Tuesday, March 14, 2006

State of news media 2006

The State of the News Media report is out for 2006, and there's plenty being written about it. This post isn't a big analysis (because I haven't had time to digest even half of it), but some quick pointers and summary for the time challenged.

One of the best summaries that also provides deeper context is from Rick Edmonds at Poynter. As he points out, the report finds a "much broader erosion of substance" than just the often-criticized tendency of cable news to focus on a few sensational topics.

One of the things being latched on in many quarters is the finding, not overly new, that ad spending is shifting online. What seems to be striking some as unusual is that it's happening to "news" media (a big Homer Simpson "doh" here). See, for instance, Media Post's take on it. But it's a simple concept -- with a very complicated solution: Publishers simply have to get their minds wrapped around the idea that they no longer can just dip into the vast stream of "mass" advertising revenue and ladle out their share. Now, it's all about figuring out how to capitalize on multiple marginal revenue streams. But isn't it interesting how things have changed. An industry that once told us how relatively unimportant subscription revenues were compared with ad revenues now is decrying the flight to free.

The report's most disturbing conclusion, but in some ways also it's most myopic, is that "The paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories." This comes from a very big-media and big-aggregator (Google, Yahoo) perspective. And, yes, it is true that the bloggerati swarm around and are dependent on a few big media outlets, thus amplifying this development.

But this takes an unncessarily narrow view of things. Consider any of the J-Lab funded citizen-journalism projects, of which our Hartsville Today is one. Look especially at sites like Madison Commons or the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Both are building on the grassroots networks in their communities and show the vibrancy of local news. Especially look at The Forum in Deerfield, N.H., where local residents have banded together to cover their towns, largely abandoned by other media in the area.

I just spent a weekend with the J-Lab grantees, and it convinced me that the diversity and health of news in this country is pretty good, though perhaps not if viewed through the eyes of the big metro papers or TVs or the networks. In Madison, for instance, one of the papers has already partenered with the Commons to run stories that it otherwise would not have.

Thsi is not to shortchange the real question of whether smaller organizations -- either of the organic type as seen in the J-lab projects or our shrinking mass media -- will have enough heft to take on city hall or the White House. Administrations, as technology has eveloved to allow this, have become adept at divide and conquer. I would propose, however, the problem is more that journalists and the organizations they work for have eroded the only capital they have -- public trust and ire. But that's a lengthy discussion for another time. For now, I remain guardedly optimistic that we are an adaptable bunch and that -- with the public's help -- we will find ways to continue the effective watchdog role.

To wrap up, here are the top points from the report. It's a massive thing, so you'll have plenty to digest:

  • The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories
  • The species of newspaper that may be most threatened is the big-city metro paper that came to dominate in the latter part of the 20th century.
  • At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost.
  • That said, traditional media do appear to be moving toward technological innovation — finally
  • The new challengers to the old media, the aggregators, are also playing with limited time. When it comes to news, what companies like Google and Yahoo are aggregating and selling is the work of others — the very same old media they are taking revenue away from. The more they succeed, the faster they erode the product they are selling,
  • The central economic question in journalism continues to be how long it will take online journalism to become a major economic engine, and if it will ever be as big as print or television.
As the report notes:
Those trends are in addition to others we have identified in earlier years. Among them: that the traditional model of journalism — the press as verifier — is giving way to other models that are faster, looser and cheaper; to adapt, journalism must move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert and widening the scope of its searchlight; those who would manipulate the press and the public are gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them; convergence is more inevitable and less threatening the more one looks at audience data; the notion that people are gravitating to a partisan press model, or red news and blue news, is exaggerated. (See Major Trends 2004 and 2005).

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