Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

State of the News Media

Tough Times for Print Journalism – and In-Depth Reporting

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which will become a part of the Pew Research Center in mid-2006, issued its annual report on the state of the news media this week. Here is an excerpt from the report’s overview.

Scan the headlines of 2005 and one question seems inevitable: Will we recall this as the year when journalism in print began to die?

The ominous announcements gathered steam as the year went on. The New York Times would cut nearly 60 people from its newsroom, the Los Angeles Times 85; Knight Ridder’s San Jose Mercury News cut 16%, the Philadelphia Inquirer 15% — and that after cutting another 15% only five years earlier. By November, investors frustrated by poor financial performance forced one of the most cost-conscious newspaper chains of all, Knight Ridder, to be put up for sale.

Adding to the worry, industry fundamentals, not the general economy, were the problem — declining circulation, pressure on revenues, stock prices for the year down 20%.

It wasn’t only newspapers, either. Magazines like Newsweek, U.S. News and Business Week were suffering, too. The largest company, Time Inc., advertising and circulation falling, cut 205 people and promised to transform itself from “magazine publishing” to a “multiplatform media company.” The former dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Tom Goldstein would conclude, “Unless they urgently respond to the changing environment, newspapers risk early extinction.”

Is it true? From here on will the delivery of news in ink on paper begin a rapid and accelerating decline? Newspapers are the country’s biggest newsgathering organizations in most towns and the Internet’s primary suppliers. What would their decline portend?

For two years, this report has tracked the major trends in the American news media (link to 2005 and 2004). What is occurring, we have concluded, is not the end of journalism that some have predicted. But we do see a seismic transformation in what and how people learn about the world around them. Power is moving away from journalists as gatekeepers over what the public knows. Citizens are assuming a more active role as assemblers, editors and even creators of their own news. Audiences are moving from old media such as television or newsprint to new media online. Journalists need to redefine their role and identify which of their core values they want to fight to preserve —something they have only begun to consider.

In 2005, change intensified. The shift by audiences to other delivery mediums accelerated print’s problems. Things that seemed futuristic two years ago, such as watching network news on a PDA, began to arrive. The role of new aggregators like Google grew. And new scandals in the old media seemed to confirm worries that some news people are more concerned with their careers than the public interest.

We believe some fears are overheated. For now, the evidence does not support the notion that newspapers have begun a sudden death spiral. The circulation declines and job cuts will probably tally at only about 3% for the year. The industry still posted profit margins of 20%. Measuring print and online together, the readership of many newspapers is higher than ever.

[And while the public continues to be troubled about the news media in some areas, including heightened concerns about bias, criticism of the military, and whether the news media really protect democracy, Americans have a more favorable view of the press generally and considers the news media more professional and moral than they did before September 11, 2001, or in aftermath of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.]

On the other hand, the most sanguine reaction to all these changes — that they simply reflect an older medium’s giving way to a newer one, and that citizens will have more choices than ever — strikes us as glib, even naïve. Even if newspapers are not dying, they and other old media are constricting, and so, it appears, is the amount of resources dedicated to original newsgathering.

Most local radio stations, our content study this year finds, offer virtually nothing in the way of reporters in the field. On local TV news, fewer and fewer stories feature correspondents, and the range of topics that get full treatment is narrowing even more to crime and accidents, plus weather, traffic and sports. On the Web, the Internet-only sites that have tried to produce original content (among them Slate and Salon) have struggled financially, while those thriving financially rely almost entirely on the work of others. Among blogs, there is little of what journalists would call reporting (our study this year finds reporting in just 5% of postings). Even in bigger newsrooms, journalists report that specialization is eroding as more reporters are recast into generalists.

In some cities, the numbers alone tell the story. There are roughly half as many reporters covering metropolitan Philadelphia, for instance, as in 1980. The number of newspaper reporters there has fallen from 500 to 220. The pattern at the suburban papers around the city has been similar, though not as extreme. The local TV stations, with the exception of Fox, have cut back on traditional news coverage. The five AM radio stations that used to cover news have been reduced to two. As recently as 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer had 46 reporters covering the city. Today it has 24.

In the future, we may well rely more on citizens to be sentinels for one another. No doubt that will expand the public forum and enrich the range of voices. Already people are experimenting with new ways to empower fellow citizens to gather and understand the news — whether it is soldiers blogging from Baghdad, a radio program on the war produced by students at Swarthmore College carrying eyewitness interviews with Iraqi citizens, or a similar effort by young radio reporters in Minnesota to cover local towns.

Yet the changes will probably also make it easier for power to move in the dark. And the open technology that allows citizens to speak will also help special interests, posing as something else, to influence or even sometimes overwhelm what the rest of us know. The worry is not the wondrous addition of citizen media, but the decline of full-time, professional monitoring of powerful institutions.

Those are just some of the questions and conclusions in this, the third of our annual reports on the state of American journalism. The study, which we believe is unique in depth and scope, breaks the news industry into nine sectors (newspapers, magazines, network television, cable television, local television, the Internet, radio, ethnic media, and alternative media) and builds off many of the findings from a year ago.

This year, the study also includes a distinct content report, A Day in the Life of the News, in which we examine one day’s events as they course through the media culture in print, television, radio, online, and blogs, magazines, both nationally and locally in three American cities.

Read the full report, including a more extensive version of this overview

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information