The news media in transition: the decline of online news?

27 June 2012

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

It’s no news to anyone that the rise of the Internet has undermined the funding model for legacy media. A recent Pew study found that media publications are losing seven dollars in print revenue for every dollar gained through digital revenue. While finding a viable funding model is a clear issue facing news journalism, an important consequence of this transition to online content is that reporting is suffering. Is there a future for intelligent news reporting and in-depth reports, and is the public becoming less informed in the digital switch?

A study detailing the state of the media in the US city of Baltimore found that although stories containing new information were read primarily in the local paper, The Baltimore Sun, the paper itself produced 32 per cent fewer stories in 2009 than it did in 1999. The state of the media in Baltimore is indicative of print media as it is today. The public is still turning to their local paper for news, but they are receiving less information all the time.

In surviving with declining revenue, papers have already been delivering less content. But there will come a time when papers are abandoned as widely read news sources, and it will be up to news websites to not only make up this shortfall in quantity and quality, but also to make money while doing it. 2011 saw a 17.2 per cent increase in traffic for news website, just from the previous year’s figures, representing the gradual changing of the times.

The main problem is that while the transition from print to the online platform is underway, journalistic quality is arguably declining, and there simply aren’t enough resources or people to pick up the slack. The variety of choices granted by the Internet, together with the need to keep costs low, could signal a troubling future for journalism. When 80 per cent of Americans say they refuse to pay for online news content, it appears that most people would seemingly rather receive poorer quality news online than pay for it.

As media blogger Dan McCarthy writes, ‘the paid circulation strategy of newspapers limited the number of people that would be reached in the market, but allowed the newspapers to spend more on content — a reasonable proxy for quality — than any other local media outlet.’ In the online world of choice these principles are increasingly irrelevant. Paid circulation becomes unpopular, but people still expect the same journalistic standards that were only possible due to the legacy media model.

An interesting player in the online news landscape is ‘the internet newspaper,’ The Huffington Post. While there are many intelligent articles covering serious political issues, these are placed alongside the latest celebrity gossip updates and popular Saturday Night Live skits. As with newspapers, a range of content is provided under a single masthead, meaning people interested in celebrity divorces  and TV drama episode recaps are generating revenue not only for these areas, but for articles on political and social issues as well.

While The Huffington Post does feature unpaid volunteer bloggers, including celebrities and academics, such blogs receive very little traffic in comparison to paid pieces. Even so, one could view this use of expert volunteers as an added bonus of widespread popularity, helped by the wide range of other content provided. Nonetheless The Huffington Post is important in demonstrating that in order to stay financially viable, news sites may have to provide some level of inexpensive or popular content.

There will always be some hope in the public sector. Public service media, such as the BBC and ABC news branches, will continue to produce informative and well-researched pieces. However, these could be the exceptions to the rule, unburdened by the need to stand out in the vast expanses of online news media and entertainment.

‘The news-hungry public has perhaps a few years left of professional and comprehensive news coverage at its disposal’, claims PC Mag’s John C. Dvorak.

The New York Times saw the need to sell web content early. With almost half a million online subscribers, they have managed to generate some revenue to limit the decline of their journalistic standards. This is a benefit to their back pocket while keeping readers well informed, demonstrating that the online platform can be beneficial for reaching a wider base.

It remains to be seen if other established newspapers, such as The Guardian, will continue to have the funds to invest in foreign correspondents and time-consuming investigative reports, or if such content will be replaced by more general material. What we could end up with is a few highly respected online news outlets amongst thousands of niche blogs and general news aggregators.

There will always be sources of quality news content online. It’s just that these may increasingly serve a niche market, especially if they need to charge for their content. Even if a few publications do rise to particular prominence online by covering global news issues, more localised content will still suffer. Particularly in this area it could be a matter of time before the well of print news dries up and users are left with a plethora of sub-standard online infotainment sources.

Tim Viney is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University.