Sunday, April 01, 2007

Journalism is changing

Recently the Project for Excellence in Journalism published its annual report.

The pace of change has accelerated. In the last year, the trends reshaping journalism didn’t just quicken, they seemed to be nearing a pivot point. Business model that has financed the news for more than a century — product advertising — still fits the way people consume media. Yet audiences are splintering across ever more platforms, from circulation in print, to ratings in TV, to page views and unique visitors online. Every media sector except for two is now losing popularity.

The definitions of enemy and ally in the news business are changing. Newspapers have begun to partner, for instance, with classified-job-listing Web sites they once denounced, brought together by mutual fear of free sites such as Craigslist.

With fundamentals shifting, we sense the news business entering a new phase heading into 2007—a phase of more limited ambition. Rather than try to manage decline, many news organizations have taken the next step of starting to redefine their appeal and their purpose based on diminished capacity. Increasingly outlets are looking for “brand” or “franchise” areas of coverage to build audience around.

For some, the new brand is what Wall Street calls “hyper localism” (consider the end of foreign bureaus at the Boston Globe or the narrowing of the coverage area at the Atlanta Journal Constitution). For others, it is personality and opinion. For still others it is personal involvement. For an emerging cohort of Web sites it is the involvement of everyday people (some alternative news sites now come closer than ever to the promise of authentic citizen media).
In a sense all news organizations are becoming more niche players, basing their appeal less on how they cover the news and more on what they cover.

The consequences of this narrowing of focus involve more risk than we sense the business has considered. Concepts like hyper localism, pursued in the most literal sense, can be marketing speak for simply doing less. Branding can also be a mask for bias. Handled badly, the new strategy might also render a big city metro paper irrelevant. The recent history of the news industry is marked by caution and continuity more than innovation. The character of the next era, far from inevitable, will likely depend heavily on the quality of leadership in the newsroom and boardroom. If history is a guide, it will require renegades and risk-takers to break from the conventional path and create new directions.

“I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing The Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care,” the paper’s publisher and chairman of the New York Times Company, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., told an interviewer earlier this year. The head of country’s most esteemed news company meant to sound an optimistic tone about journalism’s future, but the statement, like the industry, seemed to teeter between boldness and uncertainty.

This is the fourth edition of our annual report on the state of the news media — the status and health of journalism in America. The broad context outlined in earlier editions remains the same: the transformation facing journalism is epochal, as momentous as the invention of television or the telegraph, perhaps on the order of the printing press itself. (See Previous Reports).

The effect is more than just audiences migrating to new delivery systems. Technology is redefining the role of the citizen — endowing the individual with more responsibility and command over how he or she consumes information — and that new role is only beginning to be understood.

Our sense remains, too, that traditional journalism is not, as some suggest, becoming irrelevant. There is more evidence now that new technology companies have had either limited success in news gathering (Yahoo, AOL), or have avoided it altogether (Google). Whoever owns them, old newsrooms now seem more likely than a few years ago to be the foundations for the newsrooms of the future.

But practicing journalism has become far more difficult and demands new vision. Journalism is becoming a smaller part of people’s information mix. The press is no longer gatekeeper over what the public knows.

Journalists have reacted relatively slowly. They are only now beginning to re-imagine their role. Their companies failed to see “search” as a kind of journalism. Their industry has spent comparatively little on R&D. They have been tentative about pressing for new economic models, and that has left them fearful and defensive. Some of the most interesting experiments in new journalism continue to come from outside the profession — sites such as Global Voices, which mixes approved volunteer “reporters” from around the world with professional editors.
There are signs, meanwhile, that those the press is charged with monitoring, including the government, corporations and activists, have reacted more quickly. Politicians, interest groups and corporate public relations people tell Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) they have bloggers now on secret retainer — and they are delighted with the results.

These are a few of the conclusions we arrive at about The State of the News Media 2007. Each year, we try to identify new key trends facing the media. In the past, among others, we have noted that journalism’s challenge is not from technology or lack of interest in news but from diminished economic potential; that power is moving to those who make news away from those who cover it; that there are now several competing models of journalism, with cheaper, less accurate ones gaining momentum; that while there are more outlets delivering news, that has generally not meant covering a broader range of stories.

Blog Posting Number: 711

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