Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The State of the News Media 2008

By Shawn Healy
The Project for Excellence in Journalism released their annual study of American journalism last week in a report titled "The State of the News Media 2008." Its findings are by most measures sobering for someone who is a self-confessed news junkie who prefers the print media over its radio, television, and electronic counterparts. As a whole, the industry faces a set of obstacles like never before and must adapt its model immediately in order to survive. The challenge is orchestrating a makeover in the midst of downsizing trends in terms of newsroom staff and resources.

What follows are highlights from the report along with some of my own observations regarding the implications of these findings.

At the heart of the conundrum facing the media industry is the decline of its primary revenue source, advertising. It is abandoning newspapers in exponential fashion, and its once-thought inevitable migration to its online counterpart has not occurred. In the end, Craigslist and its counterparts are simply more effective means of facilitating commerce. The report aptly notes that the Internet is not "free," but instead users are not bearing the costs of news consumption in cyberspace. As a means of redress, news organizations should expand their offerings beyond "meat and potatoes," adding citizen journalism and search functions, serving as the proverbial anchor store where news may be the impetus for a site visit, but not the sole reason for page clicks.

The study did content analysis of news coverage in 2007, finding that the Iraq War and presidential campaign dominated the headlines (1/3 of the "newshole"), with the former fading away as the latter assumed its place as primary season neared. Old media, namely newspapers and network television news, covered a broader array of topics beyond Iraq and the '08 election, and were less likely to allow these issues to dominate their coverage in comparison to talk radio and cable news.

There is also a disconnect between what the media covers and what news consumers would like to see emphasized. Rising gas prices and the legislative battle over children's health care were lost in the campaign deluge, and the public wants less of already scant international coverage. The latter did represent 11% of all news stories, qualifying for third place. Of this coverage, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan dominated the headlines, much of it in the context of US interests. Violence in Darfur, by comparison, filled only 0.2% of the overall "news slot." Online news offered the most international coverage, even delving into areas not directly linked to American interests. The authors of the report attributed this to the reach of the Internet with its ability to cross "borders and continents."

The report also address the phenomenon of "drive-by journalism," or the media's propensity to drop everything it is doing for crisis coverage, then to discard it shortly thereafter, where "...this week's bombshell (is) next week's afterthought." The Virginia Tech massacre and the Minneapolis bridge collapse qualify as such, as does the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University. Cable news is the biggest culprit here. I myself was fascinated by the way in which CNN shifted away from Gov. Mitt Romney's Valentine's Day endorsement of Sen. John McCain to on-the-scene coverage via helicopter from NIU. Newspapers, by comparison, despite major staff reductions, were the lone vehicle to conduct follow-up reporting after the 24-hour news cycle subsided and moved back to the campaign trail.

In terms of news consumption, the numbers continue to plummet. Newspapers are attempting to stray from age-old circulation figures. The feeling is that they miss the number of people who read the print edition, the amount of time they do so, and of course readership online. Tied to the latter is how to measure page clicks and site visits, not to mention email alerts, podcasts and alternative means of accessing news (PDA's, for example). By existing measures, online news consumption has apparently plateaued, while daily newspaper circulation dropped 3%. Cable news declined 12% in prime time, while network news maintained a 25-year trend of bleeding 1 million more viewers. Local news declined even more rapidly, while ethnic media, the sole area of growth, may be cresting.

Relative to technology, news organizations embraced blogging on a broad level and made significant investments in the Internet for the first time. This is due to the fact that board rooms see it as a new revenue source, and news rooms have recognized it more as an opportunity than a threat in an environment of downsizing and audience atrophy.

For example, the Washington Post has devoted 200 staff members to the online version of the paper, which now produces 15% of all revenue with a 50% figure on the horizon. It has a distinct identity from its print edition, and represents a foil to many newspapers who use their "...sites as a morgue for old copy."

The media's relationship with the general public is also tenuous. Confidence continues to erode after 20 years of skepticism about journalists, the organizations that employ them, and the industry as a whole. Perceptions on bias are widespread, with 28% of the public claiming a perceived liberal bias in 2006, up from 19% in 1996.

In my mind, the way out of the abyss requires a commitment by media organizations and their readers/viewers/listeners. Consumers must remain vigilant consumers of news from a host of outlets. The Information Age offers infinitesimal options in this respect, and it is our responsibility as citizens to keep abreast of the ways of the world for the sake of participation in democratic government. Subscribe to your local newspaper, mix network and cable television news into your morning and evening routines, and listen to NPR and other radio news outlets throughout the day. We must also demand more hard news by actually consuming from the "current menu of health food" provided by media outlets, namely international coverage, substantive analysis of governmental policies, and of course the great locus of political debate, the op-ed page of prominent newspapers.

News organizations need to dive into the Digital Age without abandon. Capture the creativity of citizen journalists, do something more substantial with reader feedback, and go beyond using home pages as receptacles for print editions. Professional journalists themselves must embrace blogs, handheld video, podcasts and live chats. The decline of the model that guided journalism for a century is widely documented. It is up to the current lineage to forge a new path so that future PEJ reports document a path of progress rather than demise.


Anonymous Becky said...

Hey! Great article. I'm currently an intern w/ and I think you would get a kick out of this video. It does not 100% coincide with the study, but I figured if any of your readers had a sense of humor they would enjoy this vid:

3:20 PM  
Blogger john said...

News papers are following new trends in circulations in order to generate more revenues and compete with the rising broadcast media. Online publishing is worked well for the print publishers and getting the desired revenues. Some publishers are using the companies like to distribute their publication through new technology mediums.

5:33 AM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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