Annual PEJ Report: Web Changing Journalism, But Not as Expected

By: David Bauder, The Associated Press

The Internet has profoundly changed journalism, but not necessarily in ways that were predicted even a few years ago, a study on the industry released Sunday found.

It was believed at one point that the Net would democratize the media, offering many new voices, stories and perspectives. Yet the news agenda actually seems to be narrowing, with many Web sites primarily packaging news that is produced elsewhere, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual State of the News Media report.

Two stories ? the war in Iraq and the 2008 presidential election campaign ? represented more than a quarter of the stories in newspapers, on television and online last year, the project found.

Take away Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, and news from all of the other countries in the world combined filled up less than 6 percent of the American news hole, the project said.

The news side of the business is dynamic, but the growing ability of news consumers to find what they want without being distracted by advertising is what’s making the industry go through some tough times.

“Although the audience for traditional news is maintaining itself, the staff for any of these news organizations tend to be shrinking,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the project’s director.

NBC News’ recent decision to name make David Gregory host of a nightly program on MSNBC while keeping his job as White House correspondent is an example of how people are being asked to do much more, he said.

News is less a product, like the day’s newspaper or a nightly newscast, than a service that is constantly being updated, he said. Last week, for instance, The New York Times posted its first report linking New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to a prostitution ring in the early afternoon, and it quickly became the day’s dominant story.

Only a few years ago, newspaper Web sites were primarily considered an online morgue for that day’s newspaper, Rosenstield said.

“The afternoon newspaper is in a sense being reborn online,” he said.

A separate survey found journalists are, to a large degree, embracing the changes being thrust upon them. A majority say they like doing blogs and that they appreciate reader feedback on their stories. When they’re asked to do multimedia projects, most journalists find the experience enriching instead of feeling overworked, he said. The newsroom is increasingly being seen as the most experimental place in the business, the report found.

Most news Web sites are no longer final destinations. The report found that many users insist that the sites, and even individual pages, offer plenty of options to navigate elsewhere for more information, the project found. Rosenstiel said he’s even able to reach Washington Post stories through the New York Times’ Web site.

In another unexpected finding, citizen-created Web sites and blogs are actually far less welcoming to outside commentary than the so-called mainstream media, the report said.
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Writing at www.poynter.org today, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, a co-author of the report, opens his analysis as follows.
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Advertising takes center stage in the fifth edition of the State of the News Media report, released Monday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The heart of the problem, especially for newspapers, is not loss of audience but “a broken economic model — the decoupling of advertising and news,” the report finds. “Advertisers are not migrating to news Web sites with audiences, and online, news sites are already falling financially behind other kinds of Web destinations.”

A separate report on the future of advertising finds that Madison Avenue is as tradition-bound — or more so — as news outlets. Catching up might involve finding ingenious ways to advertise on news sites. But it might also accelerate the movement to freestanding advertising, friendly to search, that could dramatically reduce budgets for display advertising in traditional media.

The online report is massive — the equivalent of 700 pages of text. It covers eight media industries and offers several extra features. This year’s report draws on PEJ’s ongoing content analysis and includes a survey of journalists’ attitudes and a look at 64 citizen media Web sites in 25 communities.

As in years past, I am co-author of the newspaper chapter, and the “decoupling” theme is one PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel and I have been discussing for 18 months. The nub of the idea is that viewing ads online is more like using the Yellow Pages than seeing ads in a newspaper. People search narrowly for what they want, so accompanying news content may be beside the point — or even a distraction.

I write frequently in the Biz Blog both about the problem and proposed solutions. Some publishers are experimenting with their own search-only product sites, sometimes accompanied by user reviews. Newspaper and local television sites hope to catch the wave of local online video that analysts like Gordon Borrell predict will soon arrive.

The latest iteration of the Newspaper Next project advocates that newspaper organizations reinvent themselves as “local information and connection utilities.” And in my most recent post, veteran analyst Lauren Rich Fine suggested that newspapers could thrive even if print classified advertising went to near zero over the next five years. They would need a business model that capitalized on their news dominance, their continued strength as an outlet for retail and national advertising, and yet-to-be-invented businesses.

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