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Major Trends

Major Trends

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2007, we see seven new major trends worth highlighting:

News organizations need to do more to think through the implications of this new era of shrinking ambitions. The move toward building audience around “franchise” areas of coverage or other traits is a logical response to fragmentation and can, managed creatively, have journalistic value. To a degree, journalism’s problems are oversupply, too many news organizations doing the same thing. But something gained means something lost, especially as newsrooms get smaller. There is already evidence that basic monitoring of local government has suffered. Regional concerns, as opposed to local, are likely to get less coverage. Matters with widespread impact but little audience appeal, always a challenge, seem more at risk of being unmonitored. What do concepts like localism and branding really mean? Should only national newspapers maintain foreign bureaus? Does localism mean provincialism? Should news organizations, so as not to abandon more high-level coverage, enlist citizen sentinels to monitor community news? To what extent do journalists still have a role in creating a broad agenda of common knowledge? Those issues, debated in theory before, are becoming real. And the wrong answers could hasten, not stave off, the decline of news organizations.

The evidence is mounting that the news industry must become more aggressive about developing a new economic model. The signs are clearer that advertising works differently online than in older media. Finding out about goods and services on the Web is an activity unto itself, like using the yellow pages, and less a byproduct of getting news, such as seeing a car ad during a newscast. The consequence is that advertisers may not need journalism as they once did, particularly online. Already the predictions of advertising growth on the Web are being scaled back. That has major implications, (which some initiatives such as “Newspaper Next” are beginning to grapple with). Among them, news organizations can broaden what they consider journalistic function to include activities such as online search and citizen media, and perhaps even liken their journalism to anchor stores at a mall, a major reason for coming but not the only one. Perhaps most important, the math suggests they almost certainly must find a way to get consumers to pay for digital content. The increasingly logical scenario is not to charge the consumer directly. Instead, news providers would charge Internet providers and aggregators licensing fees for content. News organizations may have to create consortiums to make this happen. And those fees would likely add to the bills consumers pay for Internet access. But the notion that the Internet is free is already false. Those who report the news just aren’t sharing in the fees.

The key question is whether the investment community sees the news business as a declining industry or an emerging one in transition. If one believes that news will continue to be the primary public square where people gather — with the central newsrooms in a community delivering that audience across different platforms — then it seems reasonable that the economics in time will sort themselves out. In that scenario, people with things to sell still need to reach consumers, and the news will be a primary means of finding them. If one believes, however, that the economics of news are now broken, with further declines ahead, then it seems inevitable that the investment in newsrooms will continue to shrink and the quality of journalism in America will decline. One thing seems clear, however: If news companies do not assert their own vision here, including making a case and taking risks, their future will be defined by those less invested in and passionate about news.

There are growing questions about whether the dominant ownership model of the last generation, the public corporation, is suited to the transition newsrooms must now make. Private markets now appear to value media properties more highly than Wall Street does. More executives are openly expressing doubt, too, whether public ownership’s required focus on stock price and quarterly returns will allow media companies the time and freedom and risk taking they feel they need to make the transition to the new age. The radio giant Clear Channel made that point when it went private. So have a host of private suitors emerging in the newspaper field. What is unknown is whether these potential new private owners are motivated by public interest, a vision of growth online, having a high-profile hobby (like a sports team), or as an investment to be flipped for profit after aggressive cost-cutting. Public ownership tends to make companies play by the same rules. Private ownership has few leveling influences. And the new crop of potential private owners is unlike the press barons of the past, people trying to create their legacy in news. Most of them are people who made their fortunes in other enterprises.

The Argument Culture is giving way to something new, the Answer Culture. Critics used to bemoan what author Michael Crichton once called the “Crossfire Syndrome,” the tendency of journalists to stage mock debates about issues on TV and in print. Such debates, critics lamented, tended to polarize, oversimplify and flatten issues to the point that Americans in the middle of the spectrum felt left out. That era of argument —R.W. Apple Jr. the gifted New York Times Reporter who died in 2006, called it “pie throwing” — appears to be evolving. The program “Crossfire” has been canceled. A growing pattern has news outlets, programs and journalists offering up solutions, crusades, certainty and the impression of putting all the blur of information in clear order for people. The tone may be just as extreme as before, but now the other side is not given equal play. In a sense, the debate in many venues is settled — at least for the host. This is something that was once more confined to talk radio, but it is spreading as it draws an audience elsewhere and in more nuanced ways. The most popular show in cable has shifted from the questions of Larry King to the answers of Bill O’Reilly. On CNN his rival Anderson Cooper becomes personally involved in stories. Lou Dobbs, also on CNN, rails against job exportation. Dateline goes after child predators. Even less controversial figures have causes: ABC weatherman Sam Campion champions green consumerism. The Answer Culture in journalism, which is part of the new branding, represents an appeal more idiosyncratic and less ideological than pure partisan journalism.

Blogging is on the brink of a new phase that will probably include scandal, profitability for some, and a splintering into elites and non-elites over standards and ethics. The use of blogs by political campaigns in the mid-term elections of 2006 is already intensifying in the approach to the presidential election of 2008. Corporate public-relations efforts are beginning to use blogs as well, often covertly. What gives blogging its authenticity and momentum — its open access — also makes it vulnerable to being used and manipulated. At the same time, some of the most popular bloggers are already becoming businesses or being assimilated by establishment media. All this is likely to cause blogging to lose some of its patina as citizen media. To protect themselves, some of the best-known bloggers are already forming associations, with ethics codes, standards of conduct and more. The paradox of professionalizing the medium to preserve its integrity as an independent citizen platform is the start of a complicated new era in the evolution of the blogosphere.

While journalists are becoming more serious about the Web, no clear models of how to do journalism online really exist yet, and some qualities are still only marginally explored. Our content study this year was a close examination of some three dozen Web sites from a range of media. Our goal was to assess the state of journalism online at the beginning of 2007. What we found was that the root media no longer strictly define a site’s character. The Web sites of the Washington Post and the New York Times, for instance, are more dissimilar than the papers are in print. The Post, by our count, was beginning to have more in common with some sites from other media. The field is still highly experimental, with an array of options, but it can be hard to discern what one site offers, in contrast to another. And some of the Web’s potential abilities seem less developed than others. Sites have done more, for instance, to exploit immediacy, but they have done less to exploit the potential for depth.