• Journalists today can find readers wherever there is access to the Internet. This is an enormous transformation after a century in which the reach of print journalism was limited by a company’s printing plants and trucks, and most broadcast news was tied to narrow geographic areas. Even when local newspapers expanded their circulation far beyond their metropolitan areas, the results were usually disappointing—the more geographically distant the reader, the less loyalty and interest in the content. (Three national newspapers—USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal—avoided most of those constraints by delivering national rather than local news in authoritative, attractive packages.) By contrast, publishing online means that any article or video will become immediately available around the world, at no added cost. Meanwhile, broadcast outlets’ reach, once defined largely by geographic and bandwidth constraints and enforced by regulatory agencies, is expanding. Their content is no longer limited to local markets and thus is less restricted by federal regulations.

Impact: Journalists and media companies can go where the audience is, expanding markets at low costs. But the advantages that went along with distribution limits—such as protection against new competitors—are disappearing.

• Digital platforms enable publishers to deploy their readers and viewers in publicizing and distributing their content. Print publishers used to tout the “pass-along audience”—people who didn’t buy a magazine or newspaper but picked it up in, say, a dentist’s office, and could therefore be counted as readers. Advertisers were often skeptical of the numbers, which depended on surveys of readers trying to remember if they read a publication they didn’t pay for. But digital news organizations can track precisely how people share content—a few years ago mainly by e-mail, and now also by social media like Facebook and Twitter. For journalists, such distribution helps validate and publicize their work.

Impact: Publishers get free distribution with excellent, real-time information. At the same time, they are losing control of the distribution platform that generated such healthy profits. And they have less say over how their content is portrayed; sometimes users post links and add a dollop of nasty criticism.

III. What’s Happening To Consumers?

• News organizations can more easily build new audiences centered on specialized topics or interests. Because everything online is instantaneously and ubiquitously available, it’s far easier to create offerings of more focused content and find users no matter where they live. Fans of a city’s football team may be spread around the world, but a news organization can build a site that will draw a substantial audience.

Impact: Highly focused audiences can provide more value to advertisers. But separating audiences into too many niches can bring on a new set of problems. Consumers may find that dealing with multiple content providers—with few guideposts to judge the quality or authority of the source—isn’t worth the bother.

• Publishers have more information about their readers, in real time.
Whether a citizen is using free Google Analytics on a blog, or a mainstream organization is deploying more sophisticated usage-tracking services like Omniture or Chartbeat, journalists know much more about who’s viewing their content, where the audience is coming from, and how it is engaged. Unfortunately, many of these numbers are unreliable, misconstrued, and prone to exaggeration. Usage estimates often vary by 200 percent or more. This issue was explored in detail in a report last year by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Metrics have always been challenging for advertisers, especially in the broadcast world. But as the Tow report notes, digital media have failed to come up with common standards; they have not yet settled on metrics, whatever their flaws, as broadcast media did a generation ago. “It is a long-appreciated irony of media measurement that accuracy matters less than consensus,” the report said. “Doubts don’t matter much as long as no competitor is seen to benefit.”

Impact: Media companies can measure the popularity of articles, videos, or sections and adjust their strategy to maximize revenue and audience. But uncertainty around metrics inhibits advertisers from investing fully in the digital marketplace and depresses advertising rates for those who do take part.

• Digital platforms fundamentally change the customer experience, in ways that are both advantageous and harmful for news organizations’ economics. Publishers can now capture highly valuable bits of user information, ranging from areas of interest to credit-card numbers. But new media rarely provide the immersive experience found in traditional platforms. Many users keep numerous sites open on tabs in their web browsers and don’t focus on any one for very long; they often come to a news site through a search and quickly leave for another. Links to other sites provide value to readers but also send them elsewhere, sometimes never to return.

Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave, and Lucas Graves are the co-authors of "The Story so Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism." Grueskin is dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Seave is a principal of Quantum Media, a NYC-based consulting firm. Graves is a PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University. For further biographical details, click here.