With the White House daily briefing on the endangered list and new concerns about what is and is not “fake news,” it’s easy to be pessimistic about the future of journalism. However, things might not be as dire as one might think. The Pew Research Center released its annual State of the News Media report this week, revealing some interesting trends worth watching for both journalists and PR firms looking to figure out the best way to deliver their messages.
While news for traditional newspapers – not including The New York Times and Washington Post – continued its downward trend with weekday print circulation and ad revenues down 10 percent, the outlook for digital versions is considerably brighter. Although digital audiences are hard to measure, in the last quarter of 2016, there were roughly 11.7 million unique visitors to the websites of the top 50 newspapers. That is up 21 percent from 2015 and almost 40 percent from 2014.
Television news is as vibrant as ever, particularly for the three major cable news channels, CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC. They increased their average viewership by 55 percent to 4.8 million viewers. A Pew survey done right before the 2016 New Hampshire primary found 24 percent of respondents listed cable news as the most helpful source for information about the election, compared to 14 percent who listed local television, 13 percent who said news websites, and a paltry three percent who cited local newspapers. According to Nielsen figures, America’s intense appetite for politics during the election boosted viewership of the major network Sunday political talk shows, NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ABC’s “This Week,” and CBS’s “Face the Nation” by 14 percent in 2016. The report also found the combined average audiences of the three major evening newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC held relatively steady at 24 million viewers, a drop of just one percent.
The report also had promising statistics about radio journalism. A Nielsen study found that news in thetalk and information format is the most popular with listeners – more popular than any one form of music including contemporary pop hit radio. The number of average weekly downloads of NPR podcasts, such as TED Radio Hour, went from 2.5 million in 2015 to 3.5 million in 2016. In the Boston market, public radio news is so vibrant that a recent Boston Globe story said the market was strong enough to sustain not one, but two NPR stations, WBUR and WGBH, catapulting the two stations into the top 10 of the most listened-to public radio stations in the country.
Beyond the Pew report, there are other reasons to believe journalism has a healthy future. A survey by Muck Rack, anonline journalism site, found a healthy 72 percent of 400 journalists surveyed said they are optimistic about the journalism profession. It’s worth noting that 70 percent of those surveyed found Twitter to be the most valuable social network they use.
There’s also hope that the next generation of journalists haven’t been scared off. Applications to summer journalism programs are increasing. Stanford’s University by the Bay program said their applications nearly doubled this year – soaring by 93 percent. Applications to Asian American Journalists Association’s J Camp are up 52 percent. It’s too soon to tell about college journalism programs, since applications were due before President Trump took office, but the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism has reportedly seen increased questions from rising seniors due to apply next fall.
So yes, there is reason to hope. Journalists are continuing to do their jobs, the number of media outlets are rising each year, and there are even more places for stories to be told. It is crucial time for the Fourth Estate to continue being a watch dog, an objective and critical government observer, and a vital institution for the healthy checks and balances that our democracy needs.