Appetite for news on wane, study concludes

Traditional outlets losing audience

By John Cook
Tribune staff reporter

March 15, 2004

The audience for most news media outlets is shrinking or stagnant, and investment in news-gathering among most traditional outlets is down, according to a study released Monday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The study, "The State of the News Media 2004," examined the newspaper, television, magazine, radio and Internet news industries in detail and found that only online journalism and ethnic or alternative sources of news, such as Spanish-language newspapers, are seeing audience growth.

"We're in a period of change and dislocation," said Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. "Clearly, some of the older media are suffering." The Project for Excellence in Journalism is part of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. The study was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The study found that English-language newspaper circulation has declined 11 percent since 1990, while network evening newscast ratings are down 34 percent over the last decade. Despite major numerous news events, such as the war in Iraq, which usually cause spikes in cable news viewership, the median cable news audience has not grown since 2001.

Morning shows are up

The study's few bright spots are the growth in morning network newscasts, which attracted 1 million more viewers in November 2003 than they did a decade ago; online news sites, which draw a minimum of 80 million online news users; and Spanish-language newspapers, which have more than tripled their circulation, to 1.7 million, since 1990.

In television, the study found a declining amount of airtime devoted to actual news, as opposed to other content such as commercials and promotions. Taken together, the nightly network newscasts, which each run for 30 minutes, average 18 minutes and 48 seconds of news, down 11 percent from 1991. On network morning shows, the average is 15 minutes and 6 seconds of news per half-hour.

In general, the study found, corporate profits have increased or held steady while investments in news-gathering have declined. Today, newspapers employ 2,200 fewer people than in 1990. Between 1991 and 2000, newspaper profits increased 207 percent, the study found, but newsroom jobs increased 3 percent.

There's a similar trend in television. Though expenses associated with covering the war in Iraq are expected to hurt network news division profits for 2003, the study found the network evening news revenues for last year were on track to match or beat their 2002 performance, and that morning news show revenues were up 37 percent from 1999 to 2002. The number of correspondents employed by the evening newscasts is down more than 33 percent since 1985, and the number of overseas bureaus has been cut in half.

In cable news, according to the study, 62 percent of air time consists of live broadcasts, which are often cheaper than prepared, packaged reports. The vast majority of stories reported on cable consist of a few "big stories" of the day.

Information repeated

In one 16-hour broadcast day, the study found, only 27 percent of stories were new reports. Sixty-eight percent of stories, the study found, were segments that repeated the same information without any new reporting. The result, the study said, is a "jumbled, chaotic, partial quality in some reports, without much synthesis ... of the information."

Frank Sesno, former Washington bureau chief for CNN who consults for the network, said the trend toward repeating a few stories dates to the 1994 O.J. Simpson Bronco chase.

"It was, if not the origin, than one of the historical markers," Sesno said. "Market research showed that cable news was more effective if you go to the big story and you stay with it. That, unfortunately, can have a tendency to be repetitive and incremental."

The other domain of the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, is a better source of new information, according to the study. Among eight major news sites studied, 63 percent of lead stories were either new or substantively updated during the day.

The study also found that, overall, trust in news sources is down drastically. The percentage of people who believe what they read in newspapers has declined to 59 percent in 2003 from 80 percent in 1985, and the percentage who give high grades in credibility to the network news divisions dropped to 65 percent in 2002 from 74 percent in 1996.

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