Bleak House (Summer 2009 Trust Magazine article)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Tom Ferrick Jr.


08/12/2009 - A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter reflects on his profession through the impartial eyes of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In a world of media criticism filled with ideological food fights and an overdose of “bloviation without documentation” (a media critic’s acid observation), the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism stands out as something different. It is the Sgt. Joe Friday of news media research. Like Jack Webb’s laconic detective on Dragnet, PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel and crew are interested in “just the facts, ma’am.”

No slant. No spin. No ideological prism through which they view the world. And no bias—unless you consider the desire for excellence in journalism a bias.

PEJ has a distinctly journalistic cast to its mission: to find the facts about the American news media and report them in depth. This charge is not by coincidence. For one thing, PEJ is one of the seven “fact tanks” that make up the Pew Research Center, a veritable squad of Sgt. Fridays headquartered in Washington, D.C. For another, Rosenstiel, 53, is a former journalist, with a 10-year stint as media reporter for the Los Angeles Times and congressional correspondent for Newsweek before being recruited to create what became PEJ in 1997.

“If you asked me ‘What is PEJ?’ I would say that, at its heart, we are journalists using academic-level research, but with a completely journalistic, independent sensibility,” says Rosenstiel. “We are not testing our own theories. We are trying to describe the landscape. We don’t have a hypothesis we are trying to prove. We are trying to figure out what is going on out there and why.”

As a journalist with nearly 40 years in the business, it is an approach I can appreciate. It was the kind of reporting I did when I was working at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I spent most of my career. When I arrived in 1976, the paper was headed into a golden age: expansion of staff and mission, creation of national and foreign bureaus, the winning of a skein of Pulitzer Prizes. Looking back, it seems like not just a former period, but an ancient era. When it comes to the print news media, PEJ has ended up chronicling a decade of traumatic change.

A friend once described sociology as “slow journalism.” If that is true, then what PEJ practices is warp-speed political-science research. Minus the hypotheses, of course.

A good example is its content analysis of what topics are getting the most play in the news. It is compiled weekly by a PEJ staff that monitors 48 news sources, including newspapers, cable TV, network news, online sources, radio and political talk shows. The index debuted on the PEJ Web site in January 2007 and has quickly become an oft-quoted and frequently cited source of data about the news media.

Is the economic crisis really filling more of the news hole than any other story? (Yes—from Obama’s inauguration to the end of March, 43 percent, not including related stories such as the U.S. auto industry or the president’s February 24 speech to Congress.) How are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan faring in the competition for coverage?

PEJ’s weekly news coverage index is the place to find the answers.

A question about Iraq coverage a year ago led to an analysis of that topic—and also showed PEJ’s objectivity. Prompted by a quer y from a reporter, PEJ assessed the volume of Iraq stories in the media and was able to trace a sharp drop: from 25 percent of the news hole in January 2007 to 5 percent as of March 2008.

Once the facts about Iraq coverage were out in public, PEJ retired from the field and let others fight over what they meant.

Rosenstiel says: “We got, through our e-mail, people saying, ‘Don’t you see this is perfect proof of liberal bias? Once things start to get better in Iraq, the media stop covering it.’ Other e-mails said, ‘This shows that things are so tough in the corporate media that they are closing their bureaus.’” He adds, “It is one of those things that are a kind of Rorschach test.”

The material is sliced sectionally as well, using charts that list the top ten stories for each media sector.

PEJ keeps adding to the roster. After news coverage began in 2007, it started an index of talk-show material, or “opinion programming,” which continues. In 2008, it followed stories about the presidential campaign. And this January, it began to track content on new media—more than 100 million blogs and other Web-based social media.

The weekly reports are accompanied by a terse, written summary of the coverage trends for the week.

Not so for PEJ’s other main product, its annual report, titled State of the News Media. The 2009 edition runs more than 180,000 words—but, as PEJ notes, readers are expected to visit areas of interest rather than download the full text of approximately 700 pages.

Subtitled an Annual Report on American Journalism, the document provides detailed information on every aspect of the news media: online and newspapers, network and cable TV, radio and magazines. It has become the central storehouse of information about the news media, and the media reporters I contacted said they found it invaluable. They also universally had praise for PEJ’s and Rosenstiel’s no-spin, just-the-facts approach to media issues.

The Society of Professional Journalists likes it as well, recognizing Rosenstiel and the entire PEJ staff with its Sigma Delta Chi Award for its debut issue in 2004 (“it should be sent to every news outlet in the nation,” said the judges).

As James Rainey, who covers the news media for the Los Angeles Times (and, by the way, the direct-talking observer of the bloviation quoted earlier), puts it: “When you write about the media, you are being saturated by drivel from every direction. In this opinion-heavy, fact-averse era that we live in, what PEJ has managed to do is introduce real information—statistics, research, analysis—to tell the important story of what is happening in American media.”

The 2009 media report is PEJ’s sixth edition. Reading the summaries in one sitting, I experienced the vertiginous feeling you can get riding on a roller coaster. So rapid and seismic are the changes in the media landscape, you do not know what the next rise in the tracks will bring—or whether there will be tracks.

The opening line last year set this tone: “The state of the American news media in 2008 is more troubled than a year ago.”

In 2009, the opening line is: “Some of the numbers are chilling.” The next sentences give some of those disturbing facts: newspaper ad revenues down 23 percent in two years; one of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 gone; revenue declines in local and network TV shows—even in an election year. The opening section concludes: “This is the sixth edition of our annual report on the State of the News Media in the United States. “It is also the bleakest.”

When PEJ opened its doors in 1997, no one could have predicted the changes to come. In retrospect, “it is really incredible to think about it,” says Amy S. Mitchell, PEJ’s deputy director. She recalls that when she came to PEJ, it was the first time she was exposed to “this very cool thing they had called e-mail.”

“It was,” she says, “a very different period of time.” It was before Twitter (begun in 2006), YouTube (’05), Facebook and Flickr (’04), MySpace (’03), Wikipedia (’01), the first blogging software (1999) and Google (’98). Amazon and eBay were small, two-year-old start-ups. And Craig Newmark was in his San Francisco apartment experimenting with an idea he had of offering free classified ads on the Web. He later decided to call it Craigslist.

In other words, it was before the Web revolution. It was when network television and newspapers were called, simply, the news media. Now, they are referred to in PEJ reports and elsewhere—kindly, euphemistically— as the “legacy media.”

Rosenstiel was like someone who signed up to chronicle the staid world of 18th-century French politics six months before the storming of the Bastille.

“It is amazing not only how rapidly things have changed, but how rapidly the story line has shifted,” he says.

In 1997, journalists were worrying about infotainment and sensationalism and the “tabloidization” of the traditional media. The erosion of the values of American journalism led Rosenstiel and PEJ senior counselor Bill Kovach to write The Elements of Journalism, a book that restates those core values and also outlines how journalism should be practiced. (See the sidebar below.)

Today, the story line is simpler but, for the traditional news media, grimmer. Simply put, the questions PEJ is exploring in its annual reports deal with survival. Can newspapers survive the continuing, and quickening, erosion of their advertising base? How long can network TV news survive its long decline in viewership? Is local TV news, which has cheapened its product over the years, headed for a fall in audience?

Are these media, which were once the central sources of America’s news and information, on the verge of becoming irrelevant: unwatched, unread and unprofitable?

“The next generation of viewers doesn’t watch TV, so that business is in for a change,” Rosenstiel notes. “They don’t read newspapers. But they do go on the Internet, and they use the cell phone, the universal device.”

I’ve lived through the period Rosenstiel has chronicled as a newspaper reporter and columnist. As I recall it, it was about 1997 that management at the Inquirer became aware of the Internet as a competitor. At the time, it was fearful that new Web sites would “steal” the newspaper’s talent by hiring name reporters and columnists to do freelance pieces. (It turned out, the sites didn’t. They got the content for free by linking to it from their own Web sites.)

Back then, managers became fearful the Web would take their display ads. They realized (too late) the threat from Craigslist and other free classified sites. As I tell Rosenstiel, the leadership of the paper was like a man who smelled smoke in his house and ran from room to room trying to figure out the source of it. Eventually, he realized the whole house was on fire.

To preserve their profit margin, the owners of the paper began a period of staff and expense contraction, which continues to this day. Between 2000 and 2008, the editorial staff of the paper was cut in half. Profits continued to fall, and this February the Inquirer filed for bankruptcy protection.

In an interview in his Washington office, I ask Rosenstiel to peer ahead even more and speculate on what the state of the news media will be in 2014. He is a good sport about it, though he prefaces his analysis by saying: “I am about to make a fool of myself.”

The trends Rosenstiel discusses have been evident for years, but the rate of change is accelerating.

For network TV, he says: “I think it is quite possible we won’t have three networks with full news divisions, including offering a nightly newscast, unless they are connected in some way to a cable channel. . . . They may offer some shows, particularly in the morning, but not attempt to have full news divisions.

“The great weakness of network TV is that it is tied to a broadcast that is on when fewer people are at home. It is increasingly unsuited to the way we live. The weakness of cable is, because the channels have so much time to fill, they have less time to check things out and produce polished pieces of journalism,” he says. “Eventually, it is not clear whether there will be six channels [doing news]. The economics are that they may not support that many.”

For local TV news, Rosenstiel wonders out loud if it is a “ticking time bomb.

“Local TV news is a sad story because it is quite lucrative, but it is lucrative because they have actually cheapened the product. There is more weather, but there are fewer reporters in the newsroom.” He offers a plausible, everyday scenario: “The No. 1 reason to watch local TV news is the weather. Well, now: If you are about to go out the door, you can get the weather on the Web in 15 seconds.”

For newspapers, he continues, not all are faring equally. Newspapers that are national brands—The New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal come to mind—are more likely to be winners as their audiences expand via the Internet, but it is also not clear whether the market will support three of them and if it will support them at their current scale.

The smallest papers are likely to continue on because of their highly localized content and the fact that the Web is not currently an option for most of their advertisers.

The problem is with the many newspapers in between, especially the large metropolitan dailies, such as my former paper, the Inquirer. Some have been spared the deep cuts they made there, but my friends in the business know their turn will come. I tell them: We may be in different chapters, but we are all in the same book.

“I can easily see newspaper organizations dying out in certain towns,” Rosenstiel says. “What is suffering most is the big city metro. I would say, projecting out five years, that you may see big-city newspapers really shriveling up and becoming not newspapers as we have come to think of them.”

The problem for these news organizations is not dwindling readership. When you count the online audience for newspaper Web sites, readership of these publications has increased. The problem is the economics.

How do you sustain your news product—in print and online—when traditional sources of advertising revenue are drying up and there is a growing realization that online ad dollars will never bring in enough to fill the gap? “Half your audience may be online, but only 10 percent of your revenue comes from online,” Rosenstiel points out.

To a degree, this is the creative destruction of capitalism at work. So why be concerned if the legacy media crumble as the money and audiences migrate to the Web?

The answer lies in the nature of American journalism. Newspapers are the plankton of the news chain. Every other creature in the media ocean feeds off them. If newspapers continue to shrink or if they begin to disappear, who will provide the information we need to make decisions as citizens, to vote, even to blog?

Which leads to one bias that PEJ does have. Rosenstiel and Kovach are biased in favor of American-style journalism—the independent, nonpartisan pursuit of facts— as practiced at most papers. If the supply continues to diminish, they wonder, what will take its place? Will we get our “news” from business interests, government or advocates of one stripe or another?

“The old complaint about the press was that journalists wanted to control it, and once control was broken, what role would there be for journalists?” says Rosenstiel. “Well, it turns out control was broken, and the journalists do not own the news anymore. But we still do need them to cover it. The news is not the only source, but in an interesting way, it remains the first source. All of the other things that are happening cannot happen without journalism. And the fundamental question is: How is that going to be sustained?”

Rosenstiel and Kovach both believe that the press has time to find an economic solution—but not that much time. Kovach has devoted 50 years to the business, including service as chief of The New York Times Washington bureau, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, curator of the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard University and founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a group of more than 9,000 journalists worldwide. He has the darker view: “If we don’t find a mechanism to keep these principles and values alive for the next five to 10 years, I think it is certainly possible and maybe probable that what we know as public-service journalism will be dead. And with it, democracy dies.”

The mission of news organizations, says Rosenstiel, will be to find ways to preserve their product while they search for new ways to pay for news gathering.

He tells me: “The winner is going to be the person who figures out the economics of this and figures out a way to amortize costs but not weaken the product. And that is something people haven’t figured out. They are just cutting.”

This may not be the wisest strategy, but it appears to be the most popular one, as PEJ has noted in reports detailing the substantial cuts in staff, expenses and the news hole at newspapers around the nation.

“The fact is, no matter what you think of the press, we all have a vested interest in journalism surviving,” Rosenstiel says. “American independent, nonpartisan-style journalism has been much maligned in the last decade, but it generally is the inspiration of journalists everywhere.”

Tom Ferrick Jr. has won a range of journalism honors, including a Polk Award for investigative reporting, a World Hunger Award for his reporting on the homeless and a Pulitzer Prize as a member of a team of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters for coverage of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an initiative of the Pew Research Center, is on the Web at www.journalism.org. There, you’ll find the weekly content analyses, a data library, commentaries and other materials that describe what the media are delivering and where they are headed.

For an op-ed on a novel way to pay for 21st-century newsgathering, see Donald Kimelman's op-ed, "A 'Hybrid' Path for Saving Newspapers."

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