March 12, 2005

The encyclopedic State of the News Media, 2005, second in an annual series, hits the electronic street today. It has the facts you expect to find in a solid reference work but some facts that are surprising as well.

If you think you know your media, check out these findings:

  • Without denying the growth and transforming power of the Internet, it’s a myth that blogs and their cousins are locked in head-to-head combat with traditional media for audience.  To the contrary, most Americans are all-day grazers among multiple formats.

    So if your diet includes a newspaper, magazines, the Internet, radio and television (local, network, and cable), you are not a news junkie, you are normal. Only 2 percent of Americans report in a Pew survey that online sites are their only regular news source. TV-only claims 8 percent, print-only, 5 percent; and the very traditional combination of print and TV, 24 percent.

  • Nor are young people news dropouts. Of 18-29 year-olds, a respectable 36 percent report going online regularly for news, up from 31 percent in 2002. (And of course there is some representation of the young among regular and occasional newspaper readers and TV news watchers).

  • The partisan divide in picking news sources to create a walled-in reinforcement of settled opinions has been exaggerated. Of course, conservatives like Fox News and cable TV and talk radio are often highly partisan. However, the vast majority of news consumers prefer middle-of-the-road, non-ideological news sources.

  • Credibility of the media is distressingly low and continues to slide. Partisans on both sides increasingly complain of bias in favor of the other guys, and they have now been joined by vocal bloggers who charge traditional media with being out of touch. Paradoxically, though, these credibility critics are slightly bigger media consumers than other adults.

  • Newspaper’s business woes and the consequent staff cuts and budget tightening are all too apparent and painful from the inside. But Pew’s content analysts still rate newspapers very high for depth and breadth – a typical story in their analysis had at least four identifiable sources.

  • Inward-looking newspaper folks may also be unaware of some modestly positive trends among their local television counterparts. Staffing at local TV stations was up a little in 2003 and salary increases averaged 10 percent. Newscasts typically account for 46 percent of station revenues, and revenues rose nearly 10 percent in 2004. A lingering problem is spreading smallish staffs over an ever-extending news day; nor is it clear that stations will reinvest in news as opposed to dropping the revenue to the bottom line.

As co-author of the report’s newspaper chapter, I can testify to being fact-checked and footnoted until I was screaming for mercy. The emphasis is on hard evidence, and bold flights of interpretive fancy are discouraged.

But my colleague, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the sponsoring Project for Excellence in Journalism, offers at least a little commentary on big-picture trends. Drawing on “The Elements of Journalism,” which he co-authored with Bill Kovach some years back, Rosenstiel sees blogs and partisan media departing from the traditional discipline of verification. Instead they rely on post-publication response and argument to sort out truth.

The new news forms are like “a free-flowing conversation with all the advantages and disadvantage that implies,” Rosenstiel writes, compared to the lecturing-at-you format of old media. Blogger activists, he predicts, will force traditional media to be more transparent about their sources and to hold themselves to higher levels of proof. They may even be drawn into refereeing debates that begin in the non-traditional media.

Rosenstiel and I are of a mind that newspapers, with ample cash on hand, are oddly reluctant to reinvest in their core newsrooms or in the content side of their online operations. I look for 2005 to see some uptick in newspaper investment in online and experimentation. But we will need to wait until the returns are in and see if the 2006 report confirms that hunch.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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