If you are interested in the state of journalism in the United States and have a few hours to kill you should click on over to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's web site and dive into its State of the News Media report. Or you can just read my blog entry, in which I try to hit the highlights of the massive opus.
The report says a lot of things you would expect: "News" is less and less the product of a specific day's newspaper or evening's TV broadcast and more a sort of ubiquitous gas that can be plucked at will from the very ether. "Audiences are moving toward information on demand, to media platforms and outlets that can tell them what they want to know when they want to know it," write the report's authors.
While specific newspaper audiences--people who subscribe to or read a newspaper--are shrinking, thanks to the web total audiences are growing: "Seven in ten Americans have used the Internet for news — a number that has not changed in five years." You have to wonder about those last three Americans. What do they use the Internet for?
The PEJ's annual report is always a chance to chide U.S. news outlets for ignoring the rest of the world, and the group's content analysis bore this out. Iraq and the presidential elections comprised about a quarter of total news coverage but other issues garnered just a fraction of that: Afghanistan (0.9%), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (0.5%), nuclear negotiations with North Korea (0.4%), the violence in Darfur (0.2%) and deteriorating U.S. relations with Russia (0.2%). Those numbers are astonishingly low.
Pew criticizes the media for not writing more about foreign issues, then admits that the public isn't all that interested in them. Of course, might readers/viewers be more interested in those stories if there were more of them?
Interestingly, news web sites--or at least aggregators such as GoogleNews and YahooNews--have more foreign stories in the mix: "Not only did coverage of foreign policy and geopolitics make up almost half of the online newshole in 2007, but the leading broad topic category also featured international events that did not primarily involve the U.S." The World Wide Web: "World" is our first name.
Domestic stories don't do that well, either. According to the report, government was covered less last year than in previous years (just 5% of stories on the three nightly news broadcasts in 2007 versus 16% in 2003). Issues such as education, transportation, religion and development/sprawl also get increasingly shorter shrift. These are things that sort of muddle along without too much drama, able to be improved but never totally fixed. They are, say the authors, stories that "bend" rather than "break."
As for "citizen media": "Despite the proliferation of blogs, survey data suggest most Americans have yet to accept them as significant news sources. According to a winter 2007 Zogby Poll, blogs were the lowest on the list of 'important' sources of news, coming in at 30%, well after Web sites (81%), television (78%), radio (73%), newspapers (69%) and magazines (38%). More Americans, 39%, chose friends and neighbors over blogs as an important informational source."
Readers seem to turn to blogs for entertainment, not news. As for those blogs--and citizen journalism sites--most of them are just as stern gatekeepers as the traditional media, making it difficult, for example, for users to post original content.
Still, journalists who were surveyed see value in involving the audience: "The vast majority now see great value in having a place on the Web site where users can post comments. Smaller majorities say that citizen-started Web sites are a good thing. (Print journalists are slightly more accepting of the practice than TV and radio journalists.)"
And what does the public think of the press? Yes, many believe the press is venal, biased and inaccurate. In 1987 55% thought the media got facts straight and 34 percent thought stories were often inaccurate. Those figures have practically reversed in 20 years: 39% and 53%, respectively, in 2007. And yet what the public seems to dislike is "the media" as opposed to any specific newspaper or news broadcast. It's a little like the way many citizens think "all" politicians are crooks but they happen to like their own representative.
I don't think there's anything wrong with the public viewing the press with suspicion. You should probably view everything with suspicion. That's a healthy, useful attitude to have. It's one that journalists have, so why shouldn't our customers? We just have to continue figuring out ways to earn their trust--and their business.