To download the complete version of "The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism," a new report on digital news economics from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, click here.
• Digital disrupts the aggregation model that was so profitable for so long. Almost no one used to read the entire newspaper every morning, and audiences frequently tuned in and out of the network news at night. Yet news organizations sold their advertising as if every page was turned and every moment was viewed. Indeed, print publications applied a multiplier—often up to 2.5 readers—to account for the audience for each edition they sold. And advertisers bought it, because, well, those were the rules. But in the online world, content has become atomized, with each article existing independently of the next. It is as seamless for a reader to go from a tallahasseedemocrat.com story to a video on msnbc.com as it is to read back-to-back stories in Esquire magazine. The economic consequences of this fickle information-gathering are devastating for legacy news organizations, especially because they have ceded many of the benefits of aggregation to sources like Drudge Report, Huffington Post, and Google News. Says Michael Golden, vice chairman and president of The New York Times Co.: “We’ve lost the power of the package.”
Impact: News relevant to a particular audience can be assembled cheaply and easily, with significant benefit for readers seeking divergent and even competing points of view. But low-cost aggregators compete with content creators for page views, and often win. In the words of Aaron Kushner, an investor trying to buy the Boston Globe, “The definition of a competitor now is someone who gives away your story for free.”
• 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.