2013 ‘State of’ Report Describes Continuing Woes of Journalism

Report details another year of declining hard-news audience numbers and shrinking newsroom staffs — with P.R. supplanting real news in more and more cases. ‘And that’s the way it is,’ the late Walter Cronkite might lament in regarding today’s news media.

Do not stop the presses.

It’s in many ways old news by now, that is that the traditional news media that so many of us grew up with is now going the way of the slide rule and Beta VCRs.

Essay

If the mass media trends go on much longer — and there’s not the least reason to think they won’t — the author of the latest report,  Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, may have to rethink its name. “Excellence” in the journalism most of us have access to day in and day out appears to be a vanishing commodity.

Adapted from “State of the News Media 2013.”

For academics and for insatiable media hounds, gluttons, or bashers, there are reams to be explored in the online pages of the latest State of the News Media 2013. For our purposes here, it may suffice to just consider a few of the “high” (low?) lights that make for such dour reading. That’s what it amounts to for those still clinging to the romantic notion that curious, independent, and skilled journalism is an essential in the continuing battle to secure democracy, expose scoundrels, recognize the legitimate do-gooders, and, yes, begin finally to confront the risks posed by a steadily warming climate. And, mind you, meet the legitimate information needs of a citizenry in any viable democratic system.

A few take-away quotations from the report itself:

  • “In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” (Translation: Expect more public relations material in the guise of news to show up on air and in your newspapers, and, alternatively, expect those messengers to reach you directly, without having to go through the pesky niceties of an informed journalist and an astute and knowledgeable editor.)
  • It all leads up to “a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones, or to question information put into its hands …. Nearly one-third of the respondents (31 percent) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.” (Translation: Forget in most cases about keen coverage of something so vital, yet so complex, as climate change. Expect more advocates’ messages to make it into erstwhile news pages … and the situation for serious journalism is going to get worse as more and more eyeballs and customers turn elsewhere.)
  • … an analysis of Census Bureau data finds “the ratio of public relations workers to journalists grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2088 — and the gap has likely only widened since.” (Translation: And that doesn’t even mention that most of the P.R. “flacks,” as real journalists historically have dismissed them, make a whole lot more money than do the reporters they’re living off of. Moral of story: More fluff in news holes once reserved for — get this — news and context, gathered “without fear or favor” and subject to qualified editors’ thorough review.)
  • “The effects of a decade of newsroom cutbacks are real.” (Translation: Folks are turning elsewhere for their information, mostly to online sources of wide-ranging credibility and credentials.)

  • “The first and hardest-hit industry, newspaper, remains in the spotlight, [but] TV finds itself newly vulnerable,” with local TV audiences in all time slots declining and regular local TV watching among adults under 30 falling by one-third in just six years. (Translation: Don’t look to local TV to carry the burden daily newspapers are abandoning. No kidding.)
  • “The clearest pattern of news audience growth in 2012 came on digital platforms, and the proliferation of digital devices in peoples’ lives seemed to be a big part of the reason.
    In 2012, total traffic to the top 25 news sites increased 7.2 percent, according to comScore. And according to Pew Research data, 39 percent of respondents got news online or from a mobile device ‘yesterday,’ up from 34% in 2010, when the survey was last conducted.” (Translation: Smaller is better, but not necessarily qualitatively.)
  • “The report pinpoints multiple signs of shrinking reporting power. For newspapers, estimates for newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put industry employment down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 employees for the first time since 1978. On local television, where audiences were down across every key time slot in 2012, news stories have shrunk in length, and, compared with 2005, coverage of government has been cut in half and sports, weather and traffic now account for 40% of the content.” (Translation: Doing more with less [fewer] is easier said than done: Fewer skilled reporters and editors covering ever-more complex issues … a challenging formula.)
    • “On CNN, Fewer Produced Packages; On MSNBC, Opinion Dominates. (emphasis in original) CNN — which has branded itself around reporting resources and reach — cut its prime time story packages in half and daytime live event coverage nearly in half between 2007 and 2012. Even so, in an analysis of coverage across the entire day, CNN was the only one of the three big cable news channels to produce more straight reporting than commentary.” (Translation: Talking-head pundits’ delight and full-employment opportunity.) 

    There’s more, lots more and not much of terribly encouraging, for those interested in digging deeper into the state of the news media in this second decade of the 21st Century.

    Most, but not all, of the insights provided by the 2013 “State of …” report are discouraging, but rising from the ashes of many of the legacy news organizations, lest we forget, is the unbounded potential of the new digital outlets. The Pew report sums up this notion as follows:

    While traditional newsrooms have shrunk, however, there are other new players producing content that could advance citizens’ knowledge about public issues. They are covering subject areas that would have once been covered more regularly and deeply by beat reporters at traditional news outlets — areas such as health, science and education. The Kaiser Family Foundation was an early entrant with Kaiser Health News. Now others … are beginning to emerge. In the last year, more news outlets have begun to carry this content with direct attribution to the source.

    It all adds up to a continuing challenging time. That’s the case not only for news and journalism, but also for those hoping healthy and responsible media can play a significant role in informing citizens and their leaders on how best to deal with complex issues such as climate change.

    It’s no wonder more people each day turn to alternative digital outlets for their news and information. The nagging question involves whether those outlets can handle their responsibilities any more effectively — or even as effectively — as the “legacy” news operations they are supplanting.

    If our democracy depends, as so many have long thought, on an informed citizenry, the public will have to turn somewhere for information and for help in how best to evaluate it. It seems less likely with each succeeding “State of the News Media” report that the public’s source of responsible news — on climate and a wide range of other public policy issues — will remain the same outlets that generations of earlier Americans relied on … even with all their warts and shortcomings.

     

    Bud Ward

    Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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