The state of the information media trade in 2020: 6 key takeaways

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Every two years, the Pew Research Center updates its series of fact sheets on the US news media industry, tracking key audience and economic indicators for a variety of sectors. Here are some key takeaways on what the industry is doing in 2020.

State of the News Media factsheets use a number of different methods to study the health of the U.S. news industry, including custom analysis of news audience behavior, secondary analysis of industry data, and direct coverage to extract information not available elsewhere. All sources are cited in diagram and graphic notes or in the text of the report. Read the methodology.

The Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary sponsor. This is the latest report in the Pew Research Center’s ongoing survey of the State of News, Information and Journalism in the Digital Age, a research program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

For the first time, newspapers earned more money with circulation than with advertising, according to an analysis of the filings of publicly traded newspaper companies with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). For more than 50 years, US newspapers generated more annual income from advertising than from circulation (e.g., subscription sales or individual issues). But with ad revenue declining over the long term and sales revenue remaining stable, the two streams eventually crossed in 2020.

In a year marked by major news events, cable news channels saw explosive audience growth in 2020. In prime time, Fox News’ average audience increased 61%, CNN’s 72% and MSNBC’s 28%, according to data from Comscore TV Essentials┬«. Other TV news sectors also saw audience growth, but to a lesser extent. For example, the average audience for the network’s nightly news increased 7-16% and the average audience for the evening news on local television increased 4%. The Spanish-language news on Telemundo and Univision also saw a general increase in viewers in 2020.

A line graph showing political advertising revenue for local television stations

Political advertising revenue from local TV channels was dramatically higher in 2020. Though it’s always soaring in election years, it stood at $ 2 billion in 2020 – far more than any year before, according to an analysis of SEC filings from five major publicly traded local television networks.

Individual donations make up a larger part of the revenue pie of public broadcasters. For example, in 2014 only 3% of non-public funding for the PBS NewsHour came from individuals. By 2020 the proportion had risen to 24%. According to PBS NewsHour, the company’s contributions fell from 41% to 18% over the same period. For public radio stations, individual contributions rose from $ 261 million to $ 430 million between 2008 and 2019, while insurance revenues grew far less, according to an analysis of public filings from 123 of the largest news-oriented licensees.

A bar graph showing digital and non-digital advertising revenue

The entire advertising revenue – beyond the pure news – is now largely digital, according to eMarketer estimates. As of 2019, more advertising revenue was generated from digital advertising than from non-digital advertising such as print and broadcast. A major driver of this trend is mobile advertising, which increased roughly sixty-fold between 2011 and 2020 from 1.7 billion US dollars to 102.6 billion US dollars.

While the audience for terrestrial radio has decreased in 2020, the audience for online audio has grown. According to the broadcaster, NPR’s weekly podcast audience has nearly doubled over the past two years, from around 7 million in 2018 to around 14 million in 2020. (NPR now makes more money underwriting its podcasts than it does radio broadcasts.) Roughly three in ten Americans ages 12 and older (28%) say they heard podcasts in the past week, according to The Infinite Dial . Report from Edison Research and Triton Digital.

A line graph showing the weekly audience on terrestrial radio

But after years of near constant listener numbers, terrestrial radio (i.e. AM / FM) saw a decline in its overall audience in 2020 – and not just for news. The decline coincided with a sharp drop in car use during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, 83% of Americans 12 and older listened to terrestrial radio, up from 89% in 2019 and 92% in 2009, according to Nielsen Media Research data published by the Radio Advertising Bureau.

Note: To learn more, read all eight fact sheets on the state of the news media and the methods used to compile them.

Michael Barthel is a Senior Researcher with a focus on journalism research at the Pew Research Center.