Mar 30th 2013 |From the print edition
“I BELIEVE in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers,” Mahatma Gandhi once said. Journalist-haters in his mould might not care about the travails of America’s news firms, but many Americans do. Nearly a third of them say they have abandoned a news source because they thought the quality of its information was declining.
According to “The State of the News Media 2013”, a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Centre, the deteriorating financial state of news organisations has hurt their output. Newspaper staffs have shrunk by around 30% since their peak in 1989, and newspapers collectively now employ fewer than 40,000 full-time professionals, the lowest number since the mid-1970s.
Americans who think media firms are putting out fewer original, thoughtful stories are probably right. Weather, traffic and sport now account for around 40% of local television newscasts. The average length of a story keeps falling. Only 20% of local TV stories exceed a minute, and half take less than 30 seconds.
On cable-news channels, live reports, which require camera crews and journalists actually to show up somewhere, have fallen by a third in daytime programmes in the past five years. Interview segments, which are cheap, have risen. Americans may also prefer talking heads because they increasingly prefer to hear opinion rather than fact. This trend is highlighted by the popularity of Fox, a conservative news network, and of MSNBC, its left-leaning counterpart. CNN, which tends to toe the middle line, continues to struggle with its ratings unless there is a big news event.
Newspapers and magazines are also relying on outsiders to fill up space as their staffs shrink. They are featuring more content provided by think-tanks, for instance. A more pernicious trend is the growing number of public-relations workers. In 1980 PR flaks and journalists prowled in around equal numbers; in 2008 the ratio of PR folk to journalists was nearly four to one. Pew says the news industry is “undermanned and underprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.”
Where is the good news? Last year local TV stations, especially those in swing states like Florida and Ohio, got a welcome boost from the $3 billion spent on TV advertising during the election. And newspapers are now starting in large numbers to demand payment for their digital content. Pew reckons that around a third of America’s 1,380 dailies have started (or will soon launch) paywalls, inspired by the success of the New York Times, where 640,000 subscribers get the digital edition and circulation now accounts for a larger portion of revenues than advertising.
Boosting circulation revenue will help stem losses from print advertising, since it has become clear that digital advertising will not be enough. For every $16 lost in print advertising last year, newspapers made only around $1 from digital ads. The bulk of the $37.3 billion spent on digital advertising in 2012 went to five firms: Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and AOL. Not much Gandhian equality there.
From the print edition: United States