The State of the News Media 2008
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.