07/15/2013 - Every year for the past decade, the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media” report has provided an overview of an industry that is vital to modern democracy. As it happens, the past decade also turned out to be one of the most transformative periods in the history of American journalism.
Journalists know only too well how the digital revolution has obliterated their jobs and reordered their newsrooms. But how does the public—the consumers of news—feel about it? The industry got a sobering piece of news about itself in the Pew Research Center’s voluminous annual “State of the News Media” report.
The report by the center’s Project for excellence in journalism contained this original and humbling finding: Relatively few people were aware of the industry’s financial struggles, but many had noticed the effects. Nearly one-third—31 percent—of adults surveyed said they had stopped reading, watching, or listening to a favorite news source because of inadequate reporting or some other perceived decline.
The deteriorating public perception of the news media is the result of an erosion of resources and occurs at a time when new technology is providing growing opportunities for those in politics, government, corporations, and elsewhere to take their messages directly to the public, unchecked by independent journalists. “This adds up,” the report concludes, “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.”
The findings were in keeping with much of what the journalism project documented over the past decade in its annual “State of the News Media” reports. Now exceeding a million words with innumerable charts and graphs, the reports catalog the disruption, desperation, and adaptation in the news-media ecosystem.
Over time, the reports have become a one-of-a-kind series evaluating the technological, economic, and demographic factors shaping the creation of news. The idea is to provide a critical overview of an industry that is vital to the functioning of a modern democratic society, says Amy Mitchell, the report’s principal editor and the journalism project’s acting director. As Mitchell wrote in the first report in 2004: “Journalism is how people learn about the world beyond their direct experiences. As our journalism fragments, it has consequences for what we know, how we are connected and our ability to solve problems.”
From their inception, the “State of the News Media” reports brought together quantitative and qualitative data about multiple media segments rather than focusing on one. This represented a major change in the way the news media were evaluated, says Tom Rosenstiel, the journalism project’s original director. Annual assessments of the media up to that time generally focused on hard data: Was CBS or NBC gaining or losing viewers? How many unique visitors did Yahoo attract each month? None sought to compare developments across the spectrum. “Something like this hadn’t been tried by anyone who wasn’t trying to identify the best place to spend ad money,” says Rosenstiel, who is now executive director of the American Press Institute. “No one was assessing the news media as a whole.”
Exploring topics that are critical to society from a fresh, neutral perspective is a hallmark of the Washington-based Pew Research Center. A subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, the center is a nonpartisan self-described “fact tank,” which—in addition to its media research—conducts public opinion polling, demographic, and other social science research.
The original “State of the News Media” report was produced after four months of research, analysis, and writing. Then as now, the project’s staff analyzed eight news media segments—newspapers, digital news, network television, local TV, magazines, radio, ethnic publications, and alternative media—with an overview that synthesized the major trends affecting all. The writing, research, and production of each report now consume about three months for the journalism project’s five-member staff, supplemented by industry consultants and outside information suppliers such as the Nielsen Co. As Mark Jurkowitz, the project’s associate director and one of the reports’ principal authors, puts it, “You really can’t understand what’s happening with the delivery of news and information in America until you really get under the hood.”
As it happens, the life span of the “State of the News Media” reports coincides with one of the most transformative decades in the history of the industry. The first report grandly called the era “as momentous probably as the [period following the] invention of the telegraph or television.” If that’s the case, each “State of the News Media” can be read as an almanac of the revolution. It has reported the explosion of cable channels and the advent of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. It has analyzed the increasing dominance of Google and Apple in the digital economy, the rise of blogging, and the importance of new digital sources such as The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Politico. It has documented the shift from desktop to mobile computing, the rise of online “sponsored content”—advertising packaged as journalism— and, of course, the decline of newspapers, TV news, and news magazines such as Time and Newsweek.
But Mitchell stresses that the “State of the News Media” was never conceived as a mere year-in-review summary. A key component is its analysis and its spotting of trends. Among the key findings for 2013: News consumption is moving rapidly to digital devices such as tablets and smartphones; the audience for cable news may have peaked; and viewership of local TV news—the most popular media of all—dropped precipitously, especially among the young. It also found a broad decline in the vetting of the presidential candidates by the news media during the 2012 presidential campaign as campaign reporters increasingly became mere conduits for candidate statements rather than adjudicators of facts.
This material is supplemented with original research, such as the survey data assessing the public’s satisfaction with its news sources. “The real value,” explains Mitchell, “is saying what it all adds up to.”
In some ways, the “State of the News Media” documents a remarkable paradox. Thanks to the Internet, people have more access to news than ever before, from small-town newspapers to the world’s most popular news sources. At the same time, journalism itself is increasingly troubled, with job losses in the tens of thousands and mounting public dissatisfaction. Does this constitute a quietly burgeoning “golden age” of journalism or a news system moving inexorably toward collapse? A few days after it was published, the 2013 report became the reference point for a lively and widely followed debate about this question between prominent blogger Matthew Yglesias and “On the Media” co-host Bob Garfield of NPR.
Writing on Slate.com, Yglesias took the “State of the News Media” report to task for stressing the problems of news producers over the abundance of available news: “Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors,” he wrote, “today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.” In reply, Garfield wrote on The Guardian’s website: “All of that fantastic content Yglesias was gushing about is paid for by venture capitalists making bad bets, established media companies digging into their savings accounts to pay the bills, displaced workers earning peanuts, amateurs, semi-pros, volunteers, and monks.”
As usual, the journalism project—as is the practice at the Pew Research Center—took no position on the matter. Although the organization’s researchers and writers often draw firm conclusions from the data, they don’t pick sides or advocate positions. Mitchell says that’s by design. The first “State of the News Media” report laid down the rules: “Our aim is for this to be a research report, not an argument,” it said. “It is not our intention to try to persuade anyone to a particular point of view.”
The news media is often fascinated by itself, of course, so it’s no surprise that each year’s report regularly attracts attention from the likes of Slate and The Guardian as well as The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Economist. But it has also been a source of interest to academics, corporations, international journalism organizations, and nonprofits such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Mitchell recently presented the latest findings to a group of federal judges.
Dotty Lynch, a former CBS News editor who is now a professor of political communication at American University in Washington, used the “State of the News Media” as the basis for book chapters she wrote about the coverage of the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “It is the only credible source of information about what was actually covered and is crucial to evaluating the relationship of campaign strategies and tactics, news coverage, and public opinion,” says Lynch.
Her colleague Amy Eisman incorporates the reports into the syllabuses for some of the classes she teaches as director of AU’s media entrepreneurship and interactive journalism program. “It’s nice for students to have access to so much information for free,” she says. Eisen likes the reports’ timing—March publication makes them perfect for spring classes—and their presentation online. “Frankly, nothing tells the story better than one of the good simple bar charts” on audience and advertising figures, she says. “One graphic. Reality. Bingo.”
For all the changes that the journalism project’s reports document, what may be most striking is what hasn’t changed. Even with the proliferation of news sources and partisan cable programs such as those hosted by Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow, the reports have pointed out how traditional news sources have held fast. A finding from the 2010 report: Of 4,600 news sites tracked by Nielsen, about 80 percent of the traffic was concentrated in just the top 200, most of which are “legacy” sites run by traditional mainstream news organizations. The finding belied the widely held notion that people are increasingly getting their news from partisan sources, selecting only the information that affirms their preconceived beliefs.
But how long these apparently trusted news sources survive is another question. In its first report a decade ago, the journalism project laid out a series of “overarching” trends, all of which seem relevant 10 years later—an explosion of news sources, over-stressed newsrooms, chaotic and mistake-prone early reporting, wavering journalistic standards, a cloudy economic outlook for “legacy” media, increasing digitization, and economic uncertainty.
In other words, even amid great change, a few critical things remain the same. According to the “State of the News Media,” the news about the news business remains troubling.
Paul Farhi writes about journalism and the news media for The Washington Post.
For more information on the “State of the News Media,” go to www.journalism.org.