March 10, 2006

How has your diet of news been lately? Do you find yourself eating several meals, grazing the rest of the day, but still going to bed hungry for high-fiber news content?

My colleagues at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, whose third edition of the State of the News Media electronic yearbook is released today, have an explanation. While we have an ever-expanding menu of media choices, all that media focuses, repetitively, on an ever smaller set of daily stories.  It amounts to a kind of pack journalism in which the herders, especially on national news are too often able “to control what the public knows.”

This year the project’s content analysis was across all media for a single news day, May 11, 2005.  It didn’t take long to identify an example of commodified reporting.  All three morning shows highlighted a story on a security scare in advance of President Bush’s trip to China.  All three interviewed the same lone person, a security expert from Citibank.

It is old news by now that cable obsesses on chat about “cases” like Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba and that celebrity couplings and other piffle are on the rise, displacing less sexy news that matters. (2005 was a year of sharp gains for celebrity magazines and circulation losses and layoffs at major news magazines).

However, the report finds a much broader erosion of substance:

“Most local radio stations, our content study this year finds, offer virtually nothing in the way of reporters in the field. On local TV news, fewer and fewer stories feature correspondents, and the range of topics that get full treatment is narrowing even more to crime and accidents, plus weather, traffic and sports. On the Web, the Internet-only sites that have tried to produce original content (among them Slate and Salon) have struggled financially, while those thriving financially rely almost entirely on the work of others. Among blogs, there is little of what journalists would call reporting (our study this year finds reporting in just 5% of postings). Even in bigger newsrooms, journalists report that specialization is eroding as more reporters are recast into generalists.”

Newspapers, for all that, remain the most thorough and well-sourced daily news report in nearly any city.  The network evening news is another outpost of well-produced, well-sourced reporting – but it all has to be jammed into 18 minutes (the other 12 for commercials).

…We are not doom-and-gloomsters. Look at the fast transformation online…As co-author of the newspaper chapter, I am vexed by the negative basics we reported.  Circulation down 2 ½ percent daily and 3 percent Sunday.  Ad revenue growth of only 1 to 2 percent and half of that from online and niche publications.  Plummeting stock prices. Newsroom staff cuts that we estimate will total 1,200 to 1,500 fulltime professionals when the official tally of the American Society of Newspaper Editors census is announced next month.  Plus newspapers are getting smaller in every dimension – less width, thinner paper, smaller news hole.

On balance, though, we are not doom-and-gloomsters. Look at the fast transformation online:

*2004 – the majority of American papers provide little but “shovelware,” a repurposing of that morning’s report.

*2005 — most newspapers begin to move aggressively to expand their sites’ offerings: several large companies acquire online businesses, some of them shopping services.

*2006 – a headlong sprint to add online, multi-media features attracting more audience and getting them to spend more time at sites is in progress throughout the industry.

Using a mix of numbers provided by the companies and informed guessing, we estimate that the big four national sites — New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Washington Post – together now employ at least 300 full-time journalists. There is an echo at many mid-sized metros where the online news staff will grow from single to double digits during 2006.  That count leaves out the even bigger gains as newspaper print staff is encouraged to think and produce online.

I am even cautiously optimistic that newspapers are discovering that breaking news and professional-quality writing will prove their strategic advantage on the web.

…Newspapers were at least making a start at investing in their future at some sacrifice to the bottom line.Newspaper companies are often hammered for their high profit margins.  Actually, 2005 was a year in which average pre-tax margins fell by 1.5 points to slightly under 20 percent.  That works out to an earnings decrease of 7 percent.  So newspapers were at least making a start at investing in their future at some sacrifice to the bottom line.

Much more of the same would be welcome through the rest of 2006 and into 2007.  Maybe some companies can summon the moxie to tell Wall Street to get ready for even lower margins during what one executive acutely calls “the valley” of multi-year transformation to multiple platforms and new business models.

But I digress.  The report itself is short on such speculation and long on hard data about every segment of the news industry.  It is (in my biased view) highly nutritious stuff for informed readers of news about news.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Natalee Holloway’s name.

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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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