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.
This report focuses on news organizations that do original journalism, defined for our purposes as independent fact-finding undertaken for the benefit of communities of citizens. Those communities can be defined in the traditional way, by geography, but can also be brought together by topics or commonalities of interest. We also look into media companies that aggregate content and generate traffic in the process.
We confine our report mostly to for-profit news enterprises. We recognize the outstanding work done by such national organizations as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting, as well as local sites like Voice of San Diego and MinnPost. But for the purposes of this study, we felt it was more valuable to spend our time examining organizations that rely as much as possible on the commercial market.
We do have a bias: We think the world needs journalism and journalists. We welcome the tremendous access people now have to data and information, but much of what Americans need to know will go unreported and unexposed without skilled, independent journalists doing their work. That work can include reporting and editing in the traditional way, as well as aggregating information from other sources, or sorting and presenting data to make it accessible and understandable.
We decided to restrict our studies mostly to the U.S. market. We found the domestic news scene to be a rich and textured one, with plenty of complexity of its own, though we appreciate that a great deal of innovation is taking place beyond U.S. borders.
We define digital journalism broadly. While many publishers still see it as an online phenomenon—that is, displaying content on a PC screen via the Internet—we have included other platforms, including hand-held devices and tablets.
We found several challenges in preparing this study. First, while a great deal of data about digital ventures is available, much of it is unverifiable. Small startups and other private companies have no legal reporting requirements, so some of the figures we cite here are taken with appreciation and on good faith. Further, digital revenue is still such a small sliver of the total for publicly traded companies that, when it is broken out at all, it is rarely displayed in such a way that reveals how much comes from a particular station or publication. And it often isn’t clear how much of a company’s stated digital revenue represents genuinely new income as opposed to legacy dollars reapportioned to online businesses.
We sought to make this report accessible to newcomers and useful to those who have spent years in this field. We have tried to explain such terms as “CPM” (cost per thousand of views) and “impressions” (advertising spaces on a digital page) in the text. And we have tried to be as rigorous as possible in examining numbers that media companies provide when describing their digital results. We also consulted a number of secondary sources to provide background and data unavailable elsewhere. These included important texts from the dawn of the digital age, such as Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab, and more recent books, such as James Hamilton’s All The News that’s Fit to Sell and Information Rules by Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian. Of course, we also relied on more current sources, particularly such sites as paidcontent.org, niemanlab.org, and cjr.org.
But the bulk of the research in this report is based on a series of interviews we did in late 2010 and early 2011. We visited mainstream print and broadcast organizations with rich histories and Pulitzers and duPonts lining the walls; we also interviewed the founders and editors of innovative new journalistic enterprises. In most cases, publishers and editors were open, candid, and willing to be quoted on the record. In a few instances, we decided to trade confidentiality for access to internal numbers or insights that would not otherwise be available.