The news media in 2015: More mobile, less engaged

The Pew Research Center released its 2015 State of the News Media today, a 94-page assessment of American journalism. In its 14th year, the report provides a reliably bleak look at how well new and legacy media are adapting to the changing behaviors of consumers and advertisers — and, something less often explored, their societal implications.

A big takeaway: Most news sites are getting more traffic coming from mobile, but those readers don’t stick around as long as those on desktop. And the big platforms continue to dominate the online ad market.

“While new relationships have been struck between news organizations and tech companies like Facebook, the tech companies still control more of the arrangement and reap most of the financial benefit,” stated the report.

There were a few bright spots: Local news is picking up some new audiences, and some digital news outlets are doing good work. Here’s the full report. And here’s the speed-read version:

It’s a mobile, mobile, mobile world
Thirty-nine of the top 50 news sites started 2015 with more traffic on mobile than on desktop, among them Yahoo-ABC News, CNN and the Huffington Post. (Notable exceptions include MSN, the BBC and CNET.)

Along with the rise of mobile, people increasingly are getting their news from Facebook, where what users see is driven by their friends (and, to an extent, the Facebook algorithm), which means that “gaining a foothold there may be even more elusive,” worried Pew. The problem, of course, is that Facebook regularly tweaks its algorithm, to the potential detriment of publishers.

Also, mobile and socially driven visitors are less attractive to advertisers (and therefore publishers) because their visits tend to be shorter than desktop ones, according to comScore and Pew.

Digital transformation is hard
Digital ad revenue across all media grew 18 percent in 2014, according to eMarketer. But for most legacy media outlets like newspapers and magazines, digital is still a small part — 17.5 percent, in the case of newspapers — of their overall business.

But so is being digital-first
Last year at this time, there was a lot of optimism around all the tech and VC money being sunk into established and new outlets like The New Republic, The Washington Post and Mashable. There are some bright spots: BuzzFeed has done some impressive investigative reporting, Jeff Bezos has helped the Post continue to innovate.

But there also have been speed bumps. BuzzFeed has taken down articles that were unkind to advertisers and First Look and The New Republic have been roiled by clashes between journalists and management, revealing, said Pew, “the financial and journalistic challenges that exist even for news outlets with a digital-first approach.”

Nonprofit news is risky
In the search for secure models for news, it’s tempting to find hope in the nonprofit models that have sprouted up, from the Texas Tribune to The Lens, a New Orleans-based investigative project. But while the Texas Tribune has grown, to a budget of more than $7 million, the Lens has scaled back for a shortage of funding.

Facebook, however, is doing just fine
Digital display makes up 28 percent of digital advertising, and Facebook gets more digital display ads than anyone, gobbling up 24 percent of all digital display and 37 percent of mobile display. It’s also assumed a bigger role in sending referral traffic to publishers, accounting for one-fourth of their traffic. But it makes for an unsteady platform, as Facebook can dial up or down the amount of publishers’ content people see in their feeds, as it did just last week.

Watch out, Google
Google still gets the biggest share of online advertising (38 percent), but Facebook is growing faster. Its share of display was 24 percent in 2014, up from 19 percent in 2013, while Google was unchanged at 14 percent. The pattern is similar in mobile, where Facebook’s share of the display ad pie rose to 35 percent from 29 percent in the same period. Google’s share (12 percent) was unchanged.

The banner’s not dead
The banner made up 49 percent of display, although that share has declined. But video display ads are growing faster than any segment of digital advertising. Video advertising rose 56 percent in 2014, to account for 27 percent of display ads, according to eMarketer.

Traditional publishing is still struggling
Several media conglomerates including Time Inc., Gannett and Tribune have spun off their publishing arms so they wouldn’t be dragged down by those slower-growth divisions. For all the talk about the digital transformation, most of the newspaper and magazine business is still print-based, with digital failing to replace what’s being lost in print. Fifty-six percent of newspaper readers only read the publication in print — and people who read newspapers still tend to be above-average earners and white.

Don’t write off all of legacy media
Cable news is down 8 percent in prime-time viewing. Newspapers continued their slow decline, with daily and Sunday print circulation off 3 percent in 2014. Hispanic-aimed media are struggling to find their footing with a growing population that is native born and both English- and Spanish-speaking. But local and network TV is capturing viewers, as shown by slight increases in evening news audiences.

Podcasting is having a moment
The ubiquity of smartphones has given rise to new ways of getting the news and could give a lift to audio journalism. Podcasts are growing, albeit from a small base, as reflected in last year’s sudden popularity of crime podcast “Serial.” Seventeen percent of people 12 and up have listened to a podcast in the past month, up from 9 percent in 2008, according to Edison Research.

Similarly, said Edison, mobile devices are fostering the growth of online radio listening, with more than half of people 12 and up listening to online radio in the past month. Meanwhile, traditional AM/FM radio is holding its own, with the share of people listening in the past week unchanged at 91 percent in the past year, according to Pew.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.