Like nature, news abhors a vacuum. If intelligent, in-depth reporting doesn’t fill the void, something else will. So it should matter beyond the news business that many media institutions have cut back on newsgathering.
With fewer journalists reporting the news, politicians, government agencies, businesses and others are taking their unfiltered messages directly to the public.
That’s one of the key conclusions of the Pew Research Center’s annual State of the News Media report, released Monday. The cutbacks are not a new news-industry story, but this year’s report suggests that the reduction in resources — and the resulting reprioritization of news — spans media forms.
Newspaper newsroom employment is down 30 percent industrywide since peaking in 2000. (At the Star Tribune, it’s been steady at about 260 newsroom employees since the paper emerged from bankruptcy reorganization in 2009. The paper also has placed a premium on reporting and writing positions.)
Staffing was stable at local TV news stations, and revenue was up 10.1 percent last year over 2011. But viewership fell 6.5 percent, and weather, traffic and sports made up 40 percent of local TV newscasts, while directly reported stories accounted for one-third, down from 41 percent in 2005.
About 79 percent of the stories aired on TV network news shows included original reporting. That stood in sharp contrast to the subjective opining on cable news networks. Pew found that commentary and opinion accounted for 63 percent of the airtime on cable news shows, compared with just 37 percent dedicated to news reporting. That may be the reason why ratings rose just 0.8 percent, despite 2012 being an election year and revenues growing 5.4 percent.
News magazines and radio face their own challenges. Newsweek produced its last print edition in 2012, and while one-third of Americans reported listening to news “yesterday,” that was down from half in 1990.
Not surprisingly in this increasingly wired world, the big gains were in digital news. Revenue was up 16.6 percent from the previous year, and traffic to the top sites — including mainstream media sources — was up 7.2 percent. And more than 450 newspapers, including the Star Tribune, had implemented digital pay plans by the end of 2012.
It would be easy to dismiss the challenges of traditional media sources as relatively harmless information-age change. But quality journalism matters in a democracy.
A previous Pew study calculated that only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and policies of 2012 presidential candidates originated from reporters, while twice that amount came from political operatives.
Spin has always existed. But what’s news, according to the report, is that “news organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever.”
One of Pew’s most disturbing findings was that 31 percent of Americans have “stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were accustomed to getting.”
There is evidence that good journalism is good for business. Case in point: On the same day the Pew analysis was released, it was reported that Time magazine’s bestselling cover in nearly two years was a 36-page, 25,000-word story on the state of health care, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us.”
There will always be an audience for substantive, fact-based journalism. News reporting still matters, especially when the people and institutions that deserve the most coverage are finding new ways to spin their own stories.
The critical question raised by the Pew report has yet to be answered: Is American journalism up for the challenge?