The Pew Research Center’s annual State of the Media Report paints a dismal picture of the condition of mainstream media – in particular broadcast and magazines – but Slate’s Matthew Yglesias says the report looks at the wrong things. Which side are you on?
There’s no question that Pew’s annual media audit and survey of 2,000 consumers is about as depressing as any of the 10 annual reports that the nonprofit media watchdog has completed. Among the lowlights:
- Nearly a third of U.S. adults have stopped using a news outlet because it no longer met their needs.
- That’s not surprising when you consider that low-cost sports, weather and traffic information now account for 40% of the content produced on the average local newscast.
- The population of full-time professional newsroom employees fell below 40,000 for the first time since 1978. It’s down nearly 30% from its 1989 high.
- In an election year, the declines in coverage were particularly evident. Live broadcast reports fell from from 33% of the news hole in 2007 to 23% in 2012. And 2007 was not an election year. Commentary and opinion, which are cheap to produce, now make up 63% of news airtime on cable channels, while straight news reporting comprises only 37%.
- An examination of 48 recent evening and morning newscasts found that 20 led with a weather-related story. Weather coverage is cheap.
- Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists, while twice that many came from political partisans. The report runs down a list of informational websites that political parties and advocacy groups have set up to influence media, but some are now actually becoming the media. Pew notes several examples of major news magazines that have carried partisan reports as part of their branded news stream.
- In that vein, Pew notes a 2008 analysis of Census Bureau data by Robert McChesney and John Nichols that found that the ratio of public relations workers to journalists tripled from 1.2-to-1 in 1980 to 3.6-to-1 in 2008. That gap has likely grown since then.
- In summary, “News organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover the stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever,” Pew states.
- Incredibly (to us, at least), the public is mostly unaware that the news media is struggling. Only 39% of the 2,000 consumers surveyed said they have much awareness of the industry’s problems.
Newspapers actually come off pretty well in this year’s report. Thanks to paywalls, which are in place or in the works at one-third of U.S. newspapers, circulation held steady year-to-year. The New York Times said its circulation revenue now exceeds advertising revenue for the first time.
However, the long-term trends are still negative. Newspapers lose $16 in print ad revenue for every $1 in digital ad revenue gained, and that figure is up from $10-to-$1 in 2011. Equally ominous is that Facebook and Google are doing a better job of figuring out how to target digital advertising locally, which threatens one of the few pockets of revenue strength newspapers have left.
Because the long-term outlook is so bad, newspapers have become an attractive investment vehicle. Pew notes that value investor Warren Buffett has been snapping them up at a rapid clip because they are so cheap. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News were bought for $55 million last year, which is 1/10 of the price they commanded in 2006.
Out of Mind
Perhaps the most surprising finding is the low public awareness of the news industry’s crisis, and that’s where Yglesias’ analysis on Slate is most interesting. “American news media has never been in better shape,” he states at the outset, using the Cypriot economic crisis as proof. We’re not sure the media itself is in great shape, but readers are doing fine.
Yglesias cites a “bounty” of online resources that provide context, analysis and even an interactive calculator that lets visitors try out different ideas for solving the island nation’s financial problems. It’s easier than ever to produce news using public sources and simple publishing tools, and the Internet makes boundless background information available in seconds.
Assessing the state of media by looking only at the health of traditional outlets creates “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers,” he writes. “[T]oday’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”
The finding that only four in 10 Americans are even aware of the media’s struggles can be interpreted in several ways. The pessimistic view is that Americans are basically dumb, lazy and happy with the partisan screaming matches that characterize a lot of broadcast news.
A more positive view is that Americans have already moved on to using other sources and haven’t noticed the loss of their once-trusted brands. It’s impossible to know without further research, but we have to acknowledge Yglesias’s point that the decline of mainstream media certainly hasn’t resulted in a dearth of information.
One important point the Slate business writer makes is that news no longer carries an expiration date. Traditional media assumed that news would be consumed within a few hours or days. Archival or background information was tedious to find, so readers were mainly limited to whatever the newspaper or broadcast provided within its limited space.
Now everything is part of a grand, searchable archive, which permits people to go as deep as they want whenever they want. Those who don’t have the time to come up to speed on the banking crisis in Cyprus can put off learning about it until later. Then they can go to a resource like Wikipedia’s coverage and spend hours digging into background for more than 40 sources cited there.
We prefer the glass-half-full perspective. While the loss of the media’s watchdog function is troubling, the power of having timeless access to resources we didn’t even know existed is energizing. The challenge is to find ways to fund the valuable services that media has provided in the past so that the information that doesn’t attract search engines and sponsorship dollars still has a platform.
- State of the media: The cracks are still widening, but some light is also getting in
- The News Business Is Awful; People Want News
- 5 Key Takeaways from Pew’s State of the News Media 2013
- ‘Glory days’ of journalism? No, yes, no and yes.
- Mediatwits #72: Sad State of the News Media; Reuters’ Social Editor Indicted
- The Glory Days of American Journalism
- 31% of Americans Have Abandoned News Outlets Due to Perceived Decline in Quality