By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
In this, the fifth edition of our annual report tracing the revolution of news, several trends bear particular notice heading into 2008.
- News is shifting from being a product — today’s newspaper, Web site or newscast — to becoming a service — how can you help me, even empower me? There is no single or finished news product anymore. As news consumption becomes continual, more new effort is put into producing incremental updates, as brief as 40-character e-mails sent from reporters directly to consumers without editing. (The afternoon newspaper is also being reborn online.) Service also broadens the definition of what journalists must supply. Story telling and agenda setting — still important — are now insufficient. Journalism also must help citizens find what they are looking for, react to it, sort it, shape news coverage, and — probably most important and least developed — give them tools to make sense of and use the information for themselves. News people are uncertain how the core values of accuracy and verification will hold up. Some of the experiments, even the experimenters think, are questionable. And people are being stretched thinner, posing hard questions about how to manage time and where to concentrate. But the hope is that service, more than storytelling, could prove a key to unlocking new economics.
- A news organization and a news Web site are no longer final destinations. Now they must move toward also being stops along the way, gateways to other places, and a means to drill deeper, all ideas that connect to service rather than product. “The walled garden is over,” the editor of one of the most popular news sites in the country told us. A site restricted to its own content takes on the character of a cul de sac street with yellow “No Outlet” sign, reducing its value to the user. “Search has become the predominant … paradigm,” an influential market research report circulating throughout the industry reads. That means every page of a Web site — even one containing a single story — is its own front page. And each piece of content competes on its own with all other information on that topic linked to by blogs, “digged” by user news sites, sent in e-mails, or appearing in searches. As much as half of every Web page, designers advise, should be devoted to helping people find what they want on the rest of the site or the Web. That change is already occurring. A year ago, our study of news Web sites found that only three of 24 major Web sites from traditional news organizations offered links to outside content. Eleven of those sites now offer them. Some of this may simply be automated, which may be a service of limited value.
- The prospects for user-created content, once thought possibly central to the next era of journalism, for now appear more limited, even among “citizen” sites and blogs. News people report the most promising parts of citizen input currently are new ideas, sources, comments and to some extent pictures and video. But citizens posting news content has proven less valuable, with too little that is new or verifiable. (It may thrive at smaller outlets with fewer resources.) And the skepticism is not restricted to the traditional mainstream media or “MSM.” The array of citizen-produced news and blog sites is reaching a meaningful level. But a study of citizen media contained in this report finds most of these sites do not let outsiders do more than comment on the site’s own material, the same as most traditional news sites. Few allow the posting of news, information, community events or even letters to the editors. And blog sites are even more restricted. In short, rather than rejecting the “gatekeeper” role of traditional journalism, for now citizen journalists and bloggers appear to be recreating it in other places.
- Increasingly, the newsroom is perceived as the more innovative and experimental part of the news industry. This appears truer in newspapers and Web sites than elsewhere. But still it represents a significant shift in the conversation. A decade ago, the newsroom was often regarded as the root of journalism’s disconnection from the public and its sagging reputation. “I think we may need to just blow up the culture of the newsroom,” one of the country’s more respected editors told a private gathering of industry leaders in 1997. Now the business side has begun to be identified as the problem area, the place where people are having the most difficulty changing. “My middle management in advertising and distribution is where I see the deer-in-the-headlights look,” one publisher recently told us. “Advertising doesn’t know how to start to cope,” said a major industry trade association leader. A survey of journalists from different media (being released with this year’s report) reinforces this sense. Majorities think such things as journalists writing blogs, the ranking of stories on their Web sites, citizens posting comments or ranking stories, even citizen news sites, are making journalism better — a perspective hard to imagine even a few years ago. These new technologies are seen as less a threat to values or a demand on time than a way to reconnect with audiences. News people also are less anxious about credibility, the focus of concern a few years ago. Their worries now are about money.
- The agenda of the American news media continues to narrow, not broaden. A firm grip on this is difficult but the trends seem inescapable. A comprehensive audit of coverage shows that in 2007, two overriding stories — the war in Iraq and the 2008 presidential campaign — filled more than a quarter of the newshole and seemed to consume much of the media’s energy and resources. And what wasn’t covered was in many ways as notable as what was. Other than Iraq — and to a lesser degree Pakistan and Iran — there was minimal coverage of events overseas, some of which directly involved U.S. interests, blood and treasure. At the same time, consider the list of the domestic issues that each filled less than a single percent of the newshole: education, race, religion, transportation, the legal system, housing, drug trafficking, gun control, welfare, Social Security, aging, labor, abortion and more. A related trait is a tendency to move on from stories quickly. On breaking news events — the Virginia Tech massacre or the Minneapolis bridge collapse were among the biggest — the media flooded the zone but then quickly dropped underlying story lines about school safety and infrastructure. And newer media seem to have an even narrower peripheral vision than older media. Cable news, talk radio (and also blogs) tend to seize on top stories (often polarizing ones) and amplify them. The Internet offers the promise of aggregating ever more sources, but its value still depends on what those originating sources are providing. Even as the media world has fragmented into more outlets and options, reporting resources have shrunk.
- Madison Avenue, rather than pushing change, appears to be having trouble keeping up with it. Like legacy media, advertising agencies have their own history, mores and cultures that keep them from adapting to new technology and new consumer behavior. The people who run these agencies know the old-media methods and have old-media contacts. New media offer the promise of more detailed knowledge of consumer behavior, but the metrics are still evolving and empirical data have not yet delivered a clear path. Advertising executives, in other words, do not have answers any more than the news professionals. In the short run, this may be helping traditional media hold onto share of advertising revenue. For now, the future seems to point to more confusion and fragmentation before new models emerge. But the losses could begin to accelerate when answers come. The question of whether, and how, advertising and news will remain partners is unresolved.
These trends add to those we have discussed in earlier years of this report. In the inaugural State of the News Media report in 2004, we outlined the broad contours of the revolution in news. Journalism is not disappearing, we concluded, but it is changing. Consumers trust and rely on journalists less, and expect more of them, because they have alternative sources of information. In subsequent years we have tracked the splintering of journalism into new norms, including the rise of a new commercially driven Journalism of Affirmation, the shift at many traditional news outlets toward becoming niche products, the emergence of what we call the new Answer Culture in news, and growing doubts about the ultimate potential of advertising online. We have also outlined ways in which newsrooms of the future probably need to change.
The study, which we believe is unique in depth and scope, breaks the news industry into eight sectors (newspapers, magazines, network, cable and local television, the Internet, radio and ethnic media) and builds off many of the findings from a year ago.
This year, we have a special report on the future of advertising, a survey of journalists, and a new comprehensive study of the content of the press.