Skip to Content View Previous Reports

Overview – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Glance at some items in the news of late and it seems that many long-held ideas about journalism are unraveling.

President George Bush told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in December that he preferred to get his news not from journalists but from people he trusted, who “give me the actual news” and “don’t editorialize.” After spending time at the White House, the New Yorker writer Ken Auletta concluded that senior staff members there saw the news media as just another special interest group whose agenda was making money, not serving the public – and surveys suggest increasingly that the public agrees.

Some argue that as people move online, the notion of news consumers is giving way to something called “pro-sumers,” in which citizens simultaneously function as consumers, editors and producers of a new kind of news in which journalistic accounts are but one element.

With audiences now fragmented across hundreds of outlets with varying standards and agendas, others say the notions of a common public understanding, a common language and a common public square are disappearing.

For some, these are all healthy signals of the end of oligarchical control over news. For others, these are harbingers of chaos, of unchecked spin and innuendo replacing the role of journalists as gatekeepers over what is fact, what is false and what is propaganda. Whichever view one prefers, it seems everything is changing.

Or is it?

This study, the first in what is to be an annual report on the state of the news media in America, is an attempt to answer this question, to take stock each year of the state and health of American journalism.

The answer we arrive at in 2004 is that journalism is in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television.

Journalism, however, is not becoming irrelevant. It is becoming more complex. We are witnessing conflicting trends of fragmentation and convergence simultaneously, and they sometimes lead in opposite directions.

While audiences are fragmenting, we have greater capacity than ever to come together as a nation in an instant – for September 11, the Super Bowl or watching soldiers live on the battlefield in Iraq. While Americans are turning to more and varied sources for news, the media that they are relying on increasingly tend to be owned by a few giant conglomerates competing to cover what seem to be at any moment a handful of major stories.

Quality news and information are more available than ever before, but in greater amounts so are the trivial, the one-sided and the false. Some people will likely become better informed than they once could have been as they drill down to original sources. Other consumers may become steeped in the sensational and diverting. Still others may move toward an older form of media consumption – a journalism of affirmation – in which they seek news largely to confirm their preconceived view of the world.

The journalists’ role as intermediary, editor, verifier and synthesizer is weakening, and citizens do have more power to be proactive with the news. But most people will likely do so only episodically. And the proliferation of the false and misleading makes the demand for the journalist as referee, watchdog and interpreter all the greater.

These conflicting movements toward fragmentation and convergence are not new to the culture in general or media in particular, but they have different consequences when they come to news. Journalism is how people learn about the world beyond their direct experiences. As our journalism fragments, it has consequences for what we know, how we are connected and our ability to solve problems.

Eight Major Trends

Eight Major Trends

For now, the year 2004, the transformation is shaped by eight overarching trends:

These are some of the conclusions from this new study of the state of American journalism, a study that we believe is unprecedented in its comprehensive scope. The report breaks American journalism into eight sectors – newspapers, magazines, network television, cable television, local television, the Internet, radio, and ethnic and alternative media (which are distinct from each other).

For each of the media sectors, we tried to answer basic questions in six areas: the trends in content, audience, economics, ownership, newsroom investment and public attitudes. We aggregated as much publicly available data as is possible in one place and, for six of the sectors, also conducted an original content analysis. (For local television news, we relied on five years of content analysis the Project had previously conducted. For radio, ethnic and alternative media, no special content analysis was conducted.)

The study is the work of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The study is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose leadership challenged us to take on this assignment.. The chapters were written, with the exceptions of those on network television, cable, and newspapers, which had co-authors, by the Project’s staff.

Our aim is for this to be a research report, not an argument. It is not our intention to try to persuade anyone to a particular point of view. Where the facts are clear, we hope we have not shied from explaining what they reveal, making clear what is proven versus what is only suggested. We hope, however, that we are not seen as simply taking sides in any journalistic debates.

We have tried to be as transparent as possible about sources and methods, and to make it clear when we are laying out data versus when we have moved into analysis of that data.

We believe our approach of looking at a set of questions across various media differs from the conventional way in which American journalism is analyzed, one medium at a time. We have tried to identify cross-media trends and to gather in one place data that are usually scattered across different venues. We hope this will allow us and others to make comparisons and develop insights that otherwise would be difficult to see. Across the six questions we examined we found some distinct patterns.

Content Anaylsis

Content

The proliferation of new outlets and the increasingly instantaneous nature of newsgathering are creating three basic trends in the content of American journalism.

First, the content is more diverse. Network news, news magazines, and newspaper front pages carry a wider range of topics. But a good deal of the new diversity is in lighter fare – lifestyle, entertainment, consumer news – rather than news about diverse communities or populations. Some outlets are thriving as they reject the trend toward that lighter content. The success of NPR in radio, The Economist among magazines and The New York Times among newspapers suggest the possible rise of a growing elite niche across media sectors.

Second, as more outlets split up the audience and create more competition, financial pressures have led cable and broadcast to devote more of their news holes to branding efforts such as promotions and teases, and more commercials.

Third, to vie for audience in a more crowded 24-hour news environment, there is more pressure to run with stories more quickly – to get, as mentioned above, newsgathering in the raw, and to cover ad nauseam a few big blockbuster stories since it is cost efficient

Cable news channels have largely abandoned the traditional story-telling of written and edited packages in favor of live interviews and reporter stand-ups. This unscripted, extemporaneous approach to reporting does not lend itself to producing content that will move to the Web or that will survive beyond the moment. What is more, if the purpose behind the emphasis on live reports is to offer the most up-to-date information, the content often comes up short. News on cable, and on the Internet as well, is heavily repetitive.

The cable channels in the main follow a handful of stories each day on a fairly narrow range of topics, leaving the larger part of the news menu to anchor reads and the screen crawl.

At the risk of oversimplification, newspapers, the oldest medium, continue to have the strongest content, if for no other reason than that they still tend to have the most reporters. This also gives them an advantage in the transition to the Internet, at least for now, because the Web for the moment remains largely a text-based medium.

News Web sites on the whole are more like newspapers in their content and in their news agenda.

In news magazines hard news topics are losing space, while more is going to lifestyle matters like personal finance and diet. These are not strictly news magazines anymore so much as weekly general interest publications. Meanwhile, the growth in magazine titles is occurring in niche specialty publications about such topics as mountain biking and doll collecting.

Click here for metholodogy information.

Audience

Audience

The audience for journalism is now scattered across vastly more outlets (and more media sectors) than even a decade ago.

Still, tracking the question “Where have you been getting most of your news about national and international issues?” shows some clear trends over time. Television dominates, followed by newspapers, then radio and now, closely behind, by the Internet.

According to February 2003 numbers from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 83 percent of Americans get most of their news from television, 42 percent from newspapers, 19 percent from radio, and 15 percent from the Internet. (The survey questions usually allow more than one answer.)

Reliance on television increases even more, according to the surveys, in times of crisis such as the war in Iraq or immediately after September 11. Television use goes up and everything else seems to drop, particularly print, though the shifts are temporary.

Where People Go for National/International News
1991 to 2003
Source: Pew Research Center, “Strong Opposition to Media Cross-Ownership Emerges: Public Wants Neutrality and Pro-American Point of View”
* Survey qu.: How have you been getting most of your news about national and international issues? From television, from newspapers, from radio, from magazines, orfrom the Internet?

However, while the dominant media sectors of the 20th century – mainstream, general interest newspapers, network television and local television news – still attract the largest number of people, all are losing audience.

Meanwhile, online, ethnic and alternative media are growing markedly. According to one survey, a record 150 million Americans went online in September 2003, and other surveys show half of Internet users get news online at least once a week.

The growth in ethnic media is similarly impressive. Consider, for instance, that the circulation of Spanish-language newspapers has more than tripled in the last decade to 1.7 million, at a time when English-language newspaper circulation has declined 11 percent.

The three growth areas in journalism share the same strength – the opportunity for audiences to select tailored content and, in the case of the Internet, to do it on demand.

Cable news had been growing since the late 1990s but is no longer doing so, (though the press generally reports audience growth since the cable networks average the numbers in ways that make them appear larger than they really are). Perhaps one reason cable audiences have not grown in two years is that while cable is immediate, it does not offer audiences the ability to search and customize the information that the Internet does. The only cable network that is growing, Fox News, may have an advantage in this regard: it is already tailoring itself for a niche consisting, according to survey data, of a more conservative audience.

Radio and news magazine audience numbers, like cable, are largely flat. The energy and the growth in these sectors are in those places targeting specialized audiences with high quality content – smaller circulation outlets like The Economist in magazines and NPR in radio.

Economics

Economics

For all the trouble with audiences, the economics of journalism in general are remarkably strong.

In the older media sectors, profitability remains robust. Newspapers made around a 20 percent profit in 2003. Local television news stations make roughly double that. Radio news, too, is a significant contributor to the bottom line for its owners, representing about 11 percent of the revenues of major radio companies.

Network television news is still a big revenue engine and in the late 1990s was perhaps the most reliably profitable part of the network television business, ahead of entertainment. But major news events like the war in Iraq cost so much to cover, network insiders say privately, that they whittled down profitability in 2003.

How can revenues be up for these media where audiences are down? In an era of fragmentation, these media continue to stand out as among the few places where advertisers can still attract a crowd. It may not be as big a crowd as it once was, but attracting any crowd has become harder.

Yet as other sectors attract more of the audience, they are attracting more and more advertising. Ad revenues for Spanish-language newspapers, for instance, have increased sevenfold between 1990 and 2001, from $111 million to $786 million, according to figures from the Latino Print Network.

The Internet, in turn, began to turn the corner on profitability in 2003, though the medium still relies largely on old media for its content and in many instances much of its costs. The overall profit numbers are small compared with traditional media, and some major Web sites are still not breaking even. Nonetheless, profits are growing at huge rates. If that continues, in a few years they will be significant contributors to company coffers.

What is less clear, however, is what economic model will work online. Will it be advertising based (like television), subscription based or some combination, and will those profits ever be enough to subsidize the kind of news gathering that newspapers and television did in their heyday. If the Internet is profitable, but not as profitable as old media, the result may be fewer resources for gathering news, spread over more outlets.

Ownership

Ownership

As audiences fragment across more outlets, the corporate response has been to get bigger in order to deliver the audience for advertisers not in one place but under one corporate roof.

The effect of this on journalism is not as simple as the traditional arguments about consolidation might suggest. Critics have decried declining diversity of ownership and the rise of chains in media for 70 years. But the trend continues anyway.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld a core principle: out of a diversity of viewpoints, we are more likely to know the truth. Yet we are moving in conflicting directions where we have more outlets for news but fewer owners.

Bigness may give a company the means to provide high quality journalism, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Bigness may also simply make journalism a less and less important part of a company’s entertainment media portfolio and move it farther away from being a public trust.

As of 2004 here are the facts: In newspapers, 22 companies now represent 70 percent of the daily circulation (73 percent on Sunday), according to data from Editor and Publisher. In radio, the top 20 companies operate more than 20 percent of all the radio stations in the country; one, Clear Channel, dominates, operating stations in 191 of the 289 Arbitron-rated markets. In local television, the 10 biggest companies own 30 percent of all television stations reaching 85 percent of all television households in the United States. In network television, the owners are all giant corporations for whom television, let alone television journalism, represents only a small part of their revenues, less than 30 percent.

In magazines, while there has been consolidation, it is not on the same level as in other media. Many of the big players may be unfamiliar names to most readers of this report, and only four of the top ten magazine companies – Time Warner, Hearst, Advance and Primedia – are among the 25 largest media companies overall.

Online, big companies also prevail, at least when it comes to traffic as measured in aggregate by Nielsen and other ratings monitors. Today, more than half of the 20 most popular news Web sites are owned by one of the 20 biggest media companies. Yet it might be more accurate to say that there will always be two Internet worlds, one controlled by giant companies able to amass large audiences to a few Web sites, and the other populated by the world of citizen bloggers or niche web sites, where much of the innovation and energy may come from.

News Investment

News Investment

Overall, the numbers reveal general declines in how much is invested in newsgathering in American journalism.

Newspapers today have about 2,200 fewer full-time professional newsroom employees than they did in 1990, according to data form the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Interpreting that decline is complicated. First the number of papers has declined. On the other hand, work once done by printers and composing room workers has migrated to the newsroom, adding more jobs in the newsroom related to production rather than newsgathering.

In network news, the number of correspondents since the 1980s has been cut by a third, according to data from Professor Joe Foote at Arizona State University. Correspondent workload has increased by 30 percent, according to Foote, and the number of foreign bureaus, our accounting finds, is down by half.

In local television, the Project’s surveys suggest that the average workload increased 20 percent from 1998 to 2002. Fully 59 percent of news directors reported either budget cuts or staff cuts in 2002.

In radio, from 1994 through 2001, the number of full-time radio newsroom employees declined 44 percent and part-time employees declined 71 percent, according to survey data compiled by Professor Robert Papper of Ball State University.

In cable, only Fox appears to be building its news staff, but that is on a relatively small base.

In news magazines in the past 20 years, Time has reduced its staff by 15 percent and Newsweek by a full 50 percent, according to staff boxes published in the magazines. There has without question been some shuffling of names and job titles in these staff boxes. Nevertheless, overall declines are clearly evident. The number of listed foreign bureaus at the major news magazines also has fallen, by 27 percent at Time and 31 percent at Newsweek.

Online, the investment in newsgathering is growing, but for now much of the content is subsidized by the old media.

These facts suggest a difficult environment – more pressure on people, less time to report stories and more reliance on technology, syndicated material and synthesizing second-hand information.

Some of these changes reflect more efficiency created by new technology and companies eliminating waste. Some of the investment in technology, moreover, is inevitable and necessary for modernization. In local television, the government has mandated the transition to fully digital technology within two years. But, technology can also be used to replace the newsgathering skills, homogenize the content, rely more on feed material and wires, which is cheaper than local or original reporting. It is difficult to see how news organizations can distinguish themselves and attract more audience in a more crowded environment if their content is more similar. There is a tendency for branding to be more focused around the style than the substance of reporting.

Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

Public attitudes about the press have been declining for nearly 20 years.

Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.

Consider a few changes in the numbers between 1985 and 20021:

The notion of a credibility crisis in the press first gained significant notice in 1985, when a survey report by Kristin McGrath of MORI Research conducted for the American Society of Newspaper Editors declared that “three-fourths of all adults have some problem with the credibility of the media.”2

A year later, the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press (now the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press) challenged those findings. That survey, produced for Times Mirror by Gallup, focused on “believability,” not credibility, and considered this a better measure since journalists and their news organizations are supposed to be believed, not loved. “If credibility means believability, there is no credibility crisis,” wrote Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center and media analyst Michael Robinson.3

Since then, however, even the believability of most news organizations has declined, the Center has found. By August 2002, the percentage of Americans who rated their daily newspaper as highly believable fell from 80 to 59 percent. ABC News fell from 83 to 65 percent, CBS from 84 to 64 percent, and NBC from 82 to 66 percent. Local news stations fell from 81 to 65 percent. Virtually every news organization has fallen. Only a few news organizations on the list studied since 1985 stand out for their relative stability – public broadcasting’s “NewsHour” (down just 3 percentage points) and The Wall Street Journal (up slightly).

Various organizations have studied this trend, though often with different questions, and all have found the same basic pattern. Researchers have identified several root causes. A study by Chris Urban for the American Society of Newspaper Editors thought it was inaccuracy and the sense that journalists sensationalize the news to sell newspapers and advance their careers.

Kohut has probably looked at the trend longer and harder than anyone. Fifteen years ago, Kohut says, the public thought the press was “too sensational, too pushy, to rude, too uncaring about people and the public.” But most people saw journalists as moral, professional and caring about the interests of the country.4

Today, says Kohut, the public considers the news media even less professional, less accurate, less moral, less helpful to democracy, more sensational, more likely to cover up mistakes and more biased.

After watching these numbers closely for years, we at the Project suggest that all of these matters – the questions about journalists’ morality, caring about people, professionalism, accuracy, honesty about errors – distill into something larger. The problem is a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive. Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause. This is their sense of professionalism.

The public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves. The public believes that news organizations are operating largely to make money and that the journalists who work for these organizations are primarily motivated by professional ambition and self-interest.

This disconnect over the motives of journalists may have been exacerbated by the growing critique by conservatives over the last few years that most mainstream news organizations are distorting their coverage with an ideologically liberal agenda. A growing legion of press critics also may have sensitized the public to weaknesses in the news media.

Another factor may be adding to this. People in these surveys are increasingly distrustful of giant corporations, the sort that now own most of the news media.

Footnotes

1. “News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived,” August 4, 2002, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

2. Newspaper Credibility: Building Reader Trust, a National Study Commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. (Minneapolis: MORI Research Inc., April 1985)

3. The People & the Press: A Times Mirror Investigation of Public Attitudes Toward the News Media Conducted by the Gallup Organization. (Washington, D.C.: Times Mirror, January 1986).

4. “The New Rules: 1999 Talking Points,” unpublished speech talking points, Andrew Kohut, 1999, used as the basis for various speeches.

Conclusion

Conclusion

The larger trends we see in the data on content, audience, economics, ownership, and newsroom investment all could add to public distrust of the news media. There is something, in other words, of a vicious cycle in the public attitude data. As declining audience leads to newsroom cutbacks and other financial fixes, these reinforce the public’s suspicions that news organizations are motivated more by economics than public service.

There is little sense in 2004 of a quick or simple way out. Some news organizations have clearly tried to respond, with efforts like civic journalism, or credibility initiatives by editors groups, or ethics training by television news directors groups, or attempts by news organizations to be more responsive to the public by inviting them into the newsroom.

These steps seem to address the problem, at least in small ways, that newsrooms can control. Yet they have not shown up in the numbers. Indeed, there is only one up-tick in the last 18 years in the general approval or attitudes toward the news media, in the survey data. That came in November 2001, after the terrorist attacks.1 The only measurable differences in press performance during that period were these: the press had suddenly become far more serious in what it covered, and more factual and less interpretative in the way it covered it; the media suddenly devoted enormous resources to covering a story of paramount importance even if it cost them money; as a nation we faced a crisis that made the need for journalism more urgent.2

Those changes in news agenda, though, were not sustained. Within a few months, as the urgency of events subsided, studies found virtually no difference in the local news agenda and only a partial change in the agenda of nightly network news than before September 11.3 And by August 2002, Pew Center Surveys found the rise in trust to have fallen back.4

It is possible that the public is simply of two minds. It wants a more entertainment-infused, more sensationalized, more interpretative style of news, and the media have given it to them. The public then feels repulsed and derides the messenger for delivering it.

It is also possible that this declining trust has only a little to do with the press, that these attitudes toward the news media are only a reflection of a declining trust in all institutions.

Brushing off these issues as a sign of public hypocrisy or general skepticism, however, seems too glib. The public attitudes aside, something is changing in the news media. Faced with declining audiences, many major news institutions have changed their product in a way that costs less to produce while still attracting an audience. The public senses this and says it doesn’t like it.

Blaming the news media for these changes is too easy. Journalism faces more difficult economic circumstances than it once did. Yet the way the news industry responded has helped erode public trust. How long can the profession of journalism endure if people increasingly don’t believe it? To reverse the slide in audience and trust will probably take a major change in press behavior, one that will make the news more relevant and customizable and at the same time suggest to the public, as it did briefly after September 11, that the news industry is more concerned with the public good than Americans suspect.

Footnotes

1. “Terror Coverage Boosts News Media’s Images,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, November 28, 2001, available at http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=143.

2. “Return to Normalcy: How the Media Have Covered the War on Terrorism,” Project for Excellence in Journalism, January 28, 2002, available at http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/normalcy/default.asp. “Before and After: How the War on Terrorism Has Changed the News Agenda, Network Television, June to October, 2001,” Project for Excellence in Journalism, November 19, 2001, available at http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/agenda/default.asp.

3. Ibid.

4. “News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-lived,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, August 4, 2002, available at http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=159.

Author’s Note

Author’s Note

People can approach the material in this report several ways. Users can go directly to the media about which they are most concerned – local television news, for example – and drive vertically through it. Or they can focus on a particular issue, such as audience trends, and move horizontally across different media sectors to see where Americans are going for news. Or they can move across the overviews of each sector. They can flip back and forth between our narrative and the interactive chart and tabular material. Or they can work through the statistics for themselves, making their own charts, answering their own questions, in effect creating their own report.

The report is substantial. It runs more than 500 pages in print and includes extensive tabular appendices. There are more than 400 detailed footnoted source citations to help guide users to original sources.

In addition to this overview, each sector of media is subject to a detailed narrative and synthesis of the data that we hope answer most of the major questions about underlying trends and outline what is unknown as well.

Our desire in this study is to answer questions we imagine any reader would find important, to help clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the available data, and to identify what is not yet answerable.

We have attempted, to the best of our ability and the limits of time, to seek out multiple sources of information for comparison where they exist. Each year we hope to gather more sources, improve our understanding and refine our methodology.

This study is the work of many collaborators, including more than 25 outside readers who are expert in different media sectors, five research partners and dozens of research groups whose data we purchased or got permission to use. The chapters on television and cable were jointly written with Andrew Tyndall of ADT Research, who executed the content analyses on those sectors. The report on newspapers was co-written by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute and PEJ staff. The content analysis was executed by Princeton Survey Research Associates and Tyndall under the direction of the Project. The methodology and statistical work were supervised by Esther Thorson, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Irvin Molotsky, former reporter and editor at the New York Times, was the copy editor. We owe a significant debt, as well, to our sister group, the Committee of Concerned Journalists and its chairman, Bill Kovach. More details on their contributions are available here, along with the methodology.

Our focus in this report is on journalism, not media as a whole. There are various important trends in media – such as the implications of consolidation or cable technology on nonfiction entertainment, on music or on drama – that are not covered here.

This annual report was designed with various audiences in mind: journalists, media executives, financial analysts, scholars, students and, most importantly, citizens. We hope it proves useful now and throughout the year for anyone interested in American journalism.

Executive Summary

2004 Executive Summary