News Study: Mainstream News Outlets Beginning To Innovate And Invest In Online Journalism

Contact: Tom Rosenstiel or Amy Mitchell at 202.293.7394


Washington, D.C. - 03/13/2006 - The mainstream news media in the last year began moving resources and people to online journalism in a significant way and for the moment may even be innovating more than the online-only companies, according to a new report on the state of journalism in America. Yet the shift may owe more to need than bold entrepreneurship. Old media platforms continued to lose audience and in 2005 saw even more pressure than before on finances. In newspapers, for instance, what little revenue growth the industry enjoyed came almost entirely from online operations and from niche publications such as those aimed at the young.

Some evidence even suggests the circulation of Spanish language newspapers, which had been growing, has leveled off.

These are some of the conclusions from “The State of the American News Media, 2006,” the third annual report on the state of Journalism in America produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The report, a comprehensive look at the state of journalism in America, is substantial, more than 178,000 words, or some 700 pages in its entirety.

The report this year also offers a unique content study of the American news media, “A Day in the Life of the News,” which examined how the national media and local media in three cities—in television, newspapers, online, blogs, radio and cable--covered a single day.

Among other findings, that study found that much of the news is transitory and incremental—few of the stories that day would be getting coverage weeks or even days later. Consumers also might actually suffer from relying solely or even primarily on a single news source. Most media excel at certain kinds of information but few excel at everything. Indeed, if one were to watch cable news all day, they would tend to be less informed than if they charted a careful diet of sources that required less time.

“The variety of news sources available today makes relying on a single outlet seem like an outdated idea,” Project Director Tom Rosenstiel said. “But consumers need to be careful about where they go and even when. Stories come and go fast and getting a comprehensive picture of the news can be difficult.”

The big question is how long will it take online to get to an economic model that rivals the old media in revenues—or will get there at all. Using the current model, if online revenues at newspapers continued to grow at their current rate—an improbable 33 percent--and newspapers grew only at a modest 3 percent, it would take 12 years for that to happen—even that scenario is probably wildly optimistic. In the meantime, American newsrooms, already shrinking, may no longer be able to cover the waterfront.

The study, now in its third year, offers an overview on the state of the state of journalism in America and detailed chapters on nine different sectors of the press—newspapers, magazines, network television, cable news, local TV, the Internet (including blogs), radio, the ethnic press and alternative media. For each sector, the report collects all available information on six different areas: audience, economics, ownership, newsroom investment, and public attitudes.

Among other findings:

  • The new paradox of journalism is more outlets are covering fewer stories. As the number of news outlets grows, generally the audiences of each one shrinks, and news organizations cut back on resources. Yet they still all have to cover the big stories. Thus on most major events, we have more reporters, but fewer stories are being covered generally. A close look at the big news websites even demonstrates it. Google News offers access within two clicks to 14,000 stories, but really they are accounts of just 24 news events.  
  • Newspapers are expected to have lost about 1,500 jobs in 2005, and more than 1.5 million in circulation. Since 2000, the industry would be down about 3,800 jobs, or about 7 percent. But it seems premature to suggest that newspapers are now on rapid course to extinction. The circulation declines and job cuts will probably tally at only about 3 percent. The industry will still post profit margins of 20 percent. If one combines print and online, the readership of many newspapers is higher than ever.  
  • Among newspapers big city metros appear to be suffering the biggest circulation declines and newsroom cutbacks. The three national newspapers and smaller papers are faring better. These big papers are caught between people having access to national and international sources at one end, and more niche publications on the other. Yet our content studies suggest the big metros are the news organizations most likely to have the resources and aspirations to act as watchdog over state, regional and urban institutions, to identify trends, and to define the larger community public square. It is unlikely small suburban dailies or weeklies will take up that challenge.  
  • At many old media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost. The troubles of 2005, especially in print, dealt a further blow to this fight for journalism in the public interest. “If you argue about public trust today, you will be dismissed as an obstructionist and a romantic,” the editor of one of the country’s major papers told us privately.  
  • The audience for online news appears to have stabilized, for now. The growth now is not in how many people get news online, but how often they do so.  
  • The only cable channel growing, by our count, is Fox News, which now commands 50 percent of the audience, and is building its infrastructure rapidly—adding to its expenses by roughly 25 percent a year.  
  • Local radio news, with a handful of exceptions, is much more local than critics might guess, but it mostly amounts to traffic, weather, headlines taken from wire copy and talk shows. Only 14 percent of the stories we examined on local radio involved a reporter in the field, and almost all of those were on NPR affiliates or came from network syndicated stories.
“In the last year, the changes in media have intensified, and the problems for print have accelerated,” said Rosenstiel. “Yet it’s probably glib and even naïve to say simply that more platforms equal more choices. The content has to come from somewhere, and as older news gathering media decline, some of the strengths they offer in monitoring the powerful and verifying the facts may be weakening as well.”

Full Report Information Online

The study, which contains detailed charts, graphs and citations, can be accessed online at www.stateofthemedia.org.

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