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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

A year ago, we saw in the larger trends something of a vicious cycle partly of the press’s own making.

As audiences declined, because of technological and cultural changes, news organizations felt pressure on revenues and stock performance. In response, they cut back on their newsrooms, squeezed in more advertising and cut back on the percentage of space devoted to news. They tried to respond to changing tastes, too, by lightening their content. Audiences appeared to gravitate to lighter topics, and those topics were often cheaper to cover. Those changes, in turn, deepened the sense that the news media were motivated by economics and less focused on professionalism and the public interest.

In 2005, the sense that the press’s role in relation to the public is changing seems ever clearer. A generation ago, the press was effectively a lone institution communicating between the citizenry and the newsmakers, whether corporations selling goods or politicians selling agendas, who wanted to shape public opinion for their own purposes. Today, a host of new forms of communication offer a way for newsmakers to reach the public. There are talk-show hosts, cable interview shows, corporate Web sites, government Web sites, Web sites that purport to be citizen blogs but are really something else, and more. Journalism is a shrinking part of a growing world of media. And since journalists are trained to be skeptics and aspire at least, in the famous phrase, to speak truth to power, journalism is the one source those who want to manipulate the public are most prone to denounce. The atmosphere for journalism, in other words, has become, as the legendary editor John Siegenthaler recently put it, “acidic.”

The challenge for traditional journalism is whether it can reassert its position as the provider of something distinctive and valuable – both for citizens and advertisers. The press continues to thrive financially because, while the audience collected in any one place may be smaller, it is still the largest venue available to advertisers. The trend lines, however, make clear that this, too, should not be taken for granted. Somehow journalism needs to prove that it is acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.