By Amy Mitchell and Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Journalists have become markedly more pessimistic about the future of their profession.
But their concerns are taking a distinctly new turn. Rather than worrying as much about quality, they are now focused on economic survival. And in that new focus, we see signs of new openness to change.
Journalists are ready — even eager — to embrace new technologies. They think a range of new digital activities, from blogs to citizen media, are good for journalism. They even think, by 2 to 1, that splitting their time across multiple platforms is a positive change rather than a problem that is taking time from their reporting or spreading them thin. These are all attitudes hard to imagine a few years ago.
It is also striking what is not here in these numbers. The fears of a decade ago in journalism have faded. News people are less concerned about credibility. They are not as worried about cynicism. They do not feel as isolated. It is possible that technology has helped alleviate these concerns, but it is also possible that there are simply bigger problems today, problems that are more concrete and less cultural.
The problems are about money. The crisis in journalism in 2008, journalists now more clearly believe, is a crisis of a broken economic model. And cutbacks in the newsroom, covering fewer things is now a concern front and center instead of how they are covered.
Those concerns will either be solved or journalism as people traditionally think of it — reporters out in the community bearing witness to facts — will shrink substantially.
Certainly there is a clear but complex sense of pessimism pervading journalism. It cuts across print and broadcast and across local and national journalists At the national level, more than six in ten journalists and senior executives now think journalism is headed in the wrong direction; less than a third are optimistic. TV and radio journalists at national news networks, many of whom entered 2007 with hopes of growth as online video became more widely used, are among the most pessimistic of all. All of these numbers are up from 2004.
Online journalists working for established news outlets see things in a slightly better light, but even they are more negative than positive. Half see journalism headed in the wrong direction (versus 42% who said things are moving forward.)
Only one group, local news executives are generally optimistic (65%).
What is most striking, though, is not the level of pessimism but its character. The worry is not that new technology is undermining the quality of journalism. Only about two in ten name technology as a primary worry.
To the contrary, look inside what journalists say and they are largely optimistic about what technology brings to the craft. When asked to name what in particular they see as the industry’s strengths, those naming adapting to Web more than tripled among national journalists and increased ten-fold among those at the local level. And near the top of the list are two direct results of technology — timeliness and speed. About one in five name these as something the industry is doing especially well.
Journalists also distinguish among various innovations in Web content. The vast majority now see great value in having a place on the Web site where users can post comments. Smaller majorities say that citizen-started Web sites are a good thing. (Print journalists are slightly more accepting of the practice than TV and radio journalists.) And they are less upbeat about users posting content directly onto news sites. Yet even here a sizable minority is positively inclined, nearly four in ten TV and radio or print journalists see it as a good thing.
In another area, the popular practice of ranking the most popular news stories, journalists (except for those working online) express more comfort with news organizations ranking their own material (such as most e-mailed or most viewed) than with Web sites that rank news from a multitude of sources. More than half (and two-thirds of online journalists) said ranking of a news organization’s own material was a good thing, while only a quarter to a third felt this way about separate news-ranking Web sites that pull content from many different sources.
The journalists here do not sense that the Internet has become all-consuming or that new technology has become the core of what they do. That is evident in the fact that majorities of both print and broadcast outlets say their organizations’ main focus is still the legacy media.
And that is borne out in how journalists spend their time. A good portion of those surveyed still work only or mostly on the original product. Around a quarter spend no time on the Web product. (This holds true for journalists at both the national and local levels.) The multimedia work also appears to be going on more at a national level. National journalists are more than three times as likely as local to devote half or more of their time there (19% versus 6% of local). And it is perhaps a harbinger of the future that national print journalists are the most likely to be multimedia. More than a of quarter of them (26%) spend at least half of their time producing Web content. This was true of just 9% of national TV and radio journalists.
Nor did we find evidence, as some might have expected, that journalists resent having to split their time. Those who do straddle technologies tend to see it as a good thing. About half say it has improved their work, twice the number that has doubts. This could be self- selecting. The doubters may have resisted or even taken buyouts. But, one way or another, the profession is becoming more accepting.
One reason may be that technology is putting journalists more in touch with audiences, at least at the national level. In the early part of this decade, as news organizations became more centralized and journalists found themselves spending more time reporting from their computers and often living outside the main city area, there was a growing sense of disconnect between journalists and their audiences. In 1999, 57% of national journalists surveyed agreed that journalists were out of touch with their audience. That has now dropped to 41%. At the local level, journalists did not reveal as much of a shift. Perhaps this is partly due to less advanced Web sites of local news outlets as well as to differing expectations at the local level. Most readers of the Washington Post or viewers of NBC Nightly News do not expect to see those reporters in the neighborhood supermarket. But viewers of the local television station in Iowa or Oregon very well may.
And that connects to another change — the decline in concern over journalistic cynicism. In 2004, roughly four in ten said cynicism of the press was a valid criticism. That number has now dropped down to three in ten. Technology, while posing profound economic problems, seems in some ways to have alleviated the concerns about disconnection and isolation, key elements of what many considered the credibility crisis of the a decade ago.
Print vs. Broadcast
If one sector seems more affected and unsure of the Web’s value, it is, at least according to these responses, the print industry. Journalists at national newspapers expressed the greatest sense of change in their daily work and the most uncertainty of the Web’s ultimate impact on journalism. More than a quarter, 28%, of national print journalists say their news organizations place greater emphasis on the Web (versus 9% of national TV and radio journalists). They also expressed less confidence in their leaders’ skill with the transition. While 72% of national TV and radio journalists say their leaders are doing a good or excellent job in the transition to the Web, 59% of national print journalists expressed this view.
And, in thinking about the internet’s impact on the core values of the profession, print journalists voiced the greatest skepticism. Most — 44% of nationals and 55% of locals — think it will weaken journalistic values. In TV and radio, the largest groups (49% of national and 40% of local) say it will strengthen in the end.
As a result, working more with the new technology, as print people are more likely to do, is associated with worrying more about their effects.
A Quality Product
That is related to one of the other major threads in the findings. Journalists in this survey are much less concerned than three years ago or eight years earlier about issues of quality and credibility. In earlier years the quality of the coverage was the chief concern among those surveyed. In 1999, 44% named issues of quality as the top problem facing journalism as did 41% in 2004. Now half as many, about two in ten, place these issues at the top. The same drop occurred among local journalists, falling from 33% in 2004 to 21% in 2007.
Concerns about the lack of credibility declined even more, falling from 28% of national journalists and 23% of locals naming it as the top problem in 2004 to just 9% for both groups this year.
Yet this does not mean that journalists are now satisfied. Less than 20% of journalists named the quality of coverage as something that journalism “is doing especially well these days.”
But these concerns over quality may now be more concerned with resources than with the attitudes or professionalism of the journalist. Indeed, this concern is overwhelmingly shared. More than eight in ten journalists surveyed, a greater percentage than in 2004, agree that news organizations have cut back too much on the scope of their reporting and that too little attention is paid to complex issues.
What seems to be happening instead is that other, more pressing issues have evolved — namely those of money and bottom-line pressures.
In 2007, concerns about the economics of the business have eclipsed all others, more than double any other issue. These anxieties, moreover, are felt across all the groups of journalists, and those working on the Web or in print report the greatest worry.
The concern is not just what changing economics might do. Journalists believe business cutbacks have already hurt their news organization. About three-quarters of print and online journalists say this. The concern is closer to two-thirds in broadcast. As far as journalists are concerned, in other words, the cutting has gone beyond fat into muscle.
And they believe this problem is getting worse. Nearly nine out of ten print journalists say the economic pressures they feel have increased. And it is not as though the online parts of the operations are growing are immune. Online journalists are nearly as likely as print to feel more economic pressure than a few years ago (79%).
The pressure is not felt as acutely in television and radio (61% of national and 73% of local reported increased pressures), the industry that so far still holds the greatest advertising appeal.
In short, journalists have begun to embrace the technology for what it can do for their journalism. They are uneasy about what this might do to journalism values. But their biggest worry is that the economic model of the Web won’t evolve to the point that it will support the gathering of news at a magnitude that people have come to recognize.
Divisions within Newsrooms
One other pressure point also continues. There remains a significant divide between those who manage newsrooms — the executives and editors of news organizations — and the reporters and line editors and producers who work for them.
This divide first can be seen in the questions about values. More than half (55%) of national executives felt their reporters substantially shared their values. Only 30% of reporters feel this way about their top owners and editors. And the gap is even greater between executives and newsroom staff. At the local level, only 23% reporters felt their bosses shared their values, versus 47% of executives and 31% of senior editors who felt this way about their reporters.
The divide can also be seen in how the line journalists rank their leaders. Just 12% of national reporters and 6% of local gave their leaders a rating of excellent (over half of executives offered this highest mark about themselves). And when asked specifically about the leadership’s transition to the Internet, executives again gave more positive assessments than did newsroom staff.
This concern over values also extends to how journalists see the influence of corporate ownership. Even greater divides exist over the influence of corporate owners in story selection. Reporters were five to six times as likely to say that corporate owners had a great deal of influence over coverage (11% of national and 13% of local journalists versus not a single national executive and 2% of local executives.) Very similar divides existed over the influence that advertising concerns have on content.
The divisions exist throughout the way both sides view the industry’s problems. Journalists, for instance, see the pressure of the never-ending news cycle as a problem. Majorities sense this as a valid criticism. Majorities of both executives and senior editors say it is not.
Executives also see greater potential in user-generated content. Whether based on economics or the content itself, about half of executives (47% national and 53% local) say users posting content on a news organization’s Web sites is a good thing. Only a quarter of reporters feel this way (28% national and 25% local). Executives were also more approving of citizens starting their own Web sites.
Perhaps some of this has to do with job security. Those in the newsroom were more likely to report staff cuts compared with three years ago. And, looking ahead, they have a greater sense of those cuts heading their way. Only about 30% of staff reporters and senior editors say it is not at all likely that they will lose their jobs in the next three years, compared to more than half of corporate executives.
But despite all these differences, there is one main area of consensus. Majorities at all levels agree that financial pressures have increased over the past three years and are hurting — not just changing — the industry.
To some extent, newsrooms may simply be places where reporters are skeptical of leadership. Skepticism is part of the reporter’s makeup. But it is not so obvious that a generation ago that skepticism came through to reporters’ own editors and bosses — even in some cases owners. There may even have been a bit of heroism. Think of Ben Bradlee or Katharine Graham in Washington, Otis Chandler in Los Angeles, or Richard Salant at CBS.
Does it matter? Perhaps not. But it may. This gap between those who work in newsrooms and those lead them could represent an impediment to an industry that clearly must innovate and experiment to resolve its problems.