This week, The Project for Excellence in Journalism made its second annual report on The State of the News Media.
Intro from the overview
Today, technology is transforming citizens from passive consumers of news produced by professionals into active participants who can assemble their own journalism from disparate elements. As people “Google” for information, graze across an infinite array of outlets, read blogs or write them, they are becoming their own editors, researchers, and even correspondents. What was called journalism is only one part of the mix, and its role as intermediary and verifier, like the roles of other civic institutions, is weakening. We are witnessing the rise of a new and more active kind of American citizenship – with new responsibilities that are only beginning to be considered.
> There are now several models of journalism, and the trajectory increasingly is toward those that are faster, looser, and cheaper.
> The rise in partisanship of news consumption and the notion that people have retreated to their ideological corners for news has been widely exaggerated.
> To adapt, journalism may have to move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert, and of widening the scope of its searchlight.
> Despite the new demands, there is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences.
> The three broadcast network news divisions face their most important moment of transition in decades.
In a sense, news consumption today should probably be viewed in the way diet is viewed in this age of plentiful, fast and often processed American food. The array of offerings is so vast and varied, being concerned mainly with what is offered seems futile; the proper concern may involve educating consumers about what they should imbibe.
The real crisis may be news obesity, consuming too little that can nourish citizens and too much that can bloat them.
The question is not whether online advertising will continue to grow, but whether it will ever be big enough to supply the resources to newsrooms we have come to think of as sufficient for quality journalism – and whether it will flow to the organizations that produce journalism, or to those that simply aggregate and pass it on. Will newsgathering organizations that produce what is on the Web benefit, or will processors like Google or Yahoo?
For online journalism to thrive ultimately, some people believe a combined subscription and advertising model for the medium will be necessary. A few outlets are beginning to explore the possibility of bundling sources, as occurs in cable, so that consumers would pay a fee to both the Internet provider for access and to those who create the content.
Consumers are still resistant to paying for Internet journalism, and experiments in 2004 were not promising. If no model is found to monetize the Web to approach the kinds of profit levels of older sectors, the impact could drastically affect the resources available for newsgathering.
Some 62% of Web professionals say their newsrooms have seen cutbacks in the last three years – despite huge increases in audiences online. That number is far bigger than the 37% of national print, radio and TV journalists who cited cutbacks in their newsrooms. Anecdotally, Web journalists say what investment there is tends to be in technology for processing information, not in journalists to gather news.
It is part of a larger trend in American journalism: much of the investment and effort is in repackaging and presenting information, not in gathering it. For all that the number of outlets has grown, the number of people engaged in collecting original information has not. Americans are frankly more likely to see the same pictures across multiple TV channels or read the same wire story in different venues than they were a generation ago.
Americans do not resent the sense of professional ethics or the aspirations or independence of the press. Rather, they feel journalism is not living up to those goals. They increasingly think the press as a whole is motivated by money and individual journalists by personal ambition.
A year ago, we saw in the larger trends something of a vicious cycle partly of the press’s own making.
As audiences declined, because of technological and cultural changes, news organizations felt pressure on revenues and stock performance. In response, they cut back on their newsrooms, squeezed in more advertising and cut back on the percentage of space devoted to news. They tried to respond to changing tastes, too, by lightening their content. Audiences appeared to gravitate to lighter topics, and those topics were often cheaper to cover. Those changes, in turn, deepened the sense that the news media were motivated by economics and less focused on professionalism and the public interest.
In 2005, the sense that the press’s role in relation to the public is changing seems ever clearer. A generation ago, the press was effectively a lone institution communicating between the citizenry and the newsmakers, whether corporations selling goods or politicians selling agendas, who wanted to shape public opinion for their own purposes. Today, a host of new forms of communication offer a way for newsmakers to reach the public. There are talk-show hosts, cable interview shows, corporate Web sites, government Web sites, Web sites that purport to be citizen blogs but are really something else, and more. Journalism is a shrinking part of a growing world of media. And since journalists are trained to be skeptics and aspire at least, in the famous phrase, to speak truth to power, journalism is the one source those who want to manipulate the public are most prone to denounce. The atmosphere for journalism, in other words, has become, as the legendary editor John Siegenthaler recently put it, “acidic.”
The challenge for traditional journalism is whether it can reassert its position as the provider of something distinctive and valuable – both for citizens and advertisers. The press continues to thrive financially because, while the audience collected in any one place may be smaller, it is still the largest venue available to advertisers. The trend lines, however, make clear that this, too, should not be taken for granted. Somehow journalism needs to prove that it is acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.