Neue Zürcher Zeitung
"US journalism is in the middle of an epochal transformation, as momentous, probably, as the invention of the telegraph or television," concludes a report on the state of the news media in the United States.
Declining credibility, decreasing circulation figures and dwindling audiences are just a few of the problems currently faced by US journalists and media, according to a report recently published under the title of "The State of the News Media 2004"*. Several hundred pages long and divided into eight detailed, figure-packed sections, the report – published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) – summarizes its own findings and the results of studies and surveys conducted by third parties in connection with the following eight types of media: newspapers, magazines, the Internet, radio, network TV, cable TV, local TV as well as ethnic and alternative media. For each area, the study investigates aspects such as editorial content, audiences, ownership, economics, newsroom investments and public attitudes towards the different types of media.
Growing supply and slowing demand
The study produced some quite sobering results: While the demand for journalistic content is more or less in constant decline, an ever larger number of news outlets is competing for the attention of readers, computer users and viewers. The resulting fragmentation of audiences could have far-reaching consequences, contributing, for example, to abolishing the traditional task of the media to bring matters to public attention, thereby influencing the common public agenda. The inflationary increase in supply enables consumers to adopt an increasingly active role in selecting news and, in extreme cases, to seek only information that largely confirms their own preconceived opinions (journalism of affirmation). The central role of the journalist as an intermediary and a filter is therefore under threat.
Never before has it been possible to be well informed with so little effort. Quality news and information are more available than ever before, according to the report, but they risk succumbing to the ever greater supply of trivial, one-sided and false information. For instance, coverage of national affairs in the three leading US news magazines has dropped 25 percent since 1980, while the number of pages devoted to lifestyle topics has doubled, and those devoted to health have quadrupled. In continually updated media, in particular, we are seeing a trend towards the publication of virtually unedited raw material. Journalistic virtues such as fact checking and analysing information and putting news in perspective are increasingly giving way to the growing demand for up-to-the-minute information.
The Web has been the centre of attention during the past few years. Online news services are the only area, beside ethnic or alternative media, that enjoys an increase in demand, especially among young people. Journalistic information provided by television, radio and newspapers still attracts the most attention, but over the past few years all three types of media have seen their audiences shrink.
The Web is still largely a text-based medium
Internet journalism has not yet succeeded in emancipating itself from the old media. An analysis of news website content conducted as part of the PEJ study revealed that as little as 32 percent of the lead articles on the websites studied were produced by the organization’s own staff, with the large majority coming from the old media, for example newspapers. For more than 40 percent of front-page news, unedited agency reports were used, which, according to the authors of the report, might contribute to the further spread of false information. For now, perhaps the strongest trait that publishers on the Internet are taking advantage of is the use of hyperlinks to provide background information to their stories. Most sites make only limited use of multimedia and interactive content. "The Web is still largely a text-based medium," the report concludes.
The success of online information is not yet being converted into large profits, which represents a serious threat to journalism, according to the report: If people increasingly turn their backs on the old media – which produce a large portion of the information published on the Internet and generate most of the profits of media companies – before a robust economic model for the Web evolves, the willingness to invest in the production of content, that is in newsrooms, will be at risk.
Most media companies are still going strong, financially speaking, albeit mainly as a result of the austere economy measures taken during the past few years. According to the report, much of the new investment in journalism today is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it. For example, American newspapers today have about 2200 fewer full-time newsroom employees than they did fifteen years ago. Network news broadcasters (CBS, ABC and NBC) employ around a third fewer correspondents than they did twenty years ago, and the number of foreign bureaus is down by half. In radio, from 1994 to 2001, the number of full-time radio newsroom employees declined 44 percent. At the same time, however, production work in newsrooms has increased as a result of technological development, resulting in a heavier workload. For this very reason and because a growing number of suppliers rely on exclusive information, the report predicts an increase in media susceptibility to attempts at manipulation by interest groups and spin doctors.
Innovation is unavoidable
According to the report, the widespread perception that journalists and media companies are largely driven by self-interest and financial motives could be reinforced in view of staff and budget cuts, possibly resulting in a further decline in audiences and, consequently, additional cost cutting measures, thus creating a vicious circle. The authors also doubt whether media companies will be able to sustain their still rather high profit margins in the long term solely by increasing their productivity. There is a great demand for innovation and investment in order to bring new, higher-quality products onto the market. Only that way will they manage to win new audiences and continue charging high advertising rates.
The easy-to-read report, packed with facts and written with sometimes (unscientific) passionate enthusiasm, will be updated on a yearly basis and thus become an annual report on the state of journalism in the United States.
(Translation: Tanya Harvey Ciampi)