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Eight Major Trends: The state of the news media

From Journalism.org, March 23, 2004
This is part of Journalism.org's excellent Annual Report on American Journalism. The entire report is worth reading.

For now, the year 2004, the transformation is shaped by eight overarching trends:

• A growing number of news outlets are chasing relatively static or even shrinking audiences for news. One result of this is that most sectors of the news media are losing audience. That audience decline, in turn, is putting pressures on revenues and profits, which leads to a cascade of other implications. The only sectors seeing general audience growth today are online, ethnic and alternative media.

• Much of the new investment in journalism today - much of the information revolution generally - is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it. Most sectors of the media are cutting back in the newsroom, both in terms of staff and in the time they have to gather and report the news. While there are exceptions, in general journalists face real pressures trying to maintain quality.

• In many parts of the news media, we are increasingly getting the raw elements of news as the end product. This is particularly true in the newer, 24-hour media. In cable and online, there is a tendency toward a jumbled, chaotic, partial quality in some reports, without much synthesis or even the ordering of the information. There is also a great deal of effort, particularly on cable news, that is put into delivering essentially the same news repetitively without any meaningful updating.

• Journalistic standards now vary even inside a single news organization. Companies are trying to reassemble and deliver to advertisers a mass audience for news not in one place, but across different programs, products and platforms. To do so, some are varying their news agenda, their rules on separating advertising from news and even their ethical standards. What will air on an MSNBC talk show on cable might not meet the standards of NBC News on broadcast, and the way that advertising intermingles with news stories on many newspaper Web sites would never be allowed in print. Even the way a television network treats news on a prime time magazine versus a morning show or evening newscast can vary widely. This makes projecting a consistent sense of identity and brand more difficult. It also may reinforce the public perception evident in various polls that the news media lack professionalism and are motivated by financial and self-aggrandizing motives rather than the public interest.

• Without investing in building new audiences, the long-term outlook for many traditional news outlets seems problematic. Many traditional media are maintaining their profitability by focusing on costs, including cutting back in their newsrooms. Our study shows general increases in journalist workload, declines in numbers of reporters, shrinking space in newscasts to make more room for ads and promotions, and in various ways that are measurable, thinning the product. This raises questions about the long term. How long can news organizations keep increasing what they charge advertisers to reach a smaller audience? If they maintain profits by cutting costs, social science research on media suggests they will accelerate their audience loss.

• Convergence seems more inevitable and potentially less threatening to journalists than it may have seemed a few years ago. At least for now, online journalism appears to be leading more to convergence with older media rather than replacement of it. When audience trends are examined closely, one cannot escape the sense that the nation is heading toward a situation, especially at the national level, in which institutions that were once in different media, such as CBS and The Washington Post, will be direct competitors on a single primary field of battle - online. The idea that the medium is the message increasingly will be passé. This is an exciting possibility that offers the potential of new audiences, new ways of storytelling, more immediacy and more citizen involvement.

• The biggest question may not be technological but economic. While journalistically online appears to represent opportunity for old media rather than simply cannibalization, the bigger issue may be financial. If online proves to be a less useful medium for subscription fees or advertising, will it provide as strong an economic foundation for newsgathering as television and newspapers have? If not, the move to the Web may lead to a general decline in the scope and quality of American journalism, not because the medium isn't suited for news, but because it isn't suited to the kind of profits that underwrite newsgathering.

• 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 increased leverage enjoyed by news sources has already encouraged a new kind of checkbook journalism, as seen in the television networks efforts to try to get interviews with Michael Jackson and Jessica Lynch, the soldier whose treatment while in captivity in Iraq was exaggerated in many accounts.

These are some of the conclusions from this new study of the state of American journalism, a study that we believe is unprecedented in its comprehensive scope. The report breaks American journalism into eight sectors - newspapers, magazines, network television, cable television, local television, the Internet, radio, and ethnic and alternative media (which are distinct from each other).

For each of the media sectors, we tried to answer basic questions in six areas: the trends in content, audience, economics, ownership, newsroom investment and public attitudes. We aggregated as much publicly available data as is possible in one place and, for six of the sectors, also conducted an original content analysis. (For local television news, we relied on five years of content analysis the Project had previously conducted. For radio, ethnic and alternative media, no special content analysis was conducted.)

The study is the work of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The study is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose leadership challenged us to take on this assignment.. The chapters were written, with the exceptions of those on network television, cable, and newspapers, which had co-authors, by the Project's staff.

Our aim is for this to be a research report, not an argument. It is not our intention to try to persuade anyone to a particular point of view. Where the facts are clear, we hope we have not shied from explaining what they reveal, making clear what is proven versus what is only suggested. We hope, however, that we are not seen as simply taking sides in any journalistic debates.

We have tried to be as transparent as possible about sources and methods, and to make it clear when we are laying out data versus when we have moved into analysis of that data.

We believe our approach of looking at a set of questions across various media differs from the conventional way in which American journalism is analyzed, one medium at a time. We have tried to identify cross-media trends and to gather in one place data that are usually scattered across different venues. We hope this will allow us and others to make comparisons and develop insights that otherwise would be difficult to see. Across the six questions we examined we found some distinct patterns.

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