The tone of the Pew Research Center’s latest annual State of the Media report, released Monday, is grim. The study found that U.S. newsrooms have cut their staff by about 30% since highs reached in 2000, and journalism is suffering as a result. At the same time, companies and other organizations are seizing opportunities to deliver their messages straight to the public — rather than through the media — with mixed results.
Fewer Resources = Poorer Quality Journalism
There are now less than 40,000 full-time employees working in news, the lowest since 1978, Pew found. The quality of journalism is consequently suffering, both on a national and local level. At Fox, CNN and MSNBC, where annual revenues continue to grow (albeit more slowly than in years past), daytime coverage of live events fell 30% from 2007, while interview segments — which don’t require a full crew and correspondent, and can be scheduled ahead of time — rose 31%. CNN has cut the number of produced story segments in half. On local TV stations, story lengths have diminished, while easy-to-deliver topics such as sports, weather and traffic have grown to account for 40% of content.
It isn’t just TV that’s showing evidence of shrinking resources: Media outlets, including Forbes, turned to a startup called Narrative Science to produce stories by algorithm in lieu of a reporter.
“This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands,” the report said. This was clearest in presidential election coverage, with campaign reporters acting more like megaphones than investigators, Pew complained. Only about a fourth of statements on presidential candidates’ character and records came from journalists, while roughly half came from political partisans — a near complete reversal from 12 years earlier, when half of statements on character and records came from journalists and a third from partisans.
The consequences are vicious: In a survey of newsreaders, Pew found that 31% have given up a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information it once did. Those who have left tend to be the heaviest news consumers demographically — that is, readers who are male, highly educated and in higher income brackets.
Companies and Organizations Circumvent the Media
Companies, public figures and other organizations are continuing to invest in content production for their own channels, such as blogs and social networks. This allows them to speak to consumers directly rather than through paid or earned placements in media. We’ve watched the rise of startups such as Contently and Insidescience.org, which is funded by the American Institute of Physics, goes deeper on science subjects than most newspapers are capable of, now that there are fewer specialized beats.
So long as revenue — particularly ad revenue — prospects look dour, so does the potential for improvement in newsrooms. As Pew points out, the news industry is failing to partake in digital advertising’s growth, losing out to technology-driven advertising companies such as Google and Facebook. Those companies have secured an even stronger foothold on mobile — to which readers are increasingly turning for news — and have improved their offerings for local businesses, as well.
Publishers are seeing, however, growth in online video and sponsored advertising. What’s more, with the adoption of metered access and other forms of payrolls, newspapers are seeing a boost in circulation revenue in proportion to advertising: Indeed, The New York Times said it now makes more on subscriptions than advertising. News organizations are also looking to new “native” forms of advertising, where brand messages will be integrated more deeply into core site elements, including navigation and stories. With native advertising, there is a risk that readers will confuse sponsored content with news content — something publishers need to be careful to differentiate, Pew warned.