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News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Over the previous two years, some of the long-term cutbacks seen in newsrooms appeared to ease. Blogging gained momentum. We found the beginning of more genuine investment in the Internet. The cutbacks in network news appeared to stabilize.

In 2006, however, the situation for most of the media we study appeared to worsen. And that occurred at a time a time when the news was hardly slowing down during a global war on terror and a worsening situation for the United States in Iraq.

Matters are eroding most acutely at daily newspapers, and what occurs in that industry still has an echo effect on the press generally. Papers remain the news organizations most likely to cover the fullest range of life in a community, to influence what is on the wires, to provide the news for the Internet and to be an alert for other media.

Between 2000 and 2005, newsroom staffing at dailies had already dropped by 3,000 people, or about 5%.

By the time the final tally is in for 2006, we estimate it could be down another 1,000 —with more now expected in 2007.

When combined with reductions at several papers in the physical size of the page, the overall number of pages and a smaller ratio of news to advertising, the changes suggest that American newspapers have reduced their ambitions. The year 2007 may well be one when a smaller American newspaper, more targeted and analytical — rather than one that purports to cover the whole waterfront — emerges as a trend.

That is significant in part because newspapers, according to our research in the past, were one of the last platforms attempting to provide people with a complete diet of the news —from international to local, from hard news to lifestyle. Newspapers remain the alert system, too, for so many other media.

Less clear is what is lost and what is left uncovered. That becomes a concern that deserves more study.

The retrenching comes, too, as new research reaffirms what scholars of an earlier generation also felt they had establishment—that the best way for news organizations to thrive is to invest. The study, based on research conducted by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, found that when newspapers increased spending on newsrooms, their profits went up. And cutting could be shown to do the reverse. “If you lower the amount of money spent in the newsroom, then pretty soon the news product becomes so bad that you begin to lose money,” said Esther Thorson, a co-author of the study.

As he resisted more reductions at the Los Angeles Times, the soon-to-be ousted publisher Jeffrey Johnson argued the same notion. “Newspapers,” he said, “can’t cut their way to the future.”

The situation at the three major weekly news magazines also appears serious.

After big cuts in 2005 and 2006 — 14% of Time magazine’s newsroom by our analysis — Time Inc. in early 2007 announced staffing cuts of nearly 300 more at all its magazines. Time itself will lose 50 people (from business and editorial combined) and close bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

At Newsweek, meanwhile, editorial staff positions in 2006 were down by half from what they were in 1983, and down 11% from 2005.

In network news, our sense, new this year, is that the cutting continues. From 2002 to 2006, a new PEJ analysis estimates that total news division staffing dropped about 10%, with reductions in non-correspondent staff down at greater rates than that.

And that was before NBC Universal announced plans to cut another 300 jobs in the news division, or about 5%. Many of those, it said, would come from consolidating the operations of its cable channel, MSNBC.

In radio, the situation appears to be one of continuing consolidation. The great majority of stations delivering news (70%) now do so through joint newsrooms, and the situation in those newsrooms looks increasingly complicated. The average number of stations that those centralized newsrooms serve is 3.3, according to a survey for the Radio Television News Directors’ Association. Over a third of news directors reported overseeing five or more stations.

In cable, meanwhile, the picture is mixed. Fox News appears to be investing more in its newsroom (expenses up 11%), but not at a rate that is keeping pace with surging revenues and profits. CNN is just barely keeping up with inflation (expenses up 5%), and MSNBC is cutting.

It is less clear how much of these expenses are going into reporters and producers — newsgathering — and how much is going elsewhere, including into star salaries.

But not all of the electronic media are shrinking.

In local TV, for the latest year for which there are data, 2005, staffing appears to have risen some, to an average of 36.4 people per newsroom, the second-highest level of full-time staff since the survey began in 1993. Those people may be spread across more programs than before, but it is still a small upward trend. But people have more to do. The number of hours of news is at record high (3.8 hours) and more newsrooms are producing news for multiple stations and the Web.

One media sector that continues to grow in several ways is the ethnic press. Staffing here is on the rise, particularly at Hispanic daily newspapers, where the average staff increased from 90 in 2003 to 108 in 2005, some 20%. The trend in Spanish-language television, however, appears to be going the other way, led by cutbacks by NBC at Telemundo.

Online, the details are sometimes hard to pin down. The evidence, however, points to the idea that investment is continuing to grow, something we began to see in earnest a year ago.

It is less clear how much of that is in what journalists would call original newsgathering and how much is on the technical side. But at least one survey from a leading journalism school found that more online managers valued content-related skills like copyediting than technology skills like producing audio and video. That may reflect something of a change. After getting the technical skills into the operations, it may be that newsrooms are now turning to think about creating more content rather than simply importing it.

Yet all these problems are added to the larger picture of shrinking newsrooms. One other new piece of data was released in 2006. The scholars David H. Weaver, G. Cleveland Wilhoit and three other distinguished academicians released The American Journalist in the 21st Century: U.S. News People at the Dawn of a New Millennium. The book is the largest longitudinal study of journalists, dating back to the early 1970s.

The new study found that between June 1992 and November 2002, the number of full-time people working in news in the U.S. workforce declined by roughly 6,000, or about 5%.1

All evidence suggests that in the four years since, those losses may have significantly accelerated.