Calamity. Gloom. Doom. Despair.
That's pretty much what you read these days about the modern state of journalism. In true navel-gazing form, much of the gloom and doom is documented in the news media, by journalists who have proven to be more aggressive tracking the demise of its own industry than it did in watchdog pursuit of the more complex and ultimately more devastating economic debacles of the past several years.
Most of the headlines have centered on the declines in print media. But a report released this week by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that television and radio are also in a free fall, with revenues down 22 percent in 2009. Newspapers saw revenue decline by 26 percent last year, which brings the total loss over the last three years to 43 percent, according to the report.
If you've paid any attention at all, you are likely aware that reductions in news resources have naturally followed the revenue losses. Fewer reporters, photographers, editors and support staff results in a diminished ability to chase stories that deserve to be told. According to the Pew report, the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or 30 percent.
The Monterey County media are not immune to the issues, but the bleeding in this region is not as severe as it is in many of the larger markets. We are all fortunate to be providing uniquely local news to a readership and to a viewing audience that is engaged in the community and interested in what is happening in their cities. Most of us have managed to hang tight, without the outrageous wholesale reductions we read about at newspapers and television stations in urban areas. The economy here is as bad as it is elsewhere and local media outlets are certainly not what they once were, but at least we're not losing readers and viewers and revenue at the same pace, on the same scale.
Among the more telling elements in the Pew study this year was a content analysis of newspapers. It showed that smaller newspapers devoted much more of its print news hole to covering the economy last year than their larger counterparts — and they were "able to cover the overarching impact of the recession at the grassroots level." Smaller newspapers also focused more attention on health and medicine storylines than did larger newspapers, according to the study.
Also during 2009, Michael Jackson's death accounted for only 3 percent of all newspapers' coverage in the month following his death, while the economy and Iran's presidential election dominated print media. Across the media spectrum, Jackson's death was ranked the ninth most important story of the year, but it did not rank at all among most newspapers' top 20 stories.
There are, of course, two ways of looking at that content analysis: Either newspapers are missing a bet by not bowing to the pressures of the lowest common denominator or else they still managed to provide readers with responsible journalism about issues that truly matter, despite the gloom of their own industry.
If only it was that easy! If only newspapers could take solace in the knowledge that they are sinking under the weight of the high ground.
Consider how the mainstream press stacks up against the so-called new media — how the mainstream seem to be providing what it believes citizens need to know, as opposed what citizens are actually interested in. For the first time in its annual report, Pew was able to analyze the differences between the popularity of mainstream media stories and the hot topics in the new media. It found that in the 47 weeks studied during 2009, blogs and the mainstream press shared the top story just 13 times. Of course, most of the hot blog entries were nothing more than opinionated analysis expressed about certain hot-button topics.
More telling, perhaps, is the differences between the mainstream and Twitter. On Twitter, the top story was the same as the mainstream press in just four of the 27 weeks studied. As the Pew study points out, the vast majority of Tweets were not opinionated or analytical at all. (There's not much opinion that can be packed into a message with only 140 characters.) Most of the Twitter posts were simply designed to alert people to something interesting, to pass along information, according to the Pew study. Of those Twitter feeds that contained news links, the vast majority tend to simply repeat the headline from a website.
With those comparisons, it appears that the mainstream media is providing news that does not reflect the interests of the majority of its potential readers.
In the end, it may not make much difference, even if Twitter-like sites only provide simple and populist facts so popular among Tweeters. Twitter recently exceeded the 50 million-Tweets-a-day mark, a five-fold increase in the past year. Newspapers boast a daily circulation of 30 million, or 40 million on Sundays (readership is at least twice that as newspapers are shared in homes or in the coffee house). And while newspapers' numbers are declining in both circulation and revenues, Twitter still hasn't figured out a way to make money, even with its rapid ascent.