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Overview – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The state of the American news media in 2008 is more troubled than a year ago.

And the problems, increasingly, appear to be different than many experts have predicted.

Critics have tended to see technology democratizing the media and traditional journalism in decline. Audiences, they say, are fragmenting across new information sources, breaking the grip of media elites. Some people even advocate the notion of “The Long Tail,” the idea that, with the Web’s infinite potential for depth, millions of niche markets could be bigger than the old mass market dominated by large companies and producers.1

The reality, increasingly, appears more complex. Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media. The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists.2

Certainly consumers have different expectations of the press and want a changed product.

But more and more it appears the biggest problem facing traditional media has less to do with where people get information than how to pay for it — the emerging reality that advertising isn’t migrating online with the consumer. The crisis in journalism, in other words, may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising.

This more nuanced recognition is also putting into clearer relief what news people see as their basic challenge: somehow they must reinvent their profession and their business model at the same time they are cutting back on their reporting and resources. “It’s like changing the oil in your car while you’re driving down the freeway,” said Howard Weaver, the chief news executive of the McClatchy Company.

In broad terms, the fundamental trends transforming how people acquire news continued in the last year. More effort keeps shifting toward processing information and away from original reporting. Fewer people are being asked to do more, and the era of reporters operating in multimedia has finally arrived. In newspapers, and to lesser extent in network television, an expanding list of buyouts and layoffs in 2007 was expected to grow further in 2008 — in some cases even at online organizations.

The pressure points vary by news sector. In print, the problem is vanishing advertising, particularly classified. Were it not for that one sector, newspapers’ problems would be comparatively modest. In television, where problems with audience are more acute, the industry is being sustained by the fact that still nothing compares to the persuasiveness of television advertising. Online, the problem is that the revenue model is in search, not conventional advertising — and journalism sites are now already lagging behind other Internet sectors financially.

Despite all this, those who remain in the newsroom, particularly in print, evince a stubborn optimism — a sense of mission to prove what they consider a calling still has resonance and in time will find financial footing. Certainly there is skepticism on Wall Street, from the public, in some cases from owners. Yet experimentation is proving liberating, even if some experiments make news people queasy. News organizations, or at least some, have become places of risk and innovation and feel growing connection with audiences, something we could not have said a few years ago.


Footnotes

1. Anderson, Chris, 2006. “The Long Tail,” Hyperion, and 2004, “The Long Tail.” Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

2. Hindman, Matthew, 2007, “Political Accountability and the Web’s Missing Middle,” paper prepared for presentation at the Princeton Conference on Changing Media and Political Accountability, adapted from his forthcoming book, “The Myth of Digital Democracy,” Princeton University Press. Hindman’s research cast’s a variety of doubts about democratization. Among them, he finds that the top 10 news Web sites account for 29% of all Web traffic. The top 10 papers in newspapers, in contrast, account for 19% of newspaper circulation. “Across every measure, newspaper content is more concentrated online than in print.” Hindman’s research also establishes a stronger pedigree in terms of elite education and advanced post- graduate degrees for the top bloggers than for the country’s leading op-ed columnists. And the top news Web sites have 30 times the traffic of the top political and public affairs Web sites.