The Future of Journalism (Spring 2007 Trust Magazine briefing)

Jun 04, 2007

For more than a century, product advertising has been news journalism’s bread and butter, the income generator. In this era of new technologies and types of competition, does that model still hold?

Audiences are splintered among a host of new and traditional news sources. Does this mean that the established metrics for measuring audiences are either flawed or obsolete?

Every media sector, even online news, is losing audience share (except radio and the ethnic press), and, to survive, they are finding allies among former competitors. What kinds of future do they see for themselves?

If there can be a hint of what’s to come, it might well be found in The State of the News Media 2007, the latest of the annual reports on American journalism produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an initiative of the Pew Research Center.

In addition to statistics on the media in the previous year, the reports identify key trends facing the media. In the past, the project (to quote the current study) has noted that “journalism’s challenge is not from technology or lack of interest in news but from diminished economic potential; that power is moving to those who make news away from those who cover it; that there are now several competing models of journalism, with cheaper, less accurate ones gaining momentum; that while there are more outlets delivering news, that has generally not meant covering a broader range of stories.”

For 2006, “the pace of change has accelerated,” the study says. “The trends reshaping journalism didn’t just quicken, they seemed to be nearing a pivot point.”

A possibly irrelevant business model, outdated ways of measuring audiences, risky new lines of work and partnerships—all suggest that journalism is “entering a new phase heading into 2007—a phase of more limited ambition.” Rather than try to manage decline, many news organizations have taken the next step of starting to redefine their appeal and their purpose based on diminished capacity.

Increasingly, outlets are looking for brand or franchise areas of coverage to build audiences. Examples: more local coverage at the expense of news from elsewhere; personality and opinion; “citizen media” rather than professionally trained journalists. “In a sense,” says the report, “all news organizations are becoming more niche players, basing their appeal less on how they cover the news and more on what they cover.”

Potential consequences of the narrowed focus? Doing less. Letting bias rule. Becoming even less a part of Americans’ information mix. What does the profession need? “New vision,” the study advises, adding that journalism has tended to react tentatively, leaving experimentation to those outside the profession.

With that background, the study goes on to detail the major trends to watch—and questions to pose— in 2007:

  • News organizations need to do more to think through the implications of this new era of shrinking ambitions. Does localism mean provincialism? Should news organizations, so as not to abandon more high-level coverage, enlist citizen sentinels to monitor community news? To what extent do journalists still have a role in creating a broad agenda of common knowledge?
  • The news industry must become more aggressive about developing a new economic model. Already the predictions of advertising growth on the Web are being scaled back. That has major implications—for instance, news organizations broadening what they consider the journalistic functions to include activities such as online searches and citizen media.

Perhaps most important, the math suggests they almost certainly must find a way to get consumers to pay for digital content. The notion that the Internet is free is already disproved. Those who report the news just aren’t sharing in the fees.

  • The key question is whether the investment community sees the news business as a declining industry or an emerging one in transition. Yet if news companies do not assert their own vision here, including making a case and taking risks, their future will be defined by those less invested in and passionate about news.
  • There are growing questions about whether the dominant ownership model of the last generation, the public corporation, is suited to the transition newsrooms must now make. Private markets now appear to value media properties more highly than Wall Street does. Are these potential new private owners motivated by public interest or merely by the profit possibilities after aggressive cost-cutting? Public ownership tends to make companies play by the same rules. Private ownership has few leveling influences.
  • The “argument culture” of most talk shows—mock debates about issues—is giving way to something new, the “answer culture,” in news outlets. Programs and journalists offer solutions, crusades, certainty and the impression of putting the blur of information in clear order for people.

The tone may be just as extreme as before, but now the other side is not given equal play. “Answers” represent an appeal more idiosyncratic and less ideological than pure partisan journalism.

  • Blogging is on the brink of a new phase that will probably include scandal, profitability for some and a splintering into elites and non-elites over standards and ethics. What gives blogging its authenticity and momentum—its open access—also makes it vulnerable to being used and manipulated.

Meanwhile, some very popular bloggers are already becoming businesses or being assimilated by establishment media. Will blogging, then, still be “citizen” media?

To protect themselves, some of the best-known bloggers are forming associations, with ethics codes, standards of conduct and more: the paradox of professionalizing to preserve one’s integrity as an independent citizen platform.

  • While journalists are becoming more serious about the Web, no clear models of how to do journalism online really exist yet, and some qualities are still only marginally explored. The root media no longer strictly define a site’s character: The Web sites of The Washington Post and The New York Times, for instance, are more dissimilar than the papers are in print. Sites have done more to exploit immediacy than to explore the potential for depth.

Go to Journalism.org for the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s complete annual report.

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