differently at their organization in the last 10 years if they could do it over again, the most common response was a greater and earlier investment in new technology.

    Some of the responses were blunt. The news industry, wrote one broadcaster, acted like the Internet was “likely a passing fad…”

    “[We should have] recognize[d] that the Web was the biggest opportunity this industry has ever been handed,” volunteered one ASNE member.

    Many others expressed frustration that their organizations resisted investing in technology unless there was a clear promise of immediate financial return. “Invest in new media, despite lack of revenue return,” one RTDNA member pleaded when asked what his operation might have done differently.

    “There should have been strategic planning to develop a blueprint for the changes in technology and platforms,” wrote another broadcast leader. “It should have included input from news-gathering staff so there would be a buy-in to a long-range plan.”

    The sense that companies were operating without strategic planning came through in various responses. 

    An executive from the newspaper side said the industry should have been “more innovative from a technology standpoint instead of letting everyone else pass us by.”

    And some saw the slowness to adapt to new technology repeating itself all over again with mobile tools.

    The next most common thing executives would do differently was hiring and training followed by changing their culture or approach.

    “[I wish we had] hired more kids earlier in the game and trained them in the old values. Then turned them loose to use the new technology to help distribute the product,” voiced a broadcast respondent. “I think we probably let the glitzy new tools distract us from the basic job of running a truly professional newsroom.”

    Among newspaper executives, though, there was a much stronger inclination to think that allowing content to be free was a major mistake. Fully 30% said they should have charged for content earlier, while only 3% of broadcasters did. Some of that difference may stem from the revenue structures of their legacy platforms. Broadcast stations, in their current form, derive no revenue from subscriptions, while newspapers today derive 20% or more from print circulation.

    What News Organizations Could Have Done Differently

    Question: “If you could do it over again, what one or two things could your news organization have done differently during the last 10 years to better prepare for the future?” Note: Open-ended question; responses grouped; total may exceed 100% due to multiple responses.

    To further probe how news companies might adapt in the future, the survey also asked news executives to rank various factors that had contributed to the current state of the industry. Here, the answers suggested both groups of news executives were more concerned with failures on the business side rather than the journalistic side. In short, news executives believe that missed opportunities to develop revenue have hurt more than any problems in attracting audiences or producing the news differently.

    Newspaper executives put the most blame on their failure to develop new revenue streams and secondarily on not charging for online content in the first place. For broadcasters, the biggest problem, also financial, was demanding profit margins that were too high. That was followed by the failure to develop new revenue streams. But broadcasters were next most likely to cite the quality of their content as being insufficient. That was one of the factors newspaper executives were least likely to cite.

    Both groups, though, clearly saw much of what happened as within their control. A mere 2% named technology itself as the dominant factor that had contributed to journalism’s current challenges and 37% said it was not a factor at all—27% of ASNE respondents and 42% from RTDNA said it was not a factor.

    Factors Leading to Journalism’s Current Challenges

    Question: “Here is a list of issues in journalism today. How big a factor do you think each has been in the industry’s current problems?”

    Considering the challenges facing the news industry now, one debate in journalism is whether traditional journalistic institutions brought some of the current problems on themselves by letting opportunities slip through their hands or whether these problems were inevitable. Could the news industry have moved more aggressively into areas where new competitors such as Monster.com, Realtor.com or even aggregators have moved in? Or was the fragmentation of the audience, the problems of advertising online and the loss of market share to new competitors going to occur no matter what?

    News executives in this survey are clearly divided. When asked what is more to blame for journalism’s problems—are they the inevitable result of technology or more a matter of missed opportunity—news executives are broken into three almost equal camps. A third see the problems as mostly a failure to adapt, about a third as inevitable and just over a third sensing a pretty even mix of the two.

    Newspaper executives, though less pessimistic overall about the direction of journalism, were more likely to find fault with their own industry’s failure to adapt (37% felt that way) than to think the industry’s problems were “unavoidable” (29%). Among broadcasters, the split was much more even (30% versus 32% respectively), with the most, 57%, squarely in the middle.

    From a strictly numerical standpoint, traditional journalism’s problems have more to do with revenue losses than with declining audience. In the last several years, for instance, the percentage declines in revenue for TV, radio and print have been close to double or in some cases even triple the rates of decline in audience. And something of a consensus is forming that for the news industry to survive, it must do more to innovate new revenue models, not just wait for conventional display and banner advertising to grow.

    There is much discussion, but little gathered information, about the extent to which the industry is experimenting with new models, whether experiments have yielded any positive results, or whether current demands to cut operations leave time and energy for this kind of innovation.

    The survey asked a battery of questions to try to get a more solid sense of what is happening. What we found is that, for now, the efforts at developing new revenue focus on fairly conventional options. That mix changes some as news executives look further out at where revenue might come from in the future. And there are significant differences in the way broadcast news executives see the future versus those who are working in newspaper-based news operations.

    When it comes to what news organizations are currently doing to generate more revenue, most companies are still looking to their advertising departments. The No. 1 area of effort is “concentrating more on display and banner advertising.” Fully 54% of news organizations listed this as one of the revenue streams they were pursuing “most actively.”

    To a significantly lesser degree, though still sizable, the No. 2 area news organizations are concentrating on for revenue is “non-news products.” In all, 38% of news organizations ranked this as among their two most active areas for new revenue.

    Search advertising, on the other hand, seems to have lost some of its steam. Over the last couple of years, networks like the Yahoo Initiative developed as ways to help news organizations capture the evolving local search market. But among executives surveyed here, it seems to now be less of a priority. In all, 26% listed building local search as a main area of activity, making it the No. 3 area of activity behind non-news revenue.

    Close behind, and even more popular among print, was trying to develop specialty or niche news products that could be charged for. In all, 23% ranked fees from specialty niche sites as one of their most active revenue pursuits, with 30% of newspaper organizations and 17% of broadcasters listing that option.

    Pay walls, the idea of charging people for content, at this point, appears to be more of an idea—and particularly among newspapers—than a reality. In all, only nine percent of executives named pay walls as one of their top two areas of development. Most of those responses came from newspaper executives, but even here, they were half as likely to name pay walls (15%) as to name non-news products or specialty niche products as their central revenue effort.

    Still another option that has received some attention lately is the idea that news organizations might become more aggressive about raising fees from aggregators, something Rupert Murdoch has reportedly talked about with Microsoft, among others. The actual activity in this area appears to be quite small. Just 5% of news organizations list it as among their two main areas of activity. Just 3% of news organizations described this as a major part of their actions, and another 7% a “small” part.

    We also probed this question of revenue experiments further, trying to get a more detailed sense of how important each one was to their news organizations. Was this revenue area a “major part” of their business efforts, a small part, something they are considering but not yet begun, or had they already considered but rejected it?

    Here the rankings were similar, but the details were revealing. Concentrating more on conventional advertising came out on top, but it did not stand out quite as distinctly. Overall only slightly more than a third (37%) called concentrating on display and banner ads a “major” part of their effort, though the numbers were higher for ASNE members than RTDNA (47% vs. 31% respectively). The numbers were similar for those who said it was now a “small part of our effort.”

    Nearly a quarter of all news organizations (22%) ranked non-news revenue products as “major,” and more than a third (38%) said they were acting on it in a “small way.” Nearly everyone had at least thought about it.

    On a national level, the most lucrative form of online advertising has proved to be search, though the market here is controlled largely by aggregators such as Google. But local search is still a largely undeveloped market. How aggressively are news operations working on developing local search?  Just a couple years ago, many were announcing partnerships with firms such as Yahoo and Google to develop things here. Now, that effort seems to offer less promise for many operations. Just 16% of news organizations described it as a major effort (14% newspapers and 17% broadcasters). Another quarter of news organizations (27%) said it was a “small” part of their effort, and here newspapers were more active (44% vs. 18% broadcasters). And 18% of news organizations said they were “considering” the option.

    Revenue Models being Pursued Most Actively

    Note: Question based on those who are trying two or more revenue models and asked “Of the revenue models you are trying, which two are your organization pursuing most actively?” Respondents were allowed up to two answers.

     
     
     
    If most news operations are not yet pursuing pay walls, newspaper executives at least clearly have them on their minds. Fully 58% of these executives said their organizations are looking at the pay wall option, again far more than among broadcasters (18%). And most news organizations have not written off the prospect entirely. Only 11% of news executives across both groups said they had considered and rejected pay walls. That number suggests that the moves here, if they occur, will be cautious. It also means that those newspapers that move toward pay walls may face the more difficult prospect of being pioneers. Some economists have suggested that the prospects of any news organization succeeding with a pay wall is much more difficult if that organization is doing it alone, as opposed to the industry shifting that way en masse. 

    Level of Experimentation with Fees from Subscription Pay WallS

    Question: “Here is a list of possible revenue streams people are talking about. Please tell us whether your organization is actively pursuing or considering each one.” 

    Another kind of subscription—paid specialty or microsites—is getting more actual activity, but not by much. In all, just 10% of those surveyed said specialty pay sites were a major part of their news organization’s efforts, though it was far more likely for newspapers (16%) than broadcasters (7%). Another quarter of news organizations (44% of newspapers and 13% of broadcasters) said specialty pay sites were a small part of their effort. And 23% of news organizations said they were now considering it (27% of newspapers and 21% of broadcasters). 

     
     
     
     

    Level of Experimentation with Fees from Specialty, Niche or Micro News Products

    Question: “Here is a list of possible revenue streams people are talking about. Please tell us whether your organization is actively pursuing or considering each one.”

    And what about one other idea—of embedding some kind of fee into what consumers already pay to Internet service providers? Only 2% of news organizations listed that as among their two main activities, and only 1% of news organizations (all of them broadcasters) called it a “major” effort. But it may grow. More than a quarter of newspapers said they were now considering this option. 

    Level of Experimentation with Revenue Embedded in Fees
    People Pay to Their Internet Providers

    Question: “Here is a list of possible revenue streams people are talking about. Please tell us whether your organization is actively pursuing or considering each one.”

    And still one other idea that has been around since the early days of the Internet may have some potential for growth—building retail activity into their websites from which they would derive “transaction fees.” While just 6% listed it as among their two main activities (and 4% called it a “major” effort), 21% said they were doing it at some level, and 22% were looking at it. The numbers are higher for newspapers; fully 26% were doing it at some level and 28% were considering it. 

    Level of Experimentation with Transaction Fees
    From Online Retail Activity

    Question: “Here is a list of possible revenue streams people are talking about. Please tell us whether your organization is actively pursuing or considering each one.”

    But large majorities of news organizations appear to be uninterested at this point in the prospect of nonprofit contributions, something that is an option being considered by Congress and by state legislatures. Fully 69% of news organizations said they haven’t considered that option (80% newspapers and 64% broadcasters).

    Level of Experimentation with Donations from Nonprofit Institutions

    Question: “Here is a list of possible revenue streams people are talking about. Please tell us whether your organization is actively pursuing or considering each one.”

    The survey then asked executives to look ahead further, beyond their current efforts, to what they thought would be the most important sources of revenue three years from now. Rather than foresee something substantially different, many of the current trends are expected to continue. Nearly 60% of respondents named some form of advertising as their primary revenue source in the future.

    Newspaper executives still believe the answer will be display ads more than anything else, 31%, even though there are growing questions about the efficacy of this kind of advertising online. Another 17% pin the future on increasing their share of search ad revenue. But, nearly a quarter of newspaper executives now believe that in three years their most important source of online revenue will be subscriptions.

    Most Important Revenue Source in Three Years

    Question: “Thinking about online revenues, which do you think will be the most important source for your organization in 3 years? (Please select one.)

    Broadcast executives put less hope in subscription revenue (just 11%) and instead think the biggest source will be video ads, 31%. That is followed closely by a good deal of hope in display ad growth, with 28% naming it first. Only 3% named search ads.

    There was also a significant minority who sense that some kind of revenue relationship with aggregators will become the central form of revenue: 11% of newspapers executives and 12% of broadcast. But, only a small fraction of executives have high hopes for an option that relies on civic stewardship—user donations.

    New Revenue and Ethics
    <!– info: Submitted by dpage on April 8, 2010 – 15:20. –>

     

    As they look forward, news executives have concerns about some of the funding ideas being discussed for journalism. And these concerns are similar among newspaper and broadcast executives, thus marking fairly clear lines on what news executives deem acceptable.

    The idea that draws the most concern is accepting money from interest groups that engage in advocacy of some kind. Nearly eight-in-ten surveyed (78%) had serious concerns about donations from groups of this sort. That can be a murkier line than it sounds. Some groups that fund advocacy can also fund groups that are educational. How much direct link can there be? If the organization is different but the funding source is the same, does that amount to interest group money? Such questions are harder to resolve.

    There was a similar level of overarching concern about accepting government money. Fully 75% of all news executives surveyed—and 88% of newspaper executives—said they had “serious reservations,” or the highest level of concern, about direct subsidies from the government. And about half (46%) have that level of concern over tax credits for news organizations. There was somewhat less reservation over tax credits directed at news consumers, with 38% having serious reservations and 24% saying they are neutral. Still, even in these dire economic times, only 19% would welcome such funding.

    There are bills in the Senate and House that would allow news organizations to accept individual nonprofit donations from private citizens, in the way that public radio and TV stations generate much of their revenue. News executives, however, seem to view this prospect as something of a slippery slope. Fully 39% have serious reservations about them, about half as many as with government subsidies, but another 31% have “some reservations.” Only two-in-ten would welcome or be enthusiastic about such revenue. And, going back to what they are actually trying at the moment, fully 74% say their organizations haven’t even begun to consider such an option.

    How about nonprofit funding from foundations, which has become a key funding mechanism for many citizen and start-up online news ventures? Here the feelings are more divided. Only a quarter are seriously opposed, with another quarter (27%) expressing some reservations. But 31% would welcome these funds. Again, though, few organizations have done much to develop these options. Majorities (80% of ASNE and 64% of RTDNA respondents) say their organizations have not considered it at all.

    News executives were often passionate in their reactions, both pro and con. “If the government becomes the ‘money bags’ for journalism, journalism will become the ‘bag man’ for the government,” wrote a member of RTDNA. “This would be an assault to the first amendment of the constitution.”

    “We must keep our independence or perception of independence and accepting government subsidies ties you to the government we are meant to watch,” explained an ASNE member, “The lines become too blurred if we begin taking donations and subsidies. Even if we remain aggressive in coverage why would readers believe we are independent?”

    And another simply wrote, “Government involvement in any form is a terrible idea. Ultimately, we either need to provide what people want or we go out of business.”

    Said another, “None of these are acceptable choices. Want to raise revenue. Produce a QUALITY product.”

     

    Serious Reservations over Alternative Funding (% Who Expressed Serious Reservations)

    Question: “Here are some alternative options for funding journalism. For each, please tell us if you have any reservations or would welcome such funding.” Those who responded “serious reservations” are represented in the chart above.

     

    The idea that some of the new revenue ideas might cross ethical boundaries is not just theoretical matter, either. More than a third of news executives (36%) said their organization had already tried or discussed some revenue experiment that raised concerns about ethics or editorial independence at the organization. Most of these related to the relationship between advertisers and news.

    The biggest area (cited by 38% of news organizations) related to ad sponsorship of specific content.

    About a quarter (26%) also said they were concerned about blurring lines between advertising and news, something that would be less transparent to audiences than sponsorship. While hardly a majority, the specific examples were striking. Among them:

    • “Paid product placement in news stories”
    • “Much more pressure to ‘interview’ advertisers. Have started allowing news anchors to do paid live reads and endorsements.”
    • “Our sales staff has ‘sold’ some interviews to our online experts. They don’t always offer great content, but a guest appearance is part of their sales package.”
    • “Sponsored segments.”
    • “The organization chart of our company places the news department under the sales director, not under a program director. The sales director developed an e-strategy that says it is important to have an internet presence but that we will only do things on the internet that can generate a profit or will be something a journalist wants to do that does not incur much expense. The news department is appalled.”
    • “Blurring the lines between ads and editorial space in the paper.”
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