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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In the first two years of this report, we sensed the news media in America trapped by the twin phenomena of changing technology and economic success. The former created the need for the news media to change fundamentally. The latter bred conservatism and aversion to risk. The role of the press was changing, yet the companies that controlled the media, insulated by high profits, seemed neither to fully understand nor ready act boldly. The problems on the horizon seemed to lead to marginal tinkering, not long-term strategizing.

Heading into 2006, we see a change. The problems of the news media have worsened, and with that we get a stronger sense than in earlier years that the news industry is beginning to move into the next era—especially to the Internet. In network television, it was the generational departure of the old anchors that may have helped propel thinking forward. In newspapers, steeper declines in circulation, eroding economics–and the prospect of more to come–opened minds.

The signs of understanding are not across the board. Local TV news does not appear to be building a future online the way network is. Perhaps it doesn’t have to, but it is not immune from problems. Some newspapers are moving more seriously than others.

And many questions remain unresolved. One is whether the news industry has waited too long, letting too many opportunities slip by, such as offers years ago to buy start up companies that now are major new-media rivals. Another is whether consumers will care about the values that the old press embodies, or the brands—such as CBS and the New York Times—that represent those values. Third is whether, at the top, too much of the boldest vision has fled. Does the new industry have leaders who can lead journalists?

The answers won’t come right away. But we can see differences even from 12 months ago. In a year that on the surface looks dark for the news media, when measured in profits and numbers, our attempts to probe across the industry hint at something positive, too. The answer, we suspect, will be in the journalism, not merely in the business strategies that fund it. And if the past tells us anything, it’s that the two sides cannot flourish unless they move together.