Are News Habits Really Changing?

The trouble with journalism may not be a loss of audience, per se, but the challenge of getting advertisers to follow that audience to the Web.

That's one of the conclusions in the Project for Excellence in Journalism's (PEJ) fifth annual State of the News Media report, an often-critical and often-criticized analysis of the news business.

The report is being released March 17, but in an executive summary supplied to B&C, it concludes Americans are still relying on the same sources for most of their news, but just getting to them in different ways. The “legacy media”—CNN, MSNBC, CBS, The New York Times—in both their original and Internet forms are attracting even larger audiences than they did before the explosion of information sites on the Web.

But advertisers aren't following yet.

News critics say journalism is “fragmenting across new information sources, breaking the grip of media elites.” PEJ's study suggests that, by and large, news consumers are still relying on the same brands.

Indeed, PEJ's report finds that highly touted non-traditional media sites and user-generated content are good sources for tips and ideas, but content itself has “too little that is new or verifiable.”

“The crisis in journalism,” PEJ says in a conclusion that may come as no surprise to journalists, is juggling stories while trying to stand on multiple platforms. PEJ says the basic challenge for media companies is to somehow “reinvent their profession at the same time they are cutting back on their reporting and resources.”

In the report Howard Weaver, the chief news executive of the McClatchy Co., says, “It's like changing the oil in your car while you're driving down the freeway.”

More money, fewer journalists

But not everyone is cutting back. In fiscal 2006, the most recent year for which statistics were available, a majority of local TV station news directors (53%) said they had increased their budgets. But with no significant change in salaries, the report concludes the money was going to equipment for the digital transition rather than to people.

The report's executive summary makes special mention of CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric under its network news section, saying CBS has “reined” her in. “[Her] role on the evening news is now, in many ways, more circumscribed than that of any other network anchor—quite a contrast from how her program began,” it says. “Most notably, in 2007 she did roughly half as much of the signature interviewing for which she was once known than did her evening rivals. And much of that was edited.”

CBS declined comment on the characterization of Couric's role. The Couric conclusion, according to a PEJ spokeswoman, was drawn primarily from news accounts about the show, including stories in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune.

The PEJ study uses the resources of the Radio-TV News Directors Association, research from Ball State University often cited in the news business, and other sources. Other of the report's key conclusions include:

  • News consumption has become continual, with news morphing from a “finished” product—a newspaper, a newscast, even a Web site—to a service that helps consumers “find what they are looking for [and] react to it,” But advertisers are having trouble adapting to “new technology and consumer behavior.”
  • News Websites are not final destinations, but gateways to other information. Sites that believe otherwise are Internet cul-de-sacs that might as well contain a “No Outlet” sign.
  • Newsrooms, rather than being disconnected from the public, are seen as the “more innovative and experimental part of the news industry.” By contrast, “my middle management in advertising and distribution is where I see the deer-in-the-headlights look,” one publisher told PEJ.

PEJ finds reason to be hopeful amidst the seismic changes in the news business. While it concludes there remains skepticism on Wall Street and among owners, journalists are expressing a “sense of mission,” and a desire to prove that “what they consider a calling has resonance and in time will find the financial footing.”

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John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.