(April 11, 2006) On March 13 the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) released its third annual report on “The State of The News Media.” (SOTNM) This comprehensive 700-page report from the heart of the mainstream journalism establishment—the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism—was once again full of interesting and important points on the phenomenon that we call “The Media.”
The 2006 SOTNM features sections on: Major Trends; Content Analysis; Audience; Economics; Ownership; News Investment; and Public Attitudes. In this installment, I will focus on the Major Trends highlighted in the report. In a future installment I will summarize some of the other points.
The report noted six new trends “that add to the underlying trends transforming journalism we have noted in earlier reports.” Those underlying trends include: More news outlets chasing static or shrinking audiences; Cutbacks in staff and other newsgathering resources, with the effect being a “thinning of the product” (news, that is); “A tendency toward a jumbled, chaotic, partial quality in some reports, without much synthesis or even the ordering of the information”; and, The potential for the less-profitable internet trend to lead to a “general decline in the scope and quality of American journalism, not because the [internet] isn’t suited for news, but because it isn’t suited to the kind of profits that underwrite newsgathering.”
Perhaps the most troubling “underlying trend” highlighted in the first SOTNM was this one, which I will quote at length: “Those who would manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them. Several factors point in this direction. One is simple supply and demand. As more outlets compete for their information, it becomes a seller’s market for information. Another is workload. The content analysis of the 24-hour-news outlets suggests that their stories contain fewer sources.”
The Six New Trends in 2006
TREND 1: The final “underlying trend” mentioned above is amplified in the first of the 2006 new trends, that being “a new paradox of journalism,” which consists of “more outlets covering fewer stories.” The report says, “As the number of places delivering news proliferates, the audience for each tends to shrink and the number of journalists in each organization is reduced.” The result is that “we tend to see more accounts of the same handful of stories each day…often covered in a similar fashion by general-assignment reporters working with a limited list of sources and a tight time-frame. Such concentration of personnel around a few stories, in turn, has aided the efforts of newsmakers to control what the public knows. One of the first things to happen is that the authorities quickly corral the growing throng of correspondents, crews and paparazzi into press areas away from the news.” The result: less diversity of views, and more susceptibility to propaganda.
TREND 2: “The species of newspaper that may be most threatened is the big-city metro paper that came to dominate in the latter part of the 20th century. The top three national newspapers in the U.S. suffered no circulation losses in 2005. The losses at smaller newspapers, in turn, appeared to be modest. It was the big-city metros that suffered the biggest circulation drops and imposed the largest cutbacks in staff. Those big papers are trying to cover far-flung suburbs and national and regional news all at the same time—trying to be one-stop news outlets for large audiences. In part, they are being supplanted by niche publications serving smaller communities and targeted audiences. Yet our content studies suggest the big metros are the news organizations most likely to have the resources and aspirations to act as watchdogs over state, regional and urban institutions, to identify trends, and to define the larger community public square. It is unlikely that small suburban dailies or weeklies will take up that challenge.”
TREND 3: “At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost. The troubles of 2005, especially in print, dealt a further blow to the fight for journalism in the public interest. ‘If you argue about public trust today, you will be dismissed as an obstructionist and a romantic,’ the editor of one of the country’s major papers told us privately. An executive at one of the three broadcast networks told senior staff members in a meeting last year that ‘the ethical anvil has been lifted,’ meaning the producers could dispense with traditional notions of journalistic propriety…. The most cogent explanation for why journalism in the public interest has lost leverage was probably offered by Polk Laffoon IV, the corporate spokesman of Knight Ridder. ‘I wish there were an identifiable and strong correlation between quality journalism … and newspaper sales,’ he said. ‘It isn’t …that simple.’ From here on, at many companies, the fight on behalf of the public interest will come from the rank and file of the newsroom, with the news executive as mediator with the boardroom. There are some notable exceptions, and journalists who work in those situations today consider themselves lucky. Meanwhile, at many new-media companies, it is not clear if advocates for the public interest are present at all.”
TREND 4: “Ttraditional media do appear to be moving toward technological innovation—finally. In earlier reports, the real investment and creativity in new technology appeared to be coming mostly from non-news organizations like Google. Traditional news outfits, in practice if not in rhetoric, treated the Internet as a platform to repurpose old material.” That, says the report, appears to be changing, but the effect of that change on the “old media” remains to be seen.
TREND 5: “The new challengers to the old media, the aggregators, are also playing with limited time. When it comes to news, what companies like Google and Yahoo are aggregating and selling is the work of others—the very same old media they are taking revenue away from. The more they succeed, the faster they erode the product they are selling, unless the economic model is radically changed. Already there are rumblings. One thing to watch for in 2006 is whether old-media content producers demand that Google News begin to pay them for content. Another option for the aggregators is to begin to produce their own news, and already we are seeing baby steps; in 2005, Yahoo announced it would hire some journalists, but the effort is still minimal. Can the new rivals become more than technology companies? And if they do, will they have more than rhetorical allegiance to the values of public-interest journalism?”
TREND 6: “The central economic question in journalism continues to be how long it will take online journalism to become a major economic engine, and if it will ever be as big as print or television. If the online revenues at newspapers continue to grow at the current rate—an improbable 33 percent a year — they won’t reach levels equivalent with print until 2017 (assuming print grows just 3 percent a year). Realistically, even with the lower delivery costs online, it will be years before the Internet rivals old media economics, if it ever does. Fledgling efforts to get consumers to pay for online content edged forward in 2005, but only marginally. All this only adds to the likelihood that the next battleground will be producers of old media challenging Internet providers and Internet aggregators to begin compensating them for content, the model that exists in cable.”
I’m not sure if that really is “the central economic question in journalism,” and you’ll see what I mean in “State of the News Media 2006 – Part 2,” coming soon to the Media section of the Twin Cities Daily Planet.