The news media in 2004 are a study in contradiction. Conglomeration has made them bigger and more powerful than ever. But surveys show that most outlets have dwindling audiences. The same four or five stories tend to dominate every 24-hour cable network on any given day. But the Internet offers the public a much broader reach of news outlets and a more comprehensive news diet. The American public is in danger of being force-fed a homogenized news product. But it also faces the possibility of splitting into thousands of tiny publics, with each group getting a different version of reality from a different set of Web sites.

Taken together, this set of incongruities adds up to a time of peril and promise for the news media. And in the decade ahead, we are likely to find out in which of these directions the public and the media will head.

Last year the Project for Excellence in Journalism set out to produce “The State of the News Media 2004,” which will become an annual report. As conceptualized by the project and The Pew Charitable Trusts (which funds it), the report was to provide a comprehensive look at the news media from a variety of angles and then provide a glimpse at where they are headed as a whole. To do this, the project gathered data from a variety of sources to use in analyzing eight major media sectors: newspapers, magazines, the Internet, radio, ethnic/alternative media and network, local and cable TV news. For each of these media it considered six areas: content, audience, economics, ownership, news investment, and the public’s attitudes.

What the project found is contained in more than 400 printed pages, and its conclusions are murky. The data don’t flow like rivers toward definable points in the distance. Instead they act more like oil spills, as they run in several directions at once. Or as the report says, “We are witnessing conflicting trends of fragmentation and convergence simultaneously, and they sometimes lead in opposite directions.”

Where Is Journalism Headed?

Journalism is in the middle of an “epochal change,” according to the report, and where it will end up is not yet clear. But in 2004, some clear trends are visible. Eight major ones define where journalism is headed across all the media studied. And the identified trends are converging to reshape the news landscape.

  1. A growing number of news outlets are chasing relatively static or even shrinking audiences for news. One result of this is that most sectors of the news media are losing audience. The only sectors seeing general audience growth today are online, ethnic and alternative media.
  2. Much of the new investment in journalism today is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it. While there are exceptions, in general journalists face real pressures trying to maintain quality.
  3. In many parts of the news media, the raw elements of news are increasingly shown as the end product. This is particularly true in the newer, 24-hour media. In cable and online, there is a tendency toward a jumbled, chaotic, partial quality in some reports, without much synthesis or even ordering of the information.
  4. Journalistic standards vary even inside a single news organization. Some companies vary their news agenda, their rules on separating advertising from news, and even their ethical standards.
  5. Without investing in building new audiences, the long-term outlook for many traditional news outlets appears problematic. Many traditional media are maintaining their profitability by focusing on cost-cutting, including reducing the resources going to their newsrooms.
  6. Convergence seems more inevitable and potentially less threatening to journalists than it might have seemed a few years ago. At least for now, online journalism appears to be leading more to convergence with older media than to replacement of it. This change offers the potential for new audiences, new ways of storytelling, more immediacy, and more citizen involvement.
  7. The biggest question might not be technologic but economic. For journalists, online appears to represent opportunity for old media, but the bigger issue may be financial. Can online provide as strong an economic foundation for newsgathering as television and newspapers have done?
  8. Those who would manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over journalists who cover them. As more outlets compete for information, it becomes a seller’s market.

Together these eight trends have led to overall thinning of the news product. In nearly every medium news coverage, in general, has gotten lighter. Large national news outlets, such as network news programs and news magazines, have shifted more of their coverage to entertainment and lifestyle in the hopes of holding onto their audience. On the evening network news, government coverage has dropped from 32 percent of stories in 1987 to just 16 percent in 2003. And in news magazines, national affairs coverage made up 35 percent of pages as recently as 1995. In 2001, it was 30 percent. In 2003, it has dropped to 25 percent.

At the same time, the increased news demand created by the 24-hour news-when-you-want-it cable news and the Internet places news organizations in a difficult spot. They are forced to churn out more stories or update news more often, while keeping costs down. Beat reporting has taken a hit across all media, but particularly on television where it has become more important to have on-air jacks-of-all-trades who can cover a trial one day and a bank merger the next.

The Effects of Media Trends

The effect of such cuts may already be apparent in the stories the media have missed in recent years. For months the 2001 energy “crisis” in California was blamed on a lack of power plants. Only later was it discovered that power companies might have been tampering with the energy supply, arranging for shortages to appear in order to increase electricity prices.

Citizens seem to be paying attention to what they are seeing and hearing. Surveys show that the public regards journalism as just another business, more focused on the bottom line and self-aggrandizement than on being a public service. These attitudes can be found in two numbers:

  • Between 1985 and 2002 the number of Americans who think news organizations are highly professional declined from 72 to 49 percent.
  • During that same time period, those who think news organizations are moral declined from 54 to 39 percent, and those who think they are immoral rose from 13 to 36 percent.

As the report puts it in describing this divide: “Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause. The public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves. The public believes that news organizations are operating largely to make money and that the journalists who work for these organizations are primarily motivated by professional ambition and self-interest.”

In their short-term quest to gain audience, are the news media undermining their franchise of being reliable sources for serious news coverage? From what this report discovered, the answer increasingly looks like yes.

The news media might be able to find a way out of some of these problems through the Internet. While the old-line media has viewed online journalism suspiciously since its inception, the Internet might afford news organizations the opportunity to go deeper in their coverage, particularly as media convergence becomes more commonplace. There are two big “ifs” in this equation: if news organizations are willing to spend what is necessary to support serious reporting and if they recognize and try to reach the audience that exists for serious news.

One interesting finding in the project’s report is the rise of what one might call a boutique niche media. The Economist with its more serious text-heavy approach to news coverage had its circulation nearly triple between 1988 and 2002, while Time and Newsweek both lost subscribers. The audience for National Public Radio (NPR) more than doubled in the past 10 years. And The New York Times circulation is increasingly scattered throughout the country in areas based on cultural and income factors. These news outlets charge more than their competitors (NPR does it through donation requests), yet they are finding new audiences.

No one expects the news media to simply do good journalism for the sake of doing it. Conveying news remains a business that is often subject to the will of boardrooms and forced to meet specified profit margins. And when news companies go broke bringing viewers, listeners and readers the news, they can’t serve the journalistic mission. But the current audience decline and receding public trust ought to caution news organizations not to make decisions about coverage only on the basis of meeting budget targets.

The years ahead look like they will offer the news media new opportunities to reach out to their audiences. The multimedia capabilities of the Web are likely to grow and give old-line print outlets the chance to enliven their coverage with audio and video. And as broadband connections increase the network news divisions might find new life with a Web platform that allows them to counter to the “always on” reportage of the 24-hour cable networks, which often produces “live” but ultimately empty standup reports.

Technology alone won’t save the news media. News organizations have to strengthen the basics of sound jour-nalism—with solid reporting, engaging writing, and tough, thorough editing. But they might need to find new Web-based revenue models to make those things possible. Devoting the necessary resources to bolster the journalism is not easy. It will require a change in the mindset of some news organizations where the focus is on cheaper and faster. But without such integral changes, the news media will continue on a road of decline.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a columnist for The Christian Science Monitor.

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