Profit Pressure Leaves Content Thinner, Newsrooms Smaller, Innovation Limited

Profit Pressure Leaves Content Thinner, Newsrooms Smaller, Innovation Limited

Declining audiences, newsroom cutbacks, changes in content, and a focus on profits rather than innovation raise serious questions about the long-term health of American journalism, according to a new first-of-its-kind study on the state of the news media in 2004.

The study, “The State of the American News Media,” was 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. 

Overall, only three sectors of the news media are seeing audience growth today- ethnic, alternative and online media. Meanwhile, the dominant media of the 20th century-newspapers, network TV and local TV-are suffering steady long-term audience declines. 

“Trust in journalism has been declining for a generation,” said Project Director Tom Rosenstiel. “This study suggests one reason is that news media are locked in a vicious cycle. As audiences fragment, newsrooms are cut back, which further erodes public trust.” 

The study breaks American journalism into eight sectors-newspapers, magazines, network television, cable television, local television, the Internet, radio and ethnic and alternative media. In each sector, it examines six different areas: audience, economics, ownership, newsroom investment and public attitudes. It puts for the first time in one place all the major data about journalism-plus significant original research. 

In the age of 24/7 news, the study found that: 

  • The growth in ethnic media is particularly dramatic. In the past 13 years, Spanish-language newspaper circulation has nearly quadrupled to 1.7 million. Ad revenues are up sevenfold.
  • At the same time, circulation of English-language daily newspapers has dropped 11% since 1990. Network evening news ratings have fallen 34% since 1993. Late local news share is down 16% since 1997. Even cable news viewership is flat since late 2001.
  • As a result, many of the nation's newsrooms are seeing significant cutbacks: one-third fewer network TV correspondents than in 1985; 2,200 fewer people at newspapers than in 1990; a drop of 44% in full-time radio newsroom employees between 1994 and 2001.
  • The growth sectors in journalism all share the ability for audiences to find targeted information-and in the case of the web to do so on demand. 
  • Network evening and morning newscasts are more serious in their content since 9/11.
  • The 24-hour media culture plays to the strengths of one of the oldest sources of news-wire services.
  • The report's content study raises questions about the content of cable. For instance, only 5% of stories on cable are updates with new information. Two thirds of stories are rehashing the same facts.
  • The web increases the ability for people to get news in an unfiltered way, but it also increases the need for journalists to act as referees and synthesizers to help identify what information is reliable and what is not.

“Some people worry the role of the journalist as gatekeeper over what is fact and what is falsehood has become irrelevant,” said Mr. Rosenstiel. “We find the need for journalists to help folks sort things out is greater than ever. But doing so today is harder, and it's not clear whether journalists will be able to meet the challenge.” 

The study identifies eight major trends shaping the new media landscape. 

  1. The basic problem in journalism is too many news outlets are chasing a relatively static and in some cases a shrinking audience for news.
  2. Much of the new investment in journalism today is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it.
  3. There is more “newsgathering in the raw,” less double-checking of facts, synthesizing and making sense of things in journalism than before. 
  4. Journalistic standards now vary even within single news organizations.
  5. Unless companies begin investing more in building new audiences, the long-term scenario for many traditional news outlets seems problematic.
  6. The distinctions between TV and print will increasingly vanish online. Rather than a threat, this is an opportunity for journalism to become better and more relevant.
  7. The big question is whether the online will be as profitable as print and TV, and if it isn't, the quality of news Americans get in the future will almost certainly decline.
  8. As news outlets proliferate, people who want to manipulate the press and public will gain more leverage.

The study, which contains detailed charts, graphs and citations, can be accessed online at Online people can also sort through all the statistical material on their own and create customized interactive charts and graphs.