A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Research, The Project for Excellence in Journalism

By Quill

The Internet and 24-hour news provoke the public to be its own editor and producer. In turn, American journalism is changing. For some, this change is a sign of freedom of the press. For others, the change is creating a blurry and dangerous line of opinions and facts.

Project for Excellence in Journalism accessed the shift in American journalism, creating The State of the News Media 2004. The report, the first of its kind, studied the health of today’s news media.

The answer we arrive at in 2004 is that journalism is in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television.

Journalism, however, is not becoming irrelevant. It is becoming more complex. We are witnessing conflicting trends of fragmentation and convergence simultaneously, and they sometimes lead in opposite directions.

Staff spent more than a year putting together the report, which occupies its own Web site at www.stateofthenewsmedia.org.

“Creating a study of this scope for the first time was a bit like climbing a mountain with no map, only our imagination, as our guide,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director for Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Assembling and pulling the vast array of data on the media into something cohesive involved a big learning curve for everyone.”

The report is more than 500 printed pages, containing more than 100 charts and tables and 400 footnoted citations.

A brief look at its nine chapters:

Newspapers: Newspaper circulation has declined 11 percent since 1990, but finances for the business have improved thanks to a decline in newsprint costs. Twenty-two companies own 39 percent of papers, representing 70 percent of daily circulation. Thirty percent of stories use anonymous sources, more than any other media.

Online: The Internet is one of only two media with an increasing audience. The economics are still unclear on online media, but revenue growth is increasing. Media giants dominate 69 percent of the 20 most popular news Web sites, but personal blogs are gaining steam. Online content is largely recycled, boasting only 32 percent original lead stories. The public enjoys the variety of news sources (traditional, governmental, etc.) available online.

Network TV: Nightly network news shifted to a more serious tone post-9/11, but most prime time magazines continue to forgo the day’s serious news. Nielsen ratings show a ratings decline – 29 million people, however, are still watching each night. For money, morning news is bringing in more than nightly news.

Cable TV: Cables news covers a narrow scope of stories, focusing on government, the war in Iraq, true crime, lifestyle/celebrity and disasters. About 2.4 million viewers watch cable news during prime time hours, and 1.6 million watch during the day – no change from 2001. CNN is hands-down the medium’s financial leader. The public regards cable news more highly than any other news source.

Local TV: Audience size has declined for local TV, but the medium remains profitable. Workloads for local TV newsrooms have increased 20 percent. Stations are being asked to do more with less people. Crime stories make up 24 percent of stories and are local TV’s most popular topic. The public tends to think that local TV reports are “improperly influenced” by advertisers, station owners and big business.

Magazines: While most magazines seek specialization, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Reports shifted more toward general interest. The magazines cut 25 percent of their national affairs pages since 1980. Magazines saw a significant decrease in staff. For example, Newsweek listed 83 editorial assistants in 1983. In 2003, they listed 18.

Radio: Audience numbers remained stable, with 90 percent of Americans listening. National Public Radio’s audience doubled in 10 years. Clear Channel dominated, occupying nearly 200 markets. Its closest competitor, Cumulus Broadcasting, occupied 55. From 1994 to 2001, radio dropped 44 percent of full-time employees and 71 percent of part-timers.

Ethnic/Alternative: From 1990 to 2000, the number of American households not speaking English increased 48 percent. Since 1990, Spanish-language newspaper circulation tripled. Alternative weeklies more than doubled in circulation in the 1990s. Media giants continue to pursue the ethnic and alternative presses but do not dominate as they do in other mediums.

The findings in The State of the News Media 2004 generated stories in 238 publications, reaching 24.6 million readers. The count does not include audiences from stories aired on 22 network, cable, and local TV and radio stations.

“It should be sent to every news outlet in the nation,” said the judges.