State of the News Media in 2007: Severely Screwed
This past weekend, I participated in a wonderful experience.
As a past attendee of an ethics fellowship at the Poynter Institute, I'm invited back every year for a reunion weekend/two-day refresher seminar. That event came this weekend and we had a wonderful time listening to 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft, Richard Jewell attorney Lin Wood and hearing a preview of a new Eyetrack study by Poynter aimed at discovering exactly what people look at most when they pick up a newspaper.
The participants included everyone from an Orlando TV reporter to the editor of The Oregonian newspaper. And amid all the friendly reunions and personal catching up, there was a familiar subtext.
Journalists everywhere are feeling pressure like never before. Layoffs continue at newspapers and TV stations; budget cuts make travel and enterprise work tougher; shifting audiences leave many unsure of what their customers actually want to see; and the requirements expected of many journalists have ramped up to include multimedia work.
For a sense of how much the ground has shifted, see the Project for Excellence in Journalism's new State of the News Media Report for 2007. Released today, the study looks at trends across the news media in every sector, and has come up with some obvious and not-so-obvious conclusions about what is going on.
1) The Argument Culture has become the Answer Culture. News outlets are increasingly offering crusades and certainty to the public, trying to resolve the blur of information and uncertainty. The most popular show on cable has shifted from the questions of Larry King to the answers of Bill O'Reilly.
2) For many news organizations the new era of branding represents a narrowing and shrinking of ambition. Every news outlet now is chasing a niche -- whether it's political conservatives or local news junkies.
3) The news industry needs a new economic model. Advertisers don't need journalism to reach consumers the way they once did, particularly online. And news outlets need to find ways of getting consumers to pay for digital content.
4) Will investors see news business as a declining sector or a transitioning one? Public companies will still access funds if investors think there is a future in news businesses. But that optimism isn't yet widespread.
5) Blogging is on the brink of a new phase. Because access to the form is so open, blogging is highly vulnerable to corruption. Some bloggers have been secretly hired by corporations and politcal operatives to support their interests, while other bloggers have become big businesses or have been bought by larger media companies.
6) No clear models of how to do journalism online have emerged. Web sites developed by establishment media are beginning to take on their own characteristics and journalists have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible online.
7) There are clear questions about whether public corporations are the best ownership model for media companies. The spread of digital technology has erased the growing profits that once characterized media companies, which makes Wall Street nervous.
Scary and full of potential in equal measure. As the old Chinese curse goes, it seems today's journalists are destined to live in interesting times.