The field of journalism has undergone seismic changes in the past few decades due to the rise of digital technology and the internet. News consumption patterns have shifted dramatically, with more and more people getting their news online and through social media rather than traditional print newspapers or broadcast TV. This massive transition has created both opportunities and challenges for journalists as they adapt to an increasingly digital, mobile, and social media-centric landscape.
The Decline of Traditional News Outlets
For centuries, newspapers were the dominant way people received news. But the print newspaper industry has declined sharply in the 21st century due to several factors. Readership, especially among young people, has fallen as more consumers turn to digital sources. Declining print advertising revenue has also taken a toll, as advertisers follow audiences online (Newman et al, 2021). According to Pew Research, U.S. newspaper circulation fell from 62 million daily in 1990 to 28 million in 2018 (Grieco, 2019). Local newspapers have been especially hard hit, with over 2,000 U.S. papers either closing or merging since 2004 (Abernathy, 2020).
The broadcast news industry has also faced challenges in the digital age. Nightly network TV news viewership has declined, especially among younger demographics. Local TV news viewership is also down, as audiences migrate online (Guskin, 2013). News magazines like Time and Newsweek have struggled, with Newsweek ceasing print publication in 2012. While cable news viewership has grown, the industry faces skepticism over issues like political bias (Jurkowitz et al, 2013).
The Rise of Digital and Social News
As traditional news outlets decline, digital-native news publishers have arisen to partly fill the void. Prominent digital-only news brands include BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, The Huffington Post, and more (Bell, 2019). Social media has also become a key source of news for many people. A 2021 Pew survey found that 23% of U.S. adults say they get news from social media “often,” while 53% said they get news from social media “sometimes” (Walker & Matsa, 2021).
Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have also driven increased consumption of digital news. Over 80% of Americans today get news on a mobile device (Matsa & Shearer, 2021). News publishers have adapted content strategies for mobile users, using tactics like push notifications to reach audiences. Many leading digital-native publishers like BuzzFeed now see over 70% of traffic coming from mobile (Wetherbee, 2019).
New Revenue Strategies and Business Models
To adapt in the digital landscape, news publishers have adopted new revenue sources and business models. With print advertising dollars declining, many newspapers now get the majority of ad revenue from digital sources like website display ads, branded content, and video (Newman et al, 2021). Digital subscriptions are also a growing revenue stream, with The New York Times surpassing 1 million digital subscribers in 2020 (Peiser, 2020).
To court digital users, some publishers have adopted a “freemium” model, where core news content is free but premium or exclusive content sits behind a paywall. Others use membership programs and direct reader support models through platforms like Patreon. But despite growth, digital advertising and subscription revenues have generally not fully replaced print revenue declines, forcing cost-cutting including layoffs and furloughs at many newsrooms (Grieco, 2020).
New Platforms and Changing News Consumption Habits
Journalists today must serve audiences on a wider variety of platforms. News consumption habits are shifting, with declining TV viewership and growth of audio platforms like podcasts. Social media is also increasingly vital for news discovery and distribution. 93% of U.S. adults said they got at least some news via social media as of 2020 (Walker & Matsa, 2021).
This multi-platform environment requires new skills for journalists. Writing for search engines with SEO techniques has become crucial. Editing for small mobile screens instead of print pages is now common. Journalists often need photography and video skills for digital storytelling. Social media and audience analytics metrics also guide coverage more today (Bell, 2015). Some fear these changes pressure journalists to pursue trending viral content over substantive news reporting (Levy, 2019).
Misinformation and Media Literacy Challenges
The digital news environment has also introduced new misinformation challenges. Social media has enabled the rapid spread of false or misleading news. A 2018 Pew study found over two-thirds of U.S. adults say fabricated news causes confusion about current issues and events (Mitchell et al, 2019). Digital media literacy efforts to help audiences identify credible news sources have become increasingly important. Newsrooms also face pressure to combat misinformation, especially during breaking news events, when unverified claims can spread rapidly online (Funke & Flamini, 2021).
One major impact of the shift to digital is the disruption of advertising revenue models. In the print and broadcast eras, advertising could subsidize the cost of producing news. But online ads command much lower rates, so that model is challenged. New forms of paying for journalism like subscriptions and micropayments are emerging to compensate.
The role of artificial intelligence in newsrooms is growing. AI is being used for automated tasks like turning data into visualizations, transcribing interviews, and alerting journalists to potential story ideas. But some are concerned about over-reliance on algorithmic news judgment.
Citizen journalism has risen in prominence with digital media empowering anyone to publish. Platforms like Twitter and Reddit enable eyewitness reporting by non-journalists. But this also raises verification challenges for ensuring accuracy and credibility.
Digital media provides more data analytics about reader behavior and preferences to inform coverage. However, some argue optimizing too much for metrics like clicks and shares can undermine substantive reporting.
Declines in local news have led to the rise of news deserts – communities without sources of local news. New models like nonprofit and online-only local news outlets are trying to revive beat reporting.
As platforms like Facebook and Google dominate digital news distribution, publishers face a loss of control over their relationship with readers. Laws like Australia’s news media bargaining code aim to rebalance this.
The digital revolution has profoundly disrupted journalism, presenting both opportunities and challenges. News publishers must adapt products, business models, workflows, and skills to serve increasingly mobile, social, and platform-centric audiences. How journalists can maintain quality while facing industry constraints remains an open question. The path forward for journalism in the digital age is still being charted. But embracing innovation and emphasizing core public-service values of truth , accuracy and integrity can help guide the way.
Abernathy, P.M. (2020). News Deserts And Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive? The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. https://www.usnewsdeserts.com/reports/news-deserts-and-ghost-newspapers-will-local-news-survive/
Bell, E. (2015). What works and what doesn’t: Testing digital tactics for news organizations. Columbia Journalism School. https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/testing_media_strategies_in_the_field.php
Funke, D., & Flamini, D. (2021). A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world. Poynter. https://www.poynter.org/ifcn/anti-misinformation-actions/
Grieco, E. (2019). U.S. newspapers have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/u-s-newsroom-employment-has-dropped-by-a-quarter-since-2008/
Guskin, E. (2013). TV is Americans’ main source of news; Social media now a distant second. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/11/tv-is-americans-main-source-of-news-social-media-now-a-distant-second/
Jurkowitz, M., Hitlin, P., Mitchell, A., Santhanam, L, Adams, S., Anderson, M. & Vogt, N. (2013). The Changing TV News Landscape. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2013/10/FINAL-STATE-OF-THE-MEDIA-2014-REPORT-2.pdf
Levy, A. (2019). Social Media and the News: How Platforms and Publishers Work Together. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/our-research/social-media-and-news-how-platforms-and-publishers-work-together