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Good News, Bad News

Who will provide the kind of journalism we used to depend on?

What a difference two decades makes. Asked in 1985 to name their most admired journalist, Americans picked the CBS anchor Dan Rather, followed by his august predecessor, Walter Cronkite, then ABC’s Peter Jennings and NBC’s Tom Brokaw.

When the same question was posed in 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the nation’s most admired journalist, CBS’s Katie Couric, received only five percent of the widely scattered votes. The runner-up was Bill O’Reilly, the combative cable and radio talker, who does not fit any traditional definition of journalist. The rest of the top-10 list included a former reality show host turned CNN star (Anderson Cooper) and an entertainer who lampoons the news on a network called Comedy Central (Jon Stewart).

That’s a pretty compelling case for the fragmentation of the news universe and the merging of journalism and infotainment. For many Americans, the network newscast has become an anachronism, a digest of news they’ve already heard, aired at an hour most convenient for retirees. In many cities, the daily paper is a shadow of its former self, with fewer pages, smaller staffs, less investigative reporting, and thinner coverage of the nation and world.

Today’s news consumers have more options than ever. They can tap into blogs, political websites, viral video vehicles, social networking sites, cable panel shows, late-night TV talk programs, and talk radio. Yet an increasingly diverse news landscape doesn’t necessarily translate into more and better news.

Anyone who ever gathered in the family den to watch the news before dinner or eagerly grabbed the morning paper from the driveway recognizes the seismic changes in the news business—changes driven by both technological revolution and economic turmoil. As the mainstream media yield to a new generation of still-developing news platforms, crucial questions are forming in the minds of journalists and news executives: Will tomorrow’s news consumers be better or less well informed than today’s? And where will the money come from to pay for the kind of quality journalism—accurate, ambitious, and complex—that is vital to an informed society?

No one knows what the emerging new media world will look like. Many analysts are comforted by the idea that digital media will slash the costs of news delivery. Others fret that a culture of instant information gratification will dampen the public’s appetite for serious news and convince advertisers to spend their money elsewhere. Some think the very core of journalism is at stake.

WHAT AILS JOURNALISM The problems afflicting the mainstream media that have traditionally footed the bill for foreign bureaus, investigative units, and specialized reporting have been building for years. It is a tale of fleeing audiences, decreasing ad revenues, and resultant newsroom cuts.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., A74, the chairman of the New York Times Company, operates what is widely considered the most powerful news brand in the country. And many people expect that whatever the new media landscape ends up looking like, the Times will play a prominent role. (Sulzberger proudly notes that the Times Company has its own research and development department as well as an on-staff futurist.)

Still, the Times is hardly immune to the problems plaguing the industry. The paper recently announced plans to cut some 100 newsroom jobs, and the company’s stock price has been depressed for years. Stockholders have complained about Sulzberger’s stewardship and the company’s performance—sparking speculation about everything from new leadership to privatization.

Even as he is bullish on the Times’ future, Sulzberger sees the carnage around him. “We are in a transition period,” he says—meaning “a cyclical downturn and a secular downturn as well, which is the changing business model.” He adds: “There are fewer and fewer news organizations that are willing to invest in the kind of quality journalism that keeps our democracy vibrant. It is not good for democracy; it is not good for America.”

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a Washington-based nonpartisan media research institution of which I am associate director, noted in its recent annual report that the newspaper industry has lost about 8 percent of its daily circulation since 2001. But some of the nation’s biggest papers have fared worse. Editor & Publisher reported that between 2003 and 2007 the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe lost about 20 percent of their daily circulation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution 17 percent, and the Washington Post 13 percent.

The barrage of bad news continued when the Newspaper Association of America announced recently that print advertising revenue fell more than 9 percent in 2007, the biggest drop in more than 50 years. In this environment, journalists have become something of an endangered species: PEJ has estimated that 4,000 to 4,500 newspaper jobs were lost between 2000 and 2007.

But even the sobering numbers don’t tell the full story of the existential crisis that has shaken the industry. In 2006, Knight-Ridder, once a respected steward of the second-largest newspaper chain in the country, simply ceased to exist. It sold its 32 dailies after a revolt by angry stockholders. The Los Angeles Times, considered to be one of America’s top five dailies, has been the poster child in the battle over shrinking resources. In one 29-month period, three consecutive editors left the traumatized paper after battling with the parent company over the size of budget cuts.

Broadcast news has suffered from some of the same ills. Before becoming president of the public station WNET-TV in New York, Neal Shapiro, A80, spent a quarter century working in network news. That included four years as president of NBC News, where he oversaw everything from the 9/11 coverage to the anchor desk transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams. By the time he left NBC in 2005, Shapiro could sense the trends that were eating away at the TV news divisions. “I sort of could tell something was going to happen because of the way the company was moving. . . . There had been a kind of steady cost-cutting.”

The network evening broadcasts lost a combined 1.2 million viewers in 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research—part of a pattern in which about a million viewers have vanished in each of the last 25 years. As a result, PEJ has calculated, the news staffs at ABC, CBS, and NBC shrank by 7 percent in 2007, having already dwindled by 10 percent between 2002 and 2006.

Part of the challenge for traditional media outlets is that eyeballs are migrating online in vast numbers. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press provides one such indicator. From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of Americans who regularly got presidential campaign news from the Internet almost tripled, from 9 percent to 24 percent.

But there are significant worries about the ability of online news to pay for itself. The difficulty of getting the public to pony up was highlighted in September 2007, when the New York Times scrapped its online premium-content service, TimesSelect. At the same time, ad revenue is not necessarily following news consumers online; annual advertising growth on newspaper websites, for example, slowed to about 20 percent in 2007 after jumping by some 30 percent in 2006. The crisis in journalism has much to do with what the PEJ report called “the decoupling of news and advertising.”

There are other troubling developments, too. The vanishing young news consumer, for one—which poses a serious demographic dilemma for the media as their traditional audience continues to age (network newscast viewers have an advertiser-unfriendly median age of 61, according to Magna Global USA). A 2006 study of news consumption by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press concluded that “for young people in particular, getting the news often takes a back seat to other daily activities.” Of those respondents under 30 years of age, 40 percent said they watched a movie at home the previous day, and 28 percent said they played a video game. Yet only 24 percent went online for news. Worse, 27 percent said they had consumed no news at all that day, making them the least news-conscious demographic bloc.

Not everyone has written off the younger audience, of course. Heidi Pickman, J88, a veteran freelance radio producer who blogs on the popular Huffington Post site, insists the appetite for serious news is there. “I’ve worked with kids,” she says. “When you talk to people, people are interested in substance.”

Still, the news industry is concerned enough about losing young readers that it has rolled out free daily tabloids—the Express in Washington, the Metro in Boston, the RedEye in Chicago—that offer a Cliff notes version of the news with bite-sized stories meant to be consumed in a 15-minute train commute. These are, in some ways, a reflection of the fears that many young readers will neither pay for news nor spend much time with it.

On top of that has come a narrowing of the topics covered by the media. In a world of infinite news outlets, people have the option of being informed about virtually anything anywhere in the globe. The reality is that in 2007, the tabloid saga of actress/Playmate Anna Nicole Smith was the third-biggest story in the country from her death on February 8 until her burial on March 2. It slightly trailed only the debate over the Iraq war and the presidential campaign, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, which measures the mainstream news agenda.

That index showed just how scantily a number of topics that define our society were covered last year. Education, transportation, religion, the legal system—none of them accounted for more than one percent of the news studied by the index. The same was true of global hot spots where U.S. interests were at stake. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear negotiations with North Korea, increasing tension with Russia, and even the war in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are fighting and dying, all failed to generate even one percent of last year’s news coverage.

Some of the narrowness of the news landscape can likely be chalked up to the demands on many newsrooms of having two mega-stories—the Iraq war and the campaign—that required daily attention. But it is hard to imagine that the budget cuts that have shuttered foreign bureaus and reduced the reporting reach of many outlets did not play a significant role as well.

Meg Hourihan, J94, an entrepreneur, web consultant, and cofounder of Blogger (who has not read a print version of a newspaper in 11 years), sees yet another force at work—the principle that fluff begets an appetite for fluff. “The twenty-four-hour news cycle? Frankly, there’s not twenty-four hours of interesting news,” she says. “That’s really what’s pushing against the investigative, quality work. Why would you take the spinach if you have the candy all the time?”

All of these recent trends leave the future of news in limbo as the information industry finds itself stuck between successful business models, with the crumbling media monopolies of yesteryear competing with an emerging new media universe that has not yet picked up the slack. But the news about the news is not all bad.

THE FUTURE OF NEWS For all their misgivings, media practitioners are more optimistic than pessimistic about the future and quality of journalism. Much of their hopefulness comes down to the economics of the web—which is an extremely efficient way to distribute information. No more heavy costs associated with chopping down trees, operating printing presses, and deploying gas-guzzling delivery trucks.

Says Matt Bai, A90, a veteran print journalist and author who writes about national politics for the New York Times Sunday magazine: “I think the prospect for quality journalism is outstanding over the next few decades” because “the prohibitive cost factor of journalism” is abating. Where news organizations once relied on an expensive bureau structure to cover the world, Bai contends, “there’s not a reporter on the planet who can’t work from a coffee shop with a laptop. . . . People who want to do great journalism can do it.”

For his part, Sulzberger asserts that “print is not dead,” even as he acknowledges that he might have fueled some of that speculation himself. (Last year, Sulzberger was quoted in an Israeli newspaper as saying, “I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care either.”) Still, he agrees that the coming news industry will have “a less expensive infrastructure . . . that doesn’t have the cost structure of today’s modern newspapers.”

And Meg Hourihan is convinced that online news will prove irresistible to advertisers, given the “better metrics” that allow them to track the effectiveness of online messages. “The advertising dollars are going to continue to move more and more to the web,” she predicts.

Media analysts are also buoyed by recent feats of entrepreneurship. While the number of outlets delivering ambitious, expensive journalism may shrink—Jan Schaffer, director of the journalism laboratory at the University of Maryland, foresees a nucleus of major players, like the New York Times or Washington Post, providing the “big-J national and global journalism”—new, complementary organizations are on the horizon.

Several experiments in investigative and international journalism, built on a private funding model, have recently been announced. The most notable is ProPublica, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news operation scheduled for launch this year. Led by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, the venture has a number of unique characteristics. They include a large (24-person) news staff devoted to aggressive watchdog journalism, and a willingness to partner with other news organizations in releasing their work. Even more noteworthy is its funding source—some $10 million per year from a pair of California billionaires, Herbert and Marion Sandler.

The idea is to create a clearinghouse for investigative reporting at a time when fewer media outlets provide their own. When the project was announced, ProPublica officials cited a survey revealing that nearly 40 percent of the nation’s 100 biggest dailies had no full-time investigative reporters. “There certainly have been cutbacks in a bunch of places, and there is every reason to believe the financial pressures will continue, if not accelerate,” says ProPublica general manager Richard Tofel.

Just a few years ago, ProPublica would have been greeted with skepticism by a mainstream news industry resistant to change. But in the current economic environment, it has been welcomed with open arms. It received about a thousand résumés from journalists eager to sign on, and its advisory board is chock full of media luminaries from around the country. “There’s no bad idea,” the New York Times’ Sulzberger says of ProPublica. “In an era that defines itself increasingly as ‘test-and-learn,’ I’m delighted by this.”

Another experiment that bears watching is Global News Enterprises, a U.S.-based international news website that will employ about 70 correspondents in 60 countries, slated for launch in 2009. The brainchild of Philip Balboni, who founded New England Cable News 16 years ago, this venture is also being funded privately. Some of the $7 to $8 million reportedly raised to date comes from investors with big-time media pedigrees, among them Amos Hostetter, Jr., cofounder of Continental Cablevision, and Benjamin Taylor, a former Boston Globe publisher.

Just as ProPublica was conceived as a remedy to the growing fiscal constraints on investigative journalism, Global News Enterprises was developed, in part, as a response to the declining investment in global reporting. Its business plan envisions revenues from advertising, subscription fees, and syndication fees for providing content to other outlets. “I have watched closely the slow demise of international news,” says Balboni. “It’s so important that we create alternative means of traditional reporting.”

While both ProPublica and Global News will rely on the work of professional journalists, many observers believe the coming news-gathering infrastructure must expand the definition of who—and what—a journalist is. “The model is going to change,” says Heidi Pickman, the radio producer. “Maybe [news outlets] will be nonprofit. Maybe they’ll be for-profit.” And they might provide a service that has “traditionally not been called journalism.”

Those nontraditional sources could include nonprofit research groups that have reporting resources. Pickman cites the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks the impact of money on politics. The Center for Public Integrity, which bills itself as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to producing original, responsible investigative journalism,” has generated almost 300 investigative reports in the past 18 years. In March, it won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for its examination of the billions spent by the United States in military aid and foreign assistance since the 9/11 attacks.

A recent American Journalism Review article called “Nonprofit News” noted that the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which has spent years funding the training of journalists on health issues, was considering starting a nonprofit news service of its own. A Kaiser official, Matt James, told AJR that foundations like his are contemplating greater involvement because the “traditional news business is not investing as much as it needs to.”

That expanding definition of a reporter may also create new relationships between the newsroom and higher education. In Boston, programs aimed at producing professional-quality investigative journalism have sprung up at Northeastern and Brandeis universities. Another initiative, News21, is an experiment “to remake journalism education,” says Adam Glenn, F96, who has worked with the project. Glenn is a veteran journalist who has practiced in print, was a senior editor of online news at ABC, and now is a digital media consultant. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation, News21 takes dozens of graduate students each summer and matches them with professional support staff to produce a major journalistic work on a complex subject employing digital and multimedia technologies.

Recent fruits of those labors, a 2006 examination of liberty and security issues and a 2007 project on religion in America, were picked up by such mainstream outlets as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes magazine, PBS’s Frontline, and CNN. “Forty-four reporters focused on a single topic—you’d be hard pressed to find that model anywhere else in journalism,” Glenn says.

In-depth reporting produced by journalism students, news funded by wealthy private donors, and nonprofit organizations getting into journalism are all ideas based on an overarching assumption: that an era dominated by expensive (and profitable) corporate-subsidized news, mass-produced by a trained professional class, is passing. Some welcome this development, hoping that a hierarchical news structure will be replaced by an information democracy fostered by an engaged citizenry armed with computers and cell phone cameras.

To a degree, that is already happening. Homemade video of everything from the 2005 London terror attacks to former Virginia senator George Allen’s fateful “macaca” remark in the 2006 campaign is already part of our news culture. And a 2007 study by the University of Maryland’s journalism lab identified as many as 800 hyperlocal “citizen media” websites that are largely the handiwork of community activists. Such efforts are likely to be a growing part of the information landscape.

But what about the kind of journalism that takes time, money, experience, and skilled reporting, writing, and editing to produce? The kind that makes sense of the countervailing forces in Iraq, finds horrifying conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital, or weighs the scientific evidence for global warming? One widespread expectation is that the spadework will be done by fewer and fewer journalists who will function as wire services for others. But any lack of competition in the world of serious journalism is likely to lead to less and less serious journalism.

In the end, the answer may well lie in finding an online business model that works, one based on a citizenry that appreciates the value of quality information, advertisers who find the traffic congregating on those sites irresistible, and perhaps even online news aggregators willing to pay fees to content producers. For their part, news executives are putting their faith in a business that has always managed to adapt to novel technologies—whether to radio, television, or, now, the Internet.

Shapiro, the former NBC News president, sees plenty of reasons to worry but still evinces a basic belief in his industry. “I think the question will be, What do people do to distinguish themselves . . . who can be deeper, who can be more thoughtful? . . . I think you’re seeing the media adjusting to what’s needed.”

Sulzberger stresses that we’re in “a whole new form of web-based journalism that is still in its infancy. . . . At the end of that process, you’ve got journalism that is going to be funded by advertising and maybe user fees.”

“Fifteen or twenty years down the road,” he adds, “there is no question in my mind that that kind of quality journalism will be back in full flower.”

MARK JURKOWITZ is associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington, D.C., research organization that assesses the performance of the press. He has spent nearly two decades covering the news media. At the Boston Phoenix, he wrote the “Don’t Quote Me” column. He also spent 10 years at the Boston Globe, initially as the paper’s ombudsman and then as its first full-time media beat writer. Jurkowitz has taught media ethics at Tufts and at Northeastern University and has been a media commentator on CNN and NPR.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155