Pew Research Center

The Face of News Media Keeps Changing

Newspapers continue to decline while more readers get their news via mobile devices, which has pulled advertisers into new platforms and still-emerging forms of advertising content.

Newspapers continue to decline while more readers get their news via mobile devices, which has pulled advertisers into new platforms and still-emerging forms of advertising content.

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.

Facebook in the News for News Bias

Facebook faces new scrutiny as a news provider after a Gizmodo journalist exposed a liberal bias behind the company's Trending stories feature. Hoping to smooth things over, Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg says he plans to meet with conservative leaders to explain how the tool the works. 

Facebook faces new scrutiny as a news provider after a Gizmodo journalist exposed a liberal bias behind the company's Trending stories feature. Hoping to smooth things over, Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg says he plans to meet with conservative leaders to explain how the tool the works. 

Facebook has continued to surge as the leading social media site to become a trusted news source. But news reporting suggests that it’s Trending stories may be different than advertised.

With a billion active daily users, Facebook is a commanding platform for news. In the United States, 41 percent of adults are on Facebook and nearly two-thirds of the site’s users say they get their news there, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

However, one of Facebook’s key news features – the Trending story box located in the upper right corner of the newsfeed – isn’t as objective or automated as Facebook proclaims. In reality, the workers behind the scenes – called curators – apparently have kept popular conservative stories from showing up in the feed.

Gizmodo technology editor Michael Nunez broke the news in a series of stories over the last two weeks, picking apart the inner workings of the Trending news team.

“Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation,” Nunez concluded after interviewing a handful of former Facebook contractors hired for the project. “Imposing human editorial values onto the lists of topics an algorithm spits out is by no means a bad thing, but it is in stark contrast to the company’s claims that the trending module simply lists ‘topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.’”

The Trending feature has been marketed more or less as an automated aggregator that pulls in and promotes the most popular stories on the web. However, the operation actually relies on a lot of help from real people who handpick what makes it on the list and what gets cut, regardless of how much web traffic a story attracts. As Nunez learned, the sausage-making is heavily shaped by personal biases.

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,’ said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. ‘I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”

Facebook executives initially denied allegations of censorship and liberal bias in their news promotion, but they now admit the company’s curators exercise some editorial control over the Trending section. The Guardian’s Sam Thielman dug much deeper into the situation after receiving leaked internal guidelines that not only confirmed Nunez’ reporting, but revealed how deep the rabbit hole really goes:  

“The guidelines show human intervention – and therefore editorial decisions – at almost every stage of Facebook’s trending news operation, a team that at one time was as few as 12 people:

  • A team of news editors working in shifts around the clock was instructed on how to ‘inject’ stories into the trending topics module, and how to ‘blacklist’ topics for removal for up to a day over reasons including ‘doesn’t represent a real-world event,’ left to the discretion of the editors.
  • The company wrote that ‘the editorial team CAN [sic] inject a newsworthy topic’ as well if users create something that attracts a lot of attention, for example #BlackLivesMatter.
  • Facebook relies heavily on just 10 news sources to determine whether a trending news story has editorial authority. ‘You should mark a topic as ‘National Story’ importance if it is among the 1-3 top stories of the day,’ reads the trending review guidelines for the US. ‘We measure this by checking if it is leading at least 5 of the following 10 news websites: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo.’
  • Strict guidelines are enforced around Facebook’s ‘involved in this story’ feature, which pulls information from Facebook pages of newsmakers – say, a sports star or a famous author. The guidelines give editors ways to determine which users’ pages are appropriate to cite, and how prominently.”

Following the eye-opening reporting, media scholars, journalists and news consumers alike are taking a collective pause to reconsider Facebook’s role as a news source. The stories could be a game-changer for the site, which continues to outpace the online marketplace in raising ad revenue, partly due to how heavily the public has come to rely on Facebook for news.

Not surprisingly, the strongest reaction has come from right-wing pundits and news organizations and conservative politicians. Key Republican leaders, like Congressman John Thune who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee , are demanding an explanation from Facebook and an investigation into how its Trending section works.

Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg plans to meet with conservative leaders to discuss the controversy over the next few weeks. That will be particularly awkward for Zuckerberg, considering that Facebook is sponsoring this summer’s GOP convention. 

The company launched the Trending feature in 2014, hiring a small team of young, Ivy League-educated journalists to serve as its curators. The group is responsible for writing headlines and summaries and linking back to news stories inside the Trending feed. The curators work on a contract basis, and Facebook seems to be showing signs of cutting the contractors and moving instead to a more automated operation as the company improves its algorithm.

Exactly how this flurry of scrutiny will reshape Facebook’s Trending section and the social network's role as a news provider will take some time to play out. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist.

Media Health Report: Changed But Stabilizing?

The iPad and other digital devices are surging as the preferred source of news, leaving the newspaper world in a search for new business models.

Despite continuing rapid changes in some media industrial sectors in 2010, the media world as a whole appears a bit more stable than it has been in recent years. Whether a temporary or longer-term trend, that appears to be the hopeful note found in the annual State of the News Media report released last month by the Pew Research Center.

The report is a gold mine of data and trend analysis produced each year by Pew’s Project For Excellence in Journalism. This year’s study contains a series of special reports, such as a survey on how people use mobile technology to get local news; a report comparing the U.S. newspaper industry with the rest of the world’s and two reports on community news websites.

“By several measures, the state of the American news media improved in 2010. After two dreadful years, most sectors of the industry saw revenue begin to recover. With some notable exceptions, cutbacks in newsrooms eased,” study authors note in the overview.