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News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The old faction of the news industry has joined the new technological revolution.

Only three years ago, that was not so. Back then, our reports concluded that most of the innovation online was occurring outside of traditional news. For the most part, with the exception of what was generally called “bells and whistles,” legacy media were shoveling their content online from old platforms.

No longer. The legacy media have begun to see digital as their only hope, and experimentation has become general and increasingly enthusiastic. But that trend is not spread evenly across all media, or all companies. The sectors that are suffering most — particularly print — appear to be moving more aggressively out of need. Television, insulated by stronger advertising, continues to move more slowly, and in 2007 there were signs of some, such as CBS, moving backward.

Meanwhile, in older, or legacy platforms, the trend is even clearer. Most news organizations have fewer people to gather and report.

The challenge, taking it all in, is one that ultimately seems hard to reconcile: how can these media produce more, fulfilling a bigger task across more platforms, with generally fewer resources than in the past?

Hovering over that, too, is the question of what kind of news to produce in an age when so much information is so readily available that it is viewed as a commodity.

In the online news sector itself, much of the activity in 2007 was about partnerships, training multimedia reporters and adopting new technologies like “crowd sourcing” to get audiences involved in helping design coverage before the fact and react to it afterward. That may suggest that, with growing questions about revenue, the period of building may be flattening out some with the economic downturn. More attention is moving into such activities as more refined versions of search — especially local — that might lead to more revenue, not just traffic. And video is developing at an accelerated pace, again in part because of promising signs that users are more willing to watch video ads online, perhaps, than they are to click through text ads.

In network news, although numbers are not officially released, our estimates suggest more cuts in staff, continuing what has basically been a 20-year trend, with the heaviest toll again behind the camera. But there is one visible and potentially significant counter trend. Through the use of one-person bureaus — television’s equivalent of mobile journalists, or MOJOs — all three networks are now reporting that they have expanded their foreign bureaus into the mid-teens. It bears watching whether this will translate into a broader agenda of foreign news. So far, not yet.

On network Web sites, the trend in 2007 was in partnering rather than building new content from within. The partnerships were most often with other brand-name, often print, publications, giving those outlets wider exposure and giving the networks extra staff to put on the air and more text to post online.

In cable, all three major cable news channels appeared to increase their investment in newsgathering during the year, although their reliance on correspondents doing traditional stories varied. CNN relied more on reporters. MSNBC is basically a network that relies on live, extemporaneous, unedited information, especially during its anchor interviews. Fox falls somewhere in the middle. This may reflect the fact that CNN spends the most money on newsgathering ($273 million in 2006, estimated to increase 5% in 2007). Fox is not far behind and is expected to grow more in 2007 ($266 million in 2006, estimated to grow as much as 20% in 2007). MSNBC continues to trail in dollars ($145 million in 2006,) although 2007 marked the first time in two years that analysts projected it would increase spending (by 5%). MSNBC relies for much of its reporting on borrowing NBC staff, usually for quick live stand-ups, our content analysis reveals.

In local television news, directors report increasing budgets (53% in 2006, the last year for which there is data). But most of that money appears to be going toward technology, especially the transition to digital transmission. Staffing, in contrast, still is reported to be down slightly (to just under 36 people in the average local television newsroom in 2006). And those slightly smaller newsrooms are being asked to produce more news. News directors reported airing an average of 4.1 hours a weekday in 2006, a new high. They are also doing more sharing of content with other platforms, especially Web sites, another demand on time.

For radio, the vital signs in newsrooms have remained relatively stable over the past couple years. The amount of news being broadcast on local stations rose slightly in 2006, according to a survey of news directors, a recovery from the small dip seen in 2005. Stations in the largest markets accounted for this increase, while smaller-market stations programmed about the same amount of news as they had the previous year.

The trend toward centralized newsrooms also continues. More than three-quarters of radio news directors (76%) are in charge of providing news content to more than one station. Total staffing for radio news Web sites increased by half a person in 2006, compared with 2005. This brings the total full-time and part-time Web staff to two persons per newsroom.1

Most of the people who work in radio news are not well paid, and they’re also falling farther and farther behind. From 2001 to 2006, salaries grew only 5%, according to the RTNDA/Ball State University annual news director survey. This figure does not account for inflation, which grew 13.8% in the same time period.

In print, the news is largely bleak. More rounds of cutbacks in 2007 will be matched by even further scaling back in 2008. A firm number for job losses in 2007 is hard to gauge. We calculate the industry has lost a net of 3,000 print jobs from 2000 through 2006. With all appropriate caveats, we estimate as a reasonable guess for 2007 that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,500 print jobs will be lost, with a gain of perhaps half that number added to the online workforce. In PEJ’s 2007 survey of journalists, 48% of national journalists and 54% of local journalists say the reporting and editorial staffs are smaller than three years ago.

In magazines there were job losses as well, at least among the general-interest news magazines. Time reduced staff by 20%, to fewer than 190, a new low, and shifted resources to the Web. That included shuttering four national bureaus, and by mid-year, Newsweek for the first time claimed more people in bureaus than Time, 46 vs. 31. Staffing at Newsweek over all appeared to remain stable. On the other hand, U.S. News & World Report saw its editorial staff fall to 168, down by 20 from 2006, a drop of about 11%.

Even with the job shifts online, the basic trend seems clear enough. In print, broadcast and elsewhere, more effort is moving to packaging and repurposing material, making it more interactive and multimedia and extending its reach. But less is being devoted to original newsgathering, especially the bearing witness and monitoring of basic news.

Footnotes

1. Bob Papper, RTNDA/Ball State University Annual News Director Survey “Net Worth,” RTNDA Communicator, May 2007.