Digital journalism is in vogue, but can it overtake TV news?

WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly a decade since digital news unseated print as Americans’ preferred source of written journalism. Whether on a desktop, laptop or mobile device, the number of consumers reading their news on screens instead of paper is skyrocketing. But television still reigns supreme among news media — can digital one day come out on top?

“Not unless the advertising dollars are there,” said Rebecca Baker, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and deputy head of news at the New York Daily News. “That’s what drives everything.”

She notes a key part of digital journalism’s popularity is its convenience; when news breaks, people who aren’t near a TV will turn to what’s most readily available: their smartphones.

Rebecca Baker, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and deputy head of news at the New York Daily News. (LinkedIn/Rebecca Baker)

Rebecca Baker, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and deputy head of news at the New York Daily News. (LinkedIn/Rebecca Baker)

“But the digital advertising revenue — it’s still nowhere near what a commercial is or what newspapers charge,” Baker said. “The print advertising and broadcast advertising still are pulling in the vast majority of the dollars, which funds the journalism.”

As of January 1999, 42 percent of Americans got most of their news about national and international issues from newspapers, while just 6 percent did so online, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center. Participants could name up to two news sources and 1999 marked the first time data on digital news consumption was available. By December 2008, preferences for newspapers and internet news had shifted to 35 and 40 percent, respectively. In just under a decade, the new kid on the block had taken over. Online news also bested radio (18 percent) and magazines (5 percent) that year — but not TV (70 percent).

(Pew Research Center, Dec. 23, 2008)

(Pew Research Center, Dec. 23, 2008)

Television news, whether cable, network or local, is still king, according to the 2016 Pew report “The Modern News Consumer.” Last year’s data indicate 57 percent of Americans often get news on TV, 38 percent online, 25 percent via radio and 20 percent in print.

The report concluded, “TV’s staying power over print is buttressed by the fact that Americans who prefer to watch news still choose TV, while most of those who prefer to read the news have migrated online.”

(Pew Research Center, July 7, 2016)

(Pew Research Center, July 7, 2016)

Still, a 2016 report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism cautions that TV news must evolve to remain competitive in a digital world. In “What Is Happening to Television News?” co-authors Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Richard Sambrook write, “Television news as we know it, from evening bulletins to 24-hour news channels, increasingly serves the past, not the future, and television news producers have to experiment with new formats and forms of distribution if they wish to remain relevant.”

HuffPost reporter Travis Waldron asserts that despite the speedy gains digital journalism has made in the last 10 years, it’s still playing catch-up with TV news.

“I think we’re still behind — significantly behind — TV,” he said. “The strategy that so many digital outlets have is sort of a mimicking of TV … It’s kind of doing what TV’s good at but in a digital space, which is video, both short- and long-form video.”

Waldron agrees with Baker that the staying power of digital news will be heavily influenced by ad revenue.

HuffPost reporter Travis Waldron. (HuffPost)

HuffPost reporter Travis Waldron. (HuffPost)

“On the news side, I think [TV is] certainly more reliable than, say, a venture capital-funded digital outlet is,” he said. “Because there’s so much pressure for that outlet to produce a revenue number that may or may not be sustainable.”

Digital news enterprises must also contend with Google and Facebook, two tech giants Waldron notes drive web traffic but also command online advertising dollars. He says it is important to examine “how much we rely on Facebook and Google searching to get traffic and then how much of the ad revenue they’re taking as opposed to the ad revenue that’s available to digital news sites.”

He added, “Online news consumption is one thing, but the question is are they consuming it from the sites themselves or largely through Facebook?”

(Visual Capitalist, Dec. 9, 2016)

(Visual Capitalist, Dec. 9, 2016)

“The digital advertising landscape is changing very quickly,” said Jonathan Make, president of the D.C. Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and executive editor of Warren Communications News. “What seems to be changing is where that growth is occurring. It used to be things like display ads and now you’re seeing growth in more sophisticated forms of digital media and marketing.”

Make cites digital video advertising as a prime example.

“Online video has been a very big area of advertising growth,” he said. “You see that reflected in even the legacy media organizations, increasing the amount of content they produce on online video.”

Jonathan Make, president of the D.C. Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and executive editor of Warren Communications News. (Courtesy Jonathan Make)

Jonathan Make, president of the D.C. Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and executive editor of Warren Communications News. (Courtesy Jonathan Make)

Make added, “TV, I’m sure, is going to continue to be a large advertising medium, but from all I see, the growth is in digital.”

When Waldron started at the University of Kentucky’s student-run newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, in 2006, he admits it barely had a functioning website. When he took on his first internship at a major daily newspaper the next year, he says it was still print-focused.

Now, just 10 years later, from The Los Angeles Times and MSNBC to small-town papers and local TV stations, there are few print and television news outlets that don’t also have a tailored web and social media presence. With the onset of podcasts, radio stations, too, have adapted to stake their claim in the digital space. In that vein, internet-born news outlets are now producing TV-like packages.

Waldron says the future of news may not necessarily be a competition between digital, print and broadcast journalism; in a sense, they’ve already evolved into a multimedia hybrid.

“I think the lines are sort of blurring on all of this, both in the style of the content, the type of the content, and who’s producing the content and who’s funding the content,” he said.

Baker seconded, “Every newsroom in the nation is multimedia now.”

Waldron alluded to The Washington Post as a successful model of print-digital fusion.

“So much of what makes The Washington Post good and what’s made The Washington Post profitable,” he said, “is that they’re great at digital content that combines video, quality video, quality internet-driven content and web content that is still in the style of great print content.”

Margaret Sullivan, a Washington Post media columnist, says this is because the 140-year-old D.C. staple operates in a digital-first newsroom.

“The Post is very enthusiastic about digital,” she said. “Print is, I would say, something of an afterthought at this point.

Americans’ consumption of digital journalism is nearing that of TV news, according to a September Pew Research Center study. This year, 50 percent of adults said they often get their news from television, while 43 percent preferred online — narrowing 2016’s 19-point gap to 7. The study shows that in all four age groups, 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65+, digital news increased in popularity in the last year and TV news declined.

Pew Research Center, Sept. 7, 2017)

Pew Research Center, Sept. 7, 2017)

Sullivan’s views echo the study’s findings.

“I think [digital] will become the chief source of news as the population ages,” she said. “TV watchers are sort of the older generation, I think.”

(Pew Research Center, Sept. 7, 2017)

(Pew Research Center, Sept. 7, 2017)

Like Rebecca Baker, Travis Waldron and Jonathan Make, Sullivan acknowledges the future of digital journalism largely comes down to money.

“Will [digital news] have the kind of revenue that will allow these sites to really hire lots of reporters and editors who are gonna really do the job?” she wondered. “To me, that’s the worry.

“It’s not like, well, are people wanting to read news that way? It’s more like, is the quality going to be there, because is the money going to be there?”


This article was written for Lindsey Leake’s COMM 652 Web Studio course on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017.

Featured image courtesy of Pexels.

Lindsey Leake