Quick quiz: Which sector of the economy is facing such a bleak outlook that some analysts doubt it will ever recover? Housing? Autos? Wrong — it’s the news business! If you thought your favorite news outlet was a tad too negative, it may be because the journalists who work there are facing the worst job prospects of their career. According to the “State of the News Media 2007” just released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, “every media sector except for two is now losing popularity,” and one of those two — online news — has stopped growing. The only kind of news outlet seeing real growth is the ethnic press. Here’s what the report sees in other sectors of the business.
The evening network news programs have lost about a million viewers per year for the last 25 years, and now attract an audience of 26 million on a typical night. That puts their “rating” at 18, meaning 18% of all televisions are tuned to them on a given night, and their “share” of the televisions actually in use is 34 (34%). In 1969, the year I went off to college, the three evening news programs had a combined rating of 50 and a share of 85. In 1980, the year CNN started up, the network news programs had a 37 rating and a 75 share. It gets worse: the median age of their viewers is 60, meaning for every viewer below that age, there is one above. The morning news programs on the networks attract about half the audience of the evening programs, or 13.5 million. That’s exactly where they were in 1993, which presumably means a slippage in ratings given population growth.
The cable news story is bleaker. As with network news, the audience for cable news is declining. But the evening audience for cable news is falling much faster, about 12% in 2006, and at 2.5 million viewers the evening audience for the four cable news channels is only about a tenth of the audience for network news. During the day, cable news attracts an average audience of 1.5 million — less than one percent of the adults in the country. Bill O’Reilly of Fox is the highest rated “news” program on cable, but even he barely reaches two million viewers on a typical night in a country of 300 million souls.
Compared with the networks and cable, the decline in newspapers is less pronounced. Nonetheless, newspaper circulation has been gradually falling for two decades, and that decline may now be accelerating. Over the last three years, the combined circulation of newspapers in the U.S. is down 6.3% daily and 8% on Sundays. The decline is steeper among big metropolitan dailies, with the Los Angeles Times dropping 8% in a year, the Philadelphia Inquirer 8%, the Boston Globe 7% and the San Francisco Chronicle 5%. Even newspapers that circulate nationally, such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, are seeing slippage of 1-3% annually.
There are some positive trends, including the growing audience for National Public Radio (up 24% in the last five years) and the remarkable circulation gains of the Economist, which is bucking the trend of declining readership among newsweeklies. Also, some cities have powerhouse commercial news radio outlets such as WTOP in Washington and WINS in New York that deliver a good product and generate impressive ratings. Still, it appears that the public’s appetite for news in the traditional sense is waning. For example, among frequent consumers of online news, the time typically devoted to that pursuit is six minutes, compared with the 16 minutes radio listeners devote to news and the 15 minutes newspaper readers devote to their paper. Of course, the newspaper readers may be spending much of that time reading the sports section.
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