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ABC News Catches NBC News in Ratings and Revenue, but Innovation Poses Challenges

Americans are accessing more online news on mobile devices

Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images

They call it the "mobile majority"—and it's changing the way Americans access media.

According to a report released this morning by the Pew Research Center, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites—and associated applications—get more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop computers.

While users check in via mobile, they stay longer when they visit a news website on a desktop, the researchers found—only 10 out of 50 news sites saw longer time per visit on mobile than on desktop.

But Pew's report, "The State of the News Media 2015," offered some encouraging news for legacy media. While cable viewership dropped 8 percent and newspapers readership dipped 3 percent, local news was up 3 percent, and network news saw a 5 percent jump, with a combined average evening viewership of about 24 million.

In contrast, local TV grew its on-air ad revenue to roughly equal that of newspapers—$19.4 billion in 2014, according to BIA/Kelsey. That is up 7 percent from 2013 and 2 percent from 2010, the latter of which is perhaps more analogous to 2014 because it was also a nonpresidential-election year. News-producing stations, about two-thirds of all local TV stations, account for a disproportionate amount of this revenue. Retransmission fees, also on the rise, added another roughly $5 billion for the year, SNL Kagan estimates.

At the network level, ABC News' and CBS News' revenue grew, but NBC News' declined. As ABC World News Tonight now wins in the ratings, it has nearly caught NBC Nightly News in revenue.

In cable, the NBCUniversal property MSNBC also fared the worst. Its total revenue was down 1 percent for the year, due mainly to a 5 percent decline in ad revenue, according to projections from SNL Kagan. CNN's revenue was projected to rise 3 percent, while Fox News' revenue was projected to increase 6 percent and was the only one of the three channels to report a profit increase (10 percent). Subscriber revenue for all three cable news outlets was expected to see continued growth.

For advertisers, the trend continues to be toward video—Pew reported that banner ads are still the dominant form of digital advertising but that video is quickly closing the gap: "Video display ad spending is growing at a faster rate than any other display category—up 56 percent in 2014—and now accounts for more than a quarter (27 percent) of total display ad spending. That is up from 14 percent ($1.4 billion out of $9.9 billion) in 2010."

Pew concluded that innovation—especially in the digital and social spheres—will not slow in 2015: "The pace of technological evolution and the multiplicity of choices—from platforms to devices to pathways—show no sign of slowing down. With each new pathway or platform, the old ones continue to be used, posing a nearly unattainable challenge to an industry in financial difficulty. And if news in the social space is more incidental and driven to a large degree by friends and algorithms, then gaining a foothold there may be even more elusive—or at least less in the industry's own hands—than a secure financial model."

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