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Major Trends

Major Trends

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2006, we see six new trends emerging that deserve highlighting and that add to the underlying trends transforming journalism we have noted in earlier reports. This year:

The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories. As the number of places delivering news proliferates, the audience for each tends to shrink and the number of journalists in each organization is reduced. At the national level, those organizations still have to cover the big events. Thus we tend to see more accounts of the same handful of stories each day. And when big stories break, they are often covered in a similar fashion by general-assignment reporters working with a limited list of sources and a tight time-frame. Such concentration of personnel around a few stories, in turn, has aided the efforts of newsmakers to control what the public knows. One of the first things to happen is that the authorities quickly corral the growing throng of correspondents, crews and paparazzi into press areas away from the news. One of the reasons coverage of Katrina stood out to Americans in 2005 was officials were unable to do that, though some efforts, including one incident of holding journalists at gunpoint, were reported. For the most part, the public — and the government — were learning from journalists who were discovering things for themselves.

The species of newspaper that may be most threatened is the big-city metro paper that came to dominate in the latter part of the 20th century. The top three national newspapers in the U.S. suffered no circulation losses in 2005. The losses at smaller newspapers, in turn, appeared to be modest. It was the big-city metros that suffered the biggest circulation drops and imposed the largest cutbacks in staff. Those big papers are trying to cover far-flung suburbs and national and regional news all at the same time — trying to be one-stop news outlets for large audiences. In part, they are being supplanted by niche publications serving smaller communities and targeted audiences. Yet our content studies suggest the big metros are the news organizations most likely to have the resources and aspirations to act as watchdogs over state, regional and urban institutions, to identify trends, and to define the larger community public square. It is unlikely that small suburban dailies or weeklies will take up that challenge. Moreover, while we see growth in alternative weeklies and the ethnic press, many small suburban dailies have shrunk.

At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost. The troubles of 2005, especially in print, dealt a further blow to the fight for journalism in the public interest. “If you argue about public trust today, you will be dismissed as an obstructionist and a romantic,” the editor of one of the country’s major papers told us privately. An executive at one of the three broadcast networks told senior staff members in a meeting last year that “the ethical anvil has been lifted,” meaning the producers could dispense with traditional notions of journalistic propriety. One of the most celebrated editors in the country, John Carroll of the Los Angeles Times, stepped down in frustration in 2005, but only after taking weeks to persuade his successor not to join him. The most celebrated journalist still at ABC, Ted Koppel, left for cable, but only after announcing that neither cable news nor network news was amenable to the long-form work to which he aspired. The most cogent explanation for why journalism in the public interest has lost leverage was probably offered by Polk Laffoon IV, the corporate spokesman of Knight Ridder. “I wish there were an identifiable and strong correlation between quality journalism … and newspaper sales,” he said. “It isn’t …that simple.” From here on, at many companies, the fight on behalf of the public interest will come from the rank and file of the newsroom, with the news executive as mediator with the boardroom. There are some notable exceptions, and journalists who work in those situations today consider themselves lucky. Meanwhile, at many new-media companies, it is not clear if advocates for the public interest are present at all.

That said, traditional media do appear to be moving toward technological innovation — finally . In earlier reports, the real investment and creativity in new technology appeared to be coming mostly from non-news organizations like Google. Traditional news outfits, in practice if not in rhetoric, treated the Internet as a platform to repurpose old material. While the evidence is sketchy and the efforts are frustrated by newsroom cutbacks, in 2005 we saw signs that the pattern was beginning to change. A big reason was that much of the revenue growth in these companies is now coming from online (and from niche products such as youth newspapers). In network television, for instance, viewers of ABC News can now watch an evening newscast from that network online three and a half hours before one is broadcast on television. In print, various papers announced reorganizations of online operations. An internal memo at the Los Angeles Times was fairly typical, calling for “a different kind of online news operation, one that recognizes the changing expectations of readers.” In that transition, several big questions remain unanswered. One is whether younger audiences care anything about these traditional news brands. Another is, even if these legacy media do finally try to move online seriously, can they change their culture, or will they succumb to the natural tendency to favor their traditional platforms?

The new challengers to the old media, the aggregators, are also playing with limited time. When it comes to news, what companies like Google and Yahoo are aggregating and selling is the work of others — the very same old media they are taking revenue away from. The more they succeed, the faster they erode the product they are selling, unless the economic model is radically changed. Already there are rumblings. One thing to watch for in 2006 is whether old-media content producers demand that Google News begin to pay them for content. Another option for the aggregators is to begin to produce their own news, and already we are seeing baby steps; in 2005, Yahoo announced it would hire some journalists, but the effort is still minimal. Can the new rivals become more than technology companies? And if they do, will they have more than rhetorical allegiance to the values of public-interest journalism?

The central economic question in journalism continues to be how long it will take online journalism to become a major economic engine, and if it will ever be as big as print or television. If the online revenues at newspapers continue to grow at the current rate — an improbable 33% a year — they won’t reach levels equivalent with print until 2017 (assuming print grows just 3% a year). Realistically, even with the lower delivery costs online, it will be years before the Internet rivals old media economics, if it ever does. Fledgling efforts to get consumers to pay for online content edged forward in 2005, but only marginally. All this only adds to the likelihood that the next battleground will be producers of old media challenging Internet providers and Internet aggregators to begin compensating them for content, the model that exists in cable.

Those trends are in addition to others we have identified in earlier years. Among them: that the traditional model of journalism — the press as verifier — is giving way to other models that are faster, looser and cheaper; to adapt, journalism must move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert and widening the scope of its searchlight; those who would manipulate the press and the public are gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them; convergence is more inevitable and less threatening the more one looks at audience data; the notion that people are gravitating to a partisan press model, or red news and blue news, is exaggerated. (See Major Trends 2004 and 2005).