We may be trading dominance by communications conglomerates for dominance by a handful of gargantuan technology companies that are emerging as prime arbiters of our news feeds.
Given the recent flap over Facebook’s censorship of certain trending news, that could be a growing concern, rivaling worries over the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s influence over what is considered news.
It is no secret that newspaper circulation has continued to dive as many print publications have struggled to cash in on their digital siblings. But it has gone relatively unnoticed that eyeballs tracking the news have shifted so dramatically to Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter – with $40 billion in digital advertising trailing along.
Microsoft’s $26 billion purchase of LinkedIn puts it alongside Google, Facebook and Apple as digital platforms intent on creating bubbles that users never have to leave to do their work, share information, network with friends or potential employers, be entertained and view the news.
According to the Pew Research Center's 2016 State of the News Media report, 2015 was the worst year for newspapers since the Great Recession. Circulation dropped 7 percent, advertising fell 8 percent and newsroom staffing shrunk 10 percent.
Michael Barthel, a Pew research associate focusing on journalism research, speculated, “Coming amid a wave of consolidation, this accelerating decline suggests the industry may be past its point of no return."
Meanwhile, TV and cable news operations held their own, thanks in part to a long and lively presidential primary season with lots of candidates and SuperPacs. News podcasting and live streaming are experiencing audience growth, but not revenue growth. If there is good news, they also are not cannibalizing traditional radio listenership and revenues, Barthel says.
Mobile devices are gobbling up audience attention and attracting more ad bucks -- and Google and Facebook are raking in the lion's share. The transition is more rapid than some may realize, with mobile advertising now outpacing advertising geared for desktop devices.
The question begged by the mounds of data in the Pew media report is “So, what does it all mean?” For one, it’s clear people appear more, not less interested in the news. They are shifting where they get their news, which is pulling advertising to new places and creating a demand for different types of advertising. But there is no promise current trends will persist. They may just be dog legs to the left on a course that is inexorably going into a water hazard on the right.
It seems obvious there is increased channel segmentation and a sharp divide in the news viewing habits of younger and older adults. But where does that lead? In an age of videos and visuals, why are audio-only communications picking up steam? Will cable TV news retains its appeal after the November election? Would TV networks and stations have benefited as much by a more traditional contest such as Hillary Clinton versus a candidate like John Kasich?
Local TV stations have been buoyed by the buzz and business bump of morning TV shows, which feed into national news TV shows. Even evening TV news shows, which have been stretched over a range of “getting home” times, are prospering or at least holding their own. But how is this sustainable when younger adults no longer tune into traditional TV?
Media trends have a remarkable ability to mirror general societal trends. They show, as Pew reports, that people still thirst for news, but are willing to gravitate to different platforms and non-traditional sources to find it. Apple and Yahoo aren’t permanent emplacements. They can be as temporary as yesteryear must-sees, such as “Laugh In” and “Dallas.”
One thing is clear. In times past, all people could do is complain about the faults of their local newspaper or the bias of TV networks. But there is a lot more to fret about today when it comes to the news.