Annual ‘State of Media’ Study Finds Newspapers Slipping

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By: Joe Strupp

Newspapers are still offering readers the widest range of coverage and the “deepest, most balanced stories,” but they lost their audience at a greater rate in 2004 than in previous years, according to a new study on the state of newsgathering, which also determined that the pressure for larger revenues is leading to even more newsroom cutbacks.

The study, “The State of the American News Media, 2005,” was released from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute linked with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Despite undeniable strengths, 2004 was a tough year for the newspaper industry, and it isn’t because people don’t want to read,” Project Director Tom Rosenstiel said in a statement. “It is increasingly clear, newspapers need to see themselves as in the news business, not in the paper and ink business, and to embrace new technology as the ally of the depth and breadth that print once offered.”

The study contends that “the news industry is taking the same cautious pay-as-you-go approach to the Internet that seems likely to cede ground to non-journalism competitors,” according to a report summary. “Even though online audiences are growing, 62% of Internet journalists said their newsrooms have suffered recent cutbacks, almost twice the 37% of national print, TV and radio journalists to report that their newsrooms have suffered cutbacks.”

U.S. daily newspaper circulation, which has declined by about one-percent per year since 1990, continued to fall at that rate in 2004, “and that doesn’t include 250,000 in phantom circulation that will be written off due to scandals that hit the industry last year,” the report added.

The study adds that hard times are almost certain to translate into more newsroom cutbacks in 2004, once the accounting is finished, following another 500 in newsroom job losses in 2003, the latest year for which data is available.

At the same time, the study shows, the news industry still earned profits of more than 22%, according to analyst estimates, and that is expected to rise to above 23% in 2005. “That ability to generate high profits can also be a crutch, if Wall Street does not allow the industry to reinvest some of that money into new technology and building new audiences,” the study’s authors stated.

Only three sectors of the news media — ethnic, alternative, and online — continued to see steady audience growth. In 2003 alone, the latest year for which there is data, 14 new Spanish-language newspapers were launched. “And while online media does not generally appear to be cannibalizing the old, there are some exceptions to that,” the report stated. “One is that people who go to online newspaper sites appear to be spending less time reading newspapers in print.

The study offered an overview on the state of the news media landscape and then provides detailed chapters on nine different sectors of the press — newspapers, magazines, network television, cable television, local television, the Internet, radio, the ethnic press, and alternative media.

For each sector, it examined six areas: audience, economics, ownership, newsroom investment, and public attitudes. It puts in one place all the major data about journalism-plus significant original research. Among the findings:

? The notion of growing partisan media has been overstated. While this new “Journalism of Affirmation” is growing, audiences are not splitting along ideological lines. Only cable and talk radio have done so. The audiences of most media reflect the population fairly well, except for age.

? Cable news is measurably thinner in its reporting than broadcast news. Cable stories rely on fewer and less transparent sources, contain more journalistic opinion and reflect fewer viewpoints.

? There is little sign the major news Web sites are taking advantage of the technology of the Internet. Less than a third of lead stories on news sites studied included video links or allowed users to sort through data.

? Network news faces the biggest moment of transitional change in 2005 that it has faced since the 1980s, when a new generation of anchors and a new pressure for profitably changed the face of the networks.

? Morning news is becoming the financial engine of the networks. While evening news audiences continued to decline in 2004, morning audiences were flat. ABC’s Good Morning America was growing, while NBC’s Today Show was declining. Only the first 20 minutes of morning news tend to contain traditional news about significant events.

“The news is moving from being an organized, prepared lecture to a free-flowing conversation, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies,” Rosenstiel added. “The process is more open, but, paradoxically, it is also more prone to manipulation by those who want to shape public opinion. The cases of the government hiring commentators and creating faux web sites are part of this phenomenon.”

The study can be accessed online at www.stateofthemedia.org.

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