Is the Internet Really Destroying Newspapers?

May 18th, 2008

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) is a superb research organization funded by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Its website is a rich treasure trove of research, analysis and commentary tackling the challenge of “understanding news in the digital age.”

PEJ’s flagship report is its annual State of the News Media. The 2008 edition was published on March 17th, 2008. The report covers not just newspapers, but television, magazines, radio, online and more. The full report is some 700 pages, highly-readable, and exhaustive – but also exhausting. I quote from parts of the report in various sections of this site.

PEJ drops a little bombshell in the introduction and overview to the 2008 report. While acknowledging that “state of the American news media in 2008 is more troubled than a year ago,” it continues that “the problems, increasingly, appear to be different than many experts have predicted.”

Pointing to Chris Anderson’s famous The Long Tail theory, it states that “critics have tended to see technology democratizing the media and traditional journalism in decline. Audiences, they say, are fragmenting across new information sources, breaking the grip of media elites. Some people even advocate the notion of “The Long Tail,” the idea that, with the Web’s infinite potential for depth, millions of niche markets could be bigger than the old mass market dominated by large companies and producers.”

However, the introduction continues, “the reality, increasingly, appears more complex. Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience than in the legacy media (emphasis mine). The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists (emphasis mine).”

As I’ve pointed out repeatedly on this site, and others never tire to reiterate, newspapers are unquestionably facing serious circulation and revenue challenges. But as the heavily-concentrated newspaper industry slowly adjusts to the new economic realities of the Web, and quite conceivably masters them, they may find their brands stronger than ever.