The State of the Media: Not Good
By M.J. Stephey
The American financial and auto industries aren't the only ones falling apart before the nation's eyes. "Imagine someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke [and] suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness," researchers at the Project for Excellence in Journalism write about the news media's long-overdue embrace of the Internet in 2008, just as a global recession began wreaking havoc on the industry's biggest advertisers. "This is the sixth edition of our annual report," the authors begin. "It is also the bleakest." From magazines and newspapers to local television and radio to the ethnic and alternative presses, it seems that all media took a hit last year, and some aren't bouncing back. The carnage is far from over. "In trying to reinvent the business, 2008 may have been a lost year, and 2009 threatens to be the same."
1. On the real problem facing American journalism: 2008 might have been a bad year for the journalism biz, but if nothing else, it demonstrated what media critics have suspected for years: "It is now all but settled that advertising revenue — the model that financed journalism for the last century — will be inadequate to do so in this one." It's not an audience or credibility problem that confronts today's media, but the "decoupling" of advertising from news. Trends to watch in 2009, it goes on, include desperate and misguided attempts at bankrolling the news industry, including the idea of micro-payments — one-time, monthly or yearly fees for online access, a model that "was already tried and rejected by users early on" — and nonprofit financing, which is doomed to fail because there simply isn't enough funding there to become a sustainable solution. The report's authors instead suggest the news industry should adopt a "cable model" that draws upon a monthly fee built into Internet access, or the creation of "online retail malls" within news sites so publications can draw revenue from "point-of-purchase fees." (See the top ten television feuds.)
2. On media coverage of the presidential election: The 2008 presidential election seemed to confirm that cable news had become "the primary television platform of American political discourse." The medium's audience grew 38% last year alone, with profits rising by a third (though such gains were described as "ephemeral" in that most evaporated after Nov. 4). But this 24/7 model did have one lasting effect: according to the report, it fostered an atmosphere of accelerated journalist judgment, daily campaign briefings, partisan spin doctors, "deliberately coarse and provocative" content and political "tweeting." Bit by bit, the authors write, "the line between unfiltered personal thought and public discourse is evaporating." The organization further condemned the political press for being "more reactive and passive and less of an enterprising investigator of the candidates than it once was," singling out The Washington Post for running 10 fewer in-depth candidate profiles during the 2008 presidential election than it did in 1992. The report spreads the blame around, though, observing that cutbacks and increasingly PR-savvy campaigns have also hurt the profession: "Most of what we know about the new president came from his campaign rather than from media enterprise."
3. On the democratization of journalism: "Consumers are gravitating to the work of individual writers and voices, and away somewhat from the institutional brand," the Project's study proclaims. Websites like Global Post now allow individual journalists to become independent contractors, "in much the way photographers have operated for years at magazines." But the demise of an institutional framework to ensure quality and reliability would mean that consumers themselves would have to decide which journalists to trust. And already, there are growing doubts about "whether the generation in charge has the vision and the boldness to reinvent the industry ... [And] it is unclear, say some, who the innovative leaders are, and a good many well-known figures have left the business." A special report on "citizen journalists" found that such websites are "far from compensating for the losses in coverage in traditional newsrooms." (Read this Washington Post op-ed by David Simon, creator of HBO's The Wire, for an even more damning assessment of "citizen-journalists.")
Power is also shifting toward consumers, who have made it overwhelmingly clear that "they want the news they want when they want it." This has prompted online news organizations to re-think their approach to content and, surprisingly, many organizations are getting it right by "focusing somewhat less on bringing audiences in and more on pushing content out." The authors practically sigh with relief when noting how the industry is finally "recognizing the viral nature of the Web and the rise of social media." What began as e-mail alerts and RSS feeds has since morphed into Facebook and Digg postings, and ever more creative tricks to harness the power of Google. And at least a few corporate owners are warming up to the notion of free content and copyright flexibility, as evidenced by the creation of hulu.com, a joint venture between News Corp. and NBC Universal that offers free online video, no strings attached.
4. On turmoil in the boardroom and the newsroom: One of the more chilling numbers in this report is 20% — as in the percentage of journalists who worked in newspapers in 2001 who have since left the field because their jobs have been eliminated. In 2008, "America's newspapers got smaller in just about every way." Half of the country's states no longer have a newspaper that covers Congress. "Yet nowhere," the report continues, "was the turmoil more acute than in news magazines." (This, ahem, includes Time).
Corporate owners have suffered too, with bankruptcy restructuring becoming a serious topic of conversation among media owners in 2008. Hearst warned that it might have to shutter its Seattle and San Francisco newspapers, while E. W. Scripps closed the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News in February. The owners of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune went into bankruptcy, and one of the last African American dailies, the Chicago Defender, converted to a weekly publishing cycle. Two of satellite radio's pioneers — Sirius and XM — merged to avoid mutual failure, along with 42 mergers and acquisitions among consumer magazines. Stock for General Electric, which owns NBC Universal, lost more than half of its value in 2008, fueling rumors that GE might sell its NBC subsidiary, though the company's chairman, Jeffrey Immelt, has denied such claims.
The report is brutally honest and surprisingly up-to-date, citing the Rush Limbaugh controversy and the Jim Cramer vs. Jon Stewart kerfuffle as evidence of the personality-driven nature of cable news and the viral powerhouse that is YouTube. And like so many panicked reports, this bleak prognosis on the health of American journalism grimly alludes to the 1930s as a way to really emphasize the dire straits we're in: "If estimates by Advertising Age prove accurate, total spending on advertising fell for the second consecutive year. Another decline is predicted for 2009. That would mark the first consecutive three-year decline in advertising spending since the Great Depression." And thanks to such desperate circumstances, news organizations are becoming less adversarial by joining forces to save one another and themselves. Take the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, or CBS Radio's venture with AOL and Yahoo. As the New York Times suggests, such collusion might be the only way, though, as the authors of this report make clear, there is no magic bullet. But if the solutions aren't obvious, the report's overall message is: Will the future leaders of journalism please, please stand up?