April 12, 2010

News Leaders and the Future

News Executives, Skeptical of Government Subsidies, See Opportunity in Technology but Are Unsure About Revenue and the Future

America’s news executives are hesitant about many of the alternative funding ideas being discussed for journalism today and are overwhelmingly skeptical about the prospect of government financing, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in association with the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).

Many news executives also sense change for the better in their newsrooms today, despite cutbacks and declining revenue. Editors at newspaper-related companies praise the cultural shifts in their organizations, the younger tech-savvy staff, and a growing sense of experimentation. Many broadcast executives see so-called one-person crews—in which the same individual reports, produces and shoots video—as improving their journalism by getting more people on the street.

But the leaders of America’s newsrooms are nonetheless worried about the future. Fewer than half of all those surveyed are confident their operations will survive another 10 years—not without significant new sources of revenue. Nearly a third believe their operations are at risk in just five years or less.  And many blame the problems not on the inevitable effect of technology but on their industry’s missed opportunities.

“Our mantra this year is experiment and fail quickly,” one newspaper news executive volunteered. “Don’t be afraid of change and don’t stick with something too long if it doesn’t work.”

“Outside funding options are a bad idea overall,” one broadcast news executive offered. “They are being used to ‘save’ old models of journalism that are no longer economically viable and will die out over time no matter what.”

The survey found some significant differences in the attitudes between leaders of newspaper-based newsrooms and those of broadcast. Among them was their view of journalism’s future. Broadcast news executives were strikingly more pessimistic, with those who see journalism headed in the wrong direction outnumbering those who think it is headed in the right direction by almost two-to-one. Leaders of newspaper newsrooms, by contrast, are split, with a slight tilt toward optimism.

These are some of the findings of the survey, conducted from December 2009 through January 2010, of members of the two major groups representing news executives from the newspaper industry and the broadcast industries, ASNE and RTDNA, conducted with the Project for Excellence in Journalism. In all, 353 news executives responded, representing 36% of those surveyed from ASNE and 24% from RTDNA.

Among the findings:

  • Many of the new revenue options being debated today receive only limited or divided support from news executives. When it comes to the often-discussed option of pay walls for online content, for instance, only 10% say they are working on them, though that could change. Another 32% are considering them and just 11% have written off the idea. More than a third (35%) have not even considered them at all. Still, as they look ahead, only 15% of news executives believe pay walls will be a significant source of revenue in three years.
  • There is significant resistance, however, to other discussed revenue streams, particularly from the government or from groups that engage in advocacy. Fully 75% of news executives have serious reservations about receiving government subsidies, and 78% have significant resistance to financing from interest groups. Roughly half have significant worries about funds from government tax credits and more than a third have significant doubts about private donations.
  • Most of the effort online is focused instead on more conventional revenue sources. Display and banner online advertising, for all that it has failed to grow, is still the No. 1 area of effort and the one that news executives pin their greatest hopes on. But second is revenue from products outside of news.
  • Broadcast news executives are noticeably more pessimistic about journalism’s future than editors at newspaper-based operations. Broadcasters think their profession is headed in the wrong direction by a margin of nearly two-to-one (64% versus 35%). By contrast, editors working at newspapers were split (49% wrong direction versus 51% right direction). A year ago, journalists who were members of the Online News Association surveyed by PEJ fell in between these two, 54% wrong direction, 45% right.
  • And most news executives think the Internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism. Six out of ten feel this way—though executives from broadcast operations (62%) do so more than executives from newspapers (53%). And their biggest concern is loosening standards of accuracy and verification, much of it tied to the immediacy of the Web.
  • Mobile applications are becoming increasingly important. Three-quarters say mobile applications are essential or very important while just 35% say that of YouTube postings or other video websites.