Ain’t No Sunshine

Posted on March 17th, 2009 by

It’s National Sunshine Week – an annual effort to highlight the importance of transparency in government. Though journalists are the primary organizers, the importance of freedom of information extends to all of us. (You knew our library is part of the Federal Depository library system, didn’t you? That’s why we have publications ranging from US Geological Survey reports to the Watergate hearings on our shelves.)

However, the news is anything but sunny. The latest State of the News Media report was issued on Monday, and it’s the bleakest ever. Americans go online for their news these days, and news organizations haven’t figured out how to pay their bills as they meet their readership there.

Even before the recession, the fundamental question facing journalism was whether the news industry could win a race against the clock for survival: could it find new ways to underwrite the gathering of news online, while using the declining revenue of the old platforms to finance the transition?

In the last year, two important things happened that have effectively shortened the time left on that clock.

First, the hastening audience migration to the Web means the news industry has to reinvent itself sooner than it thought—even if most of those people are going to traditional news destinations. At least in the short run, a bigger online audience has worsened things for legacy news sites, not helped them.

Then came the collapsing economy. The numbers are only guesses, but executives estimate that the recession at least doubled the revenue losses in the news industry in 2008, perhaps more in network television. Even more important, it swamped most of the efforts at finding new sources of revenue. In trying to reinvent the business, 2008 may have been a lost year, and 2009 threatens to be the same.

Imagine someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke, suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness.

Journalism, deluded by its profitability and fearful of technology, let others outside the industry steal chance after chance online. By 2008, the industry had finally begun to get serious. Now the global recession has made that harder. . . .

Much of what we have noted in the past holds true. The old media have held onto their audience even as consumers migrate online. In 2008, audience gains at sites offering legacy news were far larger than those for new media. The old norms of traditional journalism continue to have value. And when you look at the numbers closely, consumers are not just retreating to ideological places for news.

The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem. It is a revenue problem—the decoupling, as we have described it before, of advertising from news.

Meanwhile, Time Magazine calls the Strib is one of the ten most endangered newspapers in the country – and they predict most of them will fail in the next 18 months. The failure of the fourth estate is very troubling for our society’s ability to know what’s going on. If we want news – and all the evidence suggests we consume it just as hungrily as ever – we’re going to have to figure out a new way to fund news gathering.


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