05/25/2012 - To understand how fast information moves these days, consider how rapidly the information industry has changed in just the past five years.
A child born as recently as 2007 has never known a world without iPods, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. But that same five-year-old is older than the iPhone, Kindle and the iPad. As we lurch from one communications mini-revolution to the next—from Tumblr to Instagram to Pinterest—it’s obvious that technological change—“disruption” is the au courant term—has made more information accessible more quickly to more people than at any other time in human history.
This epochal transition from print to digital media has enabled individuals to bypass the elite sources that have dominated knowledge transmission for much of human history—monarchs, governments, publishers, media professionals. The new ability to share information over social networks and other online means has encouraged “disruptions” of its own, such as the insurgent candidacy of Barack Obama in 2008, the Tea Party revolt of 2010, the Arab Spring of 2011 and the Kony viral video of 2012.
Making sense of how Americans receive, digest and use new information sources is at the heart of two of the Pew Research Center’s ongoing projects: The Project for Excellence in Journalism, directed by Tom Rosenstiel, and the Internet & American Life Project, overseen by Lee Rainie.
The journalism project has spent 15 years documenting the downward path of “traditional” media sources, such as broadcast and cable TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. The Internet project since its inception in 1999 has described in detail how people behave with each new tech gadget or digital innovation, assessing the impact of technology on families, communities, work and home, education, health care and civic and political life.
Together, the two projects have created a kind of rolling answer to a complex question: What do Americans know, and how are they going about finding out what there is to know? In their myriad studies and surveys, they seem to share a basic conclusion: The revolution is only beginning and already there have been costs and casualties alongside the breakthroughs.
Less Original Reporting
“By and large, the dirty little secret is that the Internet is more about distribution than creation” of information and news, says Rosenstiel, an author and former media reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Although the availability of news has expanded dramatically, he says, “the reportorial part of the culture has actually shrunk.”
It’s easier than ever to find out what’s happening in Mumbai or Japan or Washington, he says. Smartphones and iPads and the Internet place all this information literally at our fingertips. There are more providers—Google, Yahoo!, the Drudge Report, etc.—to cull and organize this material.
But as the demand for information grows, the supply of original reporting hasn’t kept pace. The number of professional journalists gathering this information—the “boots on the ground,” as Rosenstiel calls them—has declined in most cities across America, reflecting huge reductions in the staffs of traditional news outlets whose employers have been economically squeezed in the digital transition.
The journalism project’s own mission has evolved since its founding as an affiliate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. For its first nine years, it conducted empirical research while also operating as an advocate for press freedom and ethics through a group called the Committee for Concerned Journalists (CCJ). In 2006, it separated from Columbia and the CCJ and joined the Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and a “fact tank” that researches and analyzes issues but engages in no advocacy efforts.
Once at the research center, the journalism project began focusing solely on basic, non-partisan research, such as content analysis and tracking of industry trends.
The State of the News Media
The organization’s opus is the State of the News Media report, which offers perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the health of American journalism published each year. The current report, the ninth edition, offers an encyclopedic overview of the economic and structural trends in the “legacy” media (newspapers, TV news, etc.) as well as alternative and digital outlets.
The 2012 report finds that the news about the news is a mixed bag. Thanks in part to new technology making news easily accessible, more people are interested in it than ever before. But the report also notes that a handful of technology companies are playing an ever-increasing role in providing people access to news, and that these companies also control the digital advertising dollars and revenues that come with it. Already, five companies (Google, Microsoft, Facebook, AOL and Yahoo!) account for 68 percent of all online ad revenue (other giants like Apple and Amazon make money on devices and downloads). The result: a shift in economic power that has eroded the financial strength of traditional news organizations.
What this means in practice is that information that was routinely available via a newspaper or on the local TV news no longer is as easy to find. “It’s hard to find out what happened at the zoning commission in many towns in America,” Rosenstiel says, or in state capitals, where traditional news outlets have made major cuts in their statehouse bureaus even as legislators grapple with increasingly complex issues.
Rosenstiel answers with a laugh the question of whether our information diet is better or worse now. “Yes!” he says. “You can read more about your favorite subjects. If you're a fan of a team or national politics or Renaissance art, it's easier to answer questions about that subject. But the number of [reporters] watching the attorney general's office is down. The shared knowledge we have is about fewer things. We all know about the shootings in Tucson and the tsunami and Moammar Gadhafi being killed—those major stories are easier than ever to access. The public square is still there but it’s smaller. While this is hard to quantify, my sense is that the shared conversation is narrower and perhaps shallower.”
But Rosenstiel rejects one widely held notion: that Americans are retreating into closed “news” communities where they need only to hear news that confirms their preconceptions and prejudices.
In fact, the journalism project’s research shows that most people learn about the news from popular, conventional sources. It’s for commentary, not news, that people turn to the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Al Sharpton or Rush Limbaugh. “The notion that we don’t know the same things is not borne out by the data,” Rosenstiel says. “For the most part, people get their core information in predictable places. The ideological sources are far smaller.”
Still, it might not be alarmist to suggest that a good part of the traditional news agenda is threatened by the tectonic shifts the journalism project has documented. It notes that the news source most imperiled by the digital change—newspapers—may be the most important of all to the overall health of the news “ecosystem.”
In a Pew survey last year, newspapers were the most widely cited by respondents as their primary source for information about government, cultural events, schools, housing and civic affairs. What’s more, a 2010 project study, How News Happens, showed that the majority of the most widely reported stories in a city (in this case, Baltimore) were generated primarily by local newspapers, then picked up and repeated by TV, radio and digital sources.
But even with this leading role in news generation, the much-diminished local paper, the Baltimore Sun, was producing nearly a third fewer original stories than it had in 1999, and 73 percent fewer than in 1991, the study found. Thus, the State of the News Media 2012 asked the relevant question: “If [newspapers] continue to shrivel or disappear, it is unclear where, or whether, that information would be reported.”
The Project on Excellence in Journalism’s original, empirical and nonpartisan research makes it a valuable source for journalists and scholars, says Stephen Lacy, a communication and journalism professor at Michigan State University. The project’s content-analysis work, combined with survey research from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, he said, has “made an important contribution to our understanding of U.S. journalism at a crucial juncture in its history.”
Lacy, who has collaborated with the journalism project on research, has incorporated its findings into his own scholarship. The organization’s work, he said, typically “provides longitudinal data that would otherwise be unavailable. …Without this work, I am afraid scholars would have to rely on anecdotal observations and scholarly research that is unpredictable in its availability.”
Lee Rainie sounds remarkably like Tom Rosenstiel when he talks about the challenges facing books and libraries, a current focus of the Internet & American Life Project. That’s because publishers and librarians find themselves in a period of economic and technological turmoil similar to journalism.
Book publishers see both opportunity and peril in the transition from print to “e-reading” as more and more people own tablets, Nooks and Kindles. (About 21 percent of Americans have read an e-book in the past year and they read more books than other readers, according to Pew’s research.) At the same time, public libraries are struggling to define their mission in a digital age, and remain in a stalemate with major publishers over how to disseminate e-books without hurting book sales.
Says Rainie, “Librarians are asking the same questions as journalists: What are we? What is our main line of our work? What is the right mix of collections and expertise? What is the mix of services and for whom? Also, what do we give up doing? Librarians see the same level of threat and possibility that news people do.”
The Internet project is trying to probe those questions. Working in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pew team has begun a three-year project to investigate the role of libraries in the digital era.
The first report of the three-phase project, released in early April, confirmed the growing use of e-books but also revealed that e-book devices have turned some into super readers. In a survey of 3,000 people, e-book owners said they read an average of 24 titles in the past year in all formats (print or digital) compared with an average of 15 for print-only readers. The survey found that the growing volume of e-content spurs some to consume more books and other long-form material. That’s the good news for libraries.
The bad? Some publishers are afraid that widespread lending of e-books will increase digital piracy, creating the equivalent of the Napster problem that beset the music industry a decade or more ago. Four of the six major book publishers—Simon & Schuster, Hachette, MacMillan and Penguin—have declined to make their e-book catalogues available to libraries until royalty and security standards are worked out. What’s more, the Pew survey found that only 14 percent of e-book readers borrowed their most recent book from a library, a figure that suggests libraries could be losing some of their most valuable patrons to the private sector.
The second phase of the study will probe a more fundamental question: What services do people want from their local libraries? Rainie says libraries are going beyond being book lenders to offering language instruction, teaching computer skills and serving as community-program hosts. And so a second survey will ask which services are most important and which are diminishing.
The final piece of research will examine who uses libraries and why; the goal is to get a picture of users and non-users to give library professionals data on how to serve different groups.
The Internet project’s emphasis on basic behavioral data, not expert policy opinion, could be a boon for the nation’s libraries, says Larra Clark, the associate director of the American Library Association’s Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century. “Research is expensive, but it’s very important for us to understand who we’re serving and what their information needs are,” she said. “Pew is giving us some of the pieces that will help us answer some really timely questions.”
An Unknown Future
Rainie, a former magazine journalist, is the founding director of the Internet project. The idea of the project was to provide reliable data about the Internet, then still in its earliest, formative phase. From the beginning, researchers focused on social behavior—how people used and responded to the Internet—rather than the commercial and business aspects that were already the subject of much private-sector research.
The project conceived its audience as policy makers, technology thinkers, journalists and scholars. But as the topics and areas of interest multiplied, the project subsequently branched out to family advocates, medical professionals, librarians and government technology experts. It became one of seven projects housed at the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center in 2004.
If you think things are unsettled now with the dizzying pace of technology and new information streams, says Rainie, just wait.
“We’re still in the early phases of the Internet’s development,” he says, with more revolutions to come. Coming soon, he predicts, could be information “interfaces” that operate on voice-, touch- or motion-activated commands. Coming later (perhaps): info-appliances that operate on the basis of thought waves.
“There’s clearly room to grow,” Rainie says. At the same time, he adds, there’s always more to know: “No one has the playbook. There isn’t a secret guild of Masters of the Universe who know the answers. Everything is in flux. Nothing is settled.”
Paul Farhi writes about journalism and the media for the Washington Post.