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Overview – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In December 2004, a mock documentary about the future of news began making make the rounds of the nation’s journalists and Web professionals.

The video, produced by two aspiring newsmen fresh from college, envisioned a nightmare scenario – by the year 2014, technology would effectively destroy traditional journalism.

In 2008, Google, the search engine company, would merge with Amazon.com, the giant online retailer, and in 2010 the new “Googlezon” would create a system edited entirely by computers that would strip individual facts and sentences from all content sources to create stories tailored to the tastes of each person.

A year later, The New York Times would sue Googlezon for copyright infringement and lose before the Supreme Court.

In 2014 Googlezon would take its computer formula a step further. Anyone on the Web would contribute whatever they knew or believed into a universal grid – a bouillabaisse of citizen blog, political propaganda, corporate spin and journalism. People would be paid according to the popularity of their contributions. Each consumer would get a one-of-a-kind news product each day based on his or her personal data.

“At its best, edited for the savviest readers,” the system is “a summary of the world – deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at its worst, and for too many, [it] is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational.”

That same year, the New York Times would fold its tent and become “a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly.”

“It didn’t have to be this way,” the video concludes.

And it probably won’t be.

A year ago, in our inaugural edition of this report, we concluded that journalism was in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous as the invention of the telegraph or television. The former created the capacity for people divided by great distance to learn things at the same time; the latter added the ability for people to see the news for themselves.

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.

In this new world, we continue to believe journalism is not becoming irrelevant. The need to know what is true is all the greater, but discerning and communicating it is more difficult.

In the last year, some trends have become clearer, and some popular notions seem to us exaggerated. The year saw the blossoming of citizen blogs, the emergence of a major new news source edited entirely by computers (Google News), and both triumph (exposing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal) and failure (Memogate) for one of the TV networks. Customization, and with it fragmentation, reached new levels; Reason magazine even sent each subscriber an issue so tailored it had a satellite photo of that person’s own home on the cover.

Those are some of the conclusions in the second of our annual reports on the state of American journalism. The report, which we believe is unique in depth and scope, breaks the news industry into nine sectors – newspapers, magazines, network television, cable television, local television, the Internet, radio, ethnic and alternative media (which are distinct from each other). It builds off many of the findings from a year ago.

For each of the media sectors, we examine six different areas – content, audience trends, economics, ownership, newsroom investment and public attitudes. We aggregate as much publicly available data as is possible in one place, and for six of the sectors the report includes original content analysis. (For local television news, we rely on five years of content analysis the Project had previously conducted. For radio and alternative media, no special content analysis was conducted.) In addition to numerous new charts of data, most charts from the 2004 report are updated and still available.

People can approach the material in this report in several ways. Users can go directly to the medium about which they are most concerned – say local TV news – and drive vertically through it. Or they can focus on a particular issue – audience trends for example – and move horizontally across different media sectors to see where Americans are going for news. Or they can move across the introductory overviews of each sector. They can flip back and forth between our narrative and the interactive charts and tabular material. Or they can work through the statistics for themselves, making their own charts, answering their own questions, in effect creating their own reports.

Our desire in this study is to answer questions we imagine any reader would find important, to help clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the available data, and to identify what is not yet answerable.

The study is the work of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with the 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 by the Project’s staff, with the exception of the chapter on newspapers, which was written with the help of a co-author. All of the chapters also benefit from the input of a team of readers who are experts in each media sector.

Our aim is a research report, not an argument. Where the facts are clear, we hope we have not shied from explaining what they reveal, making clear what is proven and what is only suggested. We hope, however, we are not seen as simply taking sides. Our intention is to inform, not to persuade.

We have tried to be as transparent as possible about sources and methods, and to make it clear when we are laying out data and when we have moved into analysis of that data. We have attempted, to the best of our ability and the limits of time, to seek out multiple sources of information for comparison where they exist. Each year we hope to gather more sources, improve our understanding and refine our methodology.

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.