Home > coverstory > Eight Major Trends: The state of the news media

Journalism.org
This is part of Journalism.org’s excellent Annual Report on American Journalism. The entire report is worth reading.

For now, the year 2004, the transformation is shaped by eight overarching trends:

• A growing number of news outlets are chasing relatively static or even shrinking audiences for news. One result of this is that most sectors of the news media are losing audience. That audience decline, in turn, is putting pressures on revenues and profits, which leads to a cascade of other implications. The only sectors seeing general audience growth today are online, ethnic and alternative media.

• Much of the new investment in journalism today – much of the information revolution generally – is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it. Most sectors of the media are cutting back in the newsroom, both in terms of staff and in the time they have to gather and report the news. While there are exceptions, in general journalists face real pressures trying to maintain quality.

• In many parts of the news media, we are increasingly getting the raw elements of news as the end product. This is particularly true in the newer, 24-hour media. In cable and online, there is a tendency toward a jumbled, chaotic, partial quality in some reports, without much synthesis or even the ordering of the information. There is also a great deal of effort, particularly on cable news, that is put into delivering essentially the same news repetitively without any meaningful updating.

• Journalistic standards now vary even inside a single news organization. Companies are trying to reassemble and deliver to advertisers a mass audience for news not in one place, but across different programs, products and platforms. To do so, some are varying their news agenda, their rules on separating advertising from news and even their ethical standards. What will air on an MSNBC talk show on cable might not meet the standards of NBC News on broadcast, and the way that advertising intermingles with news stories on many newspaper Web sites would never be allowed in print. Even the way a television network treats news on a prime time magazine versus a morning show or evening newscast can vary widely. This makes projecting a consistent sense of identity and brand more difficult. It also may reinforce the public perception evident in various polls that the news media lack professionalism and are motivated by financial and self-aggrandizing motives rather than the public interest.

• Without investing in building new audiences, the long-term outlook for many traditional news outlets seems problematic. Many traditional media are maintaining their profitability by focusing on costs, including cutting back in their newsrooms. Our study shows general increases in journalist workload, declines in numbers of reporters, shrinking space in newscasts to make more room for ads and promotions, and in various ways that are measurable, thinning the product. This raises questions about the long term. How long can news organizations keep increasing what they charge advertisers to reach a smaller audience? If they maintain profits by cutting costs, social science research on media suggests they will accelerate their audience loss.

• Convergence seems more inevitable and potentially less threatening to journalists than it may have seemed a few years ago. At least for now, online journalism appears to be leading more to convergence with older media rather than replacement of it. When audience trends are examined closely, one cannot escape the sense that the nation is heading toward a situation, especially at the national level, in which institutions that were once in different media, such as CBS and The Washington Post, will be direct competitors on a single primary field of battle – online. The idea that the medium is the message increasingly will be passé. This is an exciting possibility that offers the potential of new audiences, new ways of storytelling, more immediacy and more citizen involvement.

• The biggest question may not be technological but economic. While journalistically online appears to represent opportunity for old media rather than simply cannibalization, the bigger issue may be financial. If online proves to be a less useful medium for subscription fees or advertising, will it provide as strong an economic foundation for newsgathering as television and newspapers have? If not, the move to the Web may lead to a general decline in the scope and quality of American journalism, not because the medium isn’t suited for news, but because it isn’t suited to the kind of profits that underwrite newsgathering.

• Those who would manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them. Several factors point in this direction. One is simple supply and demand. As more outlets compete for their information, it becomes a seller’s market for information. Another is workload. The content analysis of the 24-hour-news outlets suggests that their stories contain fewer sources. The increased leverage enjoyed by news sources has already encouraged a new kind of checkbook journalism, as seen in the television networks efforts to try to get interviews with Michael Jackson and Jessica Lynch, the soldier whose treatment while in captivity in Iraq was exaggerated in many accounts.

These are some of the conclusions from this new study of the state of American journalism, a study that we believe is unprecedented in its comprehensive scope. The report breaks American journalism into eight sectors – newspapers, magazines, network television, cable television, local television, the Internet, radio, and ethnic and alternative media (which are distinct from each other).

For each of the media sectors, we tried to answer basic questions in six areas: the trends in content, audience, economics, ownership, newsroom investment and public attitudes. We aggregated as much publicly available data as is possible in one place and, for six of the sectors, also conducted an original content analysis. (For local television news, we relied on five years of content analysis the Project had previously conducted. For radio, ethnic and alternative media, no special content analysis was conducted.)

The study is the work of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The study is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose leadership challenged us to take on this assignment.. The chapters were written, with the exceptions of those on network television, cable, and newspapers, which had co-authors, by the Project’s staff.

Our aim is for this to be a research report, not an argument. It is not our intention to try to persuade anyone to a particular point of view. Where the facts are clear, we hope we have not shied from explaining what they reveal, making clear what is proven versus what is only suggested. We hope, however, that we are not seen as simply taking sides in any journalistic debates.

We have tried to be as transparent as possible about sources and methods, and to make it clear when we are laying out data versus when we have moved into analysis of that data.

We believe our approach of looking at a set of questions across various media differs from the conventional way in which American journalism is analyzed, one medium at a time. We have tried to identify cross-media trends and to gather in one place data that are usually scattered across different venues. We hope this will allow us and others to make comparisons and develop insights that otherwise would be difficult to see. Across the six questions we examined we found some distinct patterns.
Fewer players, less freedom
According to McChesney, media moguls have an interest in pushing the idea that the current concentration in the industry is the result of free market forces, instead of the consequence of “explicit privileges”

From Inter Press Service, March 20, 2004
By Miren Gutierrez

ROME, Mar 20 (IPS) – Comcast’s 66-billion-dollar unsuccessful bid for Disney in February brought the issue of Big Media to the fore.

To Comcast — the United States’ biggest cable company — the deal made sense strategically. With 21 million cable subscribers, Comcast would combine its distribution power and technology with Disney’s content businesses, said Brian Roberts, Comcast’s president, in a widely published letter to Disney.

Now that the bid has failed, Viacom, Liberty Media, Microsoft and even Internet firms like Yahoo and InterActiveCorp might make a play for the firm.

Why should anyone care?

“The principal reason people should care about the increasing concentration of the media has to do with independent thinking, freedom of thought and ideas,” says Chuck Lewis, executive director of the Centre for Public Integrity, in an e-mail interview.

“The fewer the outlets for information, the less intellectual range for political, ideological and other thinking,” he adds. “Multiple sources of information help us to better assess overall credibility”.

“Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts’,” adds Lewis.

The marriage of media content (news, films, TV shows) with media distribution (TV or radio networks, Internet services and the like) further increases the control of media barons over the audience, as they use their sales power to batter their way into living rooms.

Comcast and Disney would have followed in others’ footsteps.

Apart from Comcast — the offspring of a merger in 2001 between a large cable firm and part of a big telephone company, AT&T Broadband — the other “six big sisters” are:

Viacom-CBS-MTV; Murdoch-Fox TV-Harper Collins-Weekly Standard-New York Post-London Times-DirecTV; GE-NBC-Universal-Vivendi; Time-Warner-CNN-AOL; Disney-ABC-ESPN.

In January 2001, the 165-billion-dollar mega-merger between AOL and Time Warner became the largest in history.

A union between Comcast and Disney would have created the biggest vertically integrated entertainment giant of them all, and would have reduced the behemoths’ numbers to five.

The web is thicker than it looks: Microsoft owns 7.4 percent of Comcast; NBC operates MSNBC in partnership with Microsoft; ESPN, The History Channel and Lifetime are owned by Disney and Hearst, among others, while Disney shares ownership of E! with Comcast, MediaOne and Liberty Media.

Viacom runs, with Robert Redford and Universal Studios, the Sundance Channel, and, with AOL Time Warner, Comedy Central.

It is not a matter for the United States only.

For example, in addition to its more than 11.5 million direct broadcast satellite (DBS) subscribers, Murdoch manages the assets of Hughes Electronics, DirecTV’s parent company, which gave News Corp. increased clout over programming in Latin America.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp/FOX merger with DirecTv in December 2003 was opposed by many, to no avail.

“News Corp’s Sky Latin America and Hughes Electronics’ DirecTv Latin America (DLA), dominate the DTH (direct to home) sector in Central and South America. A News Corp takeover of DirecTv would put effective control of both platforms in the same hands,” commented Steve Blum, in an article published in the August-September 2003 issue of ‘The Orbiter’, a bulletin that caters to the satellite sector.

Murdoch’s empire includes British Sky Broadcasting and START TV in Asia, too.

America’s first broadcast network, NBC, owns and operates more than 14 stations, along with CNBC, a business-news network, and Telemundo, the nation’s second-largest Spanish-language broadcaster. NBC has recently acquired Bravo, the Arts and Film cable network.

Viacom owns theatres in Canada (Famous Players) and other places — United Cinemas International, in partnership with Vivendi, for example.

CNN International can be seen in 212 countries, with a daily audience of 1 billion globally.

How does all of this affect concrete media coverage?

“If media moguls control media content and media distribution, then they have a lock on the extent and range of diverse views and information,” says Lewis. “That kind of grip on commercial and political power is potentially dangerous for any democracy.”

In a 1998 article, ‘Coming Distractions’, published in the ‘Columbia Journalism Review’, Jennifer Glaser wrote, “ABC may be confused: Sunday is a day to relax, not to relax journalistic standards. At least four times in recent months the network’s World News Sunday show has used its end-of-the-news feature spot to showcase big-budget flicks of the parent company, Disney.”

Murdoch’s conservative views have percolated down to ‘The New York Post’ and Fox News, which in an article by Fair — a watchdog group that tackles media bias — was recently branded “the most biased name in news” for its conservative slant.

In his books, ‘Rich Media, Poor Democracy’ and ‘The Problem With the Media’, Robert W. McChesney, research professor at the U.S. University of Illinois, argues that the major beneficiaries of the so-called Information Age are a select group of wealthy owners and investors, advertisers and a handful of enormous media, computer and telecommunications corporations.

“(The big media) are not neutral observers,” he says in a telephone interview.

Outside the United States their coverage of global economic phenomena is prejudiced, because they are interested in having “minimal local interference” in their quest to take advantage of cheap labour and free markets. That is why, McChesney adds, big media depict any criticism contrary to neo-liberal policies as “irrational fears”.

In the United States, media corporations want to, “make sure that the media policy questions are not understood by the public à that they are discussed behind closed doors. There is a deliberate effort in making sure there is no sustained press coverage of these issues,” according to McChesney.

Another telling example, according to another article published by Fair in its March-April 2003 issue, is ‘Reliable Sources’, a CNN programme.

“With a large majority of ‘Reliable Sources’ guests (around 76 percent) depending on media corporations for their livelihoods, the show’s guest list makes it unlikely that many hard-hitting criticisms of the news industry itself will be heard.”

“More guests were drawn from the host’s two employers — the ‘Washington Post’ (24 guests) and CNN (22) — than from any other mainstream media outlets. ‘Newsweek’, another property owned by the Post, provided 11 guests, followed by ‘Time’ (7), the ‘New York Times’ (6) and ‘New York Magazine’ (6),” says the article.

One infamous U.S. case of media concentration is that of Clear Channel, which now owns more than 1,200 radio stations in the nation.

“A couple years ago, there was a chemical spill in a small town in South Dakota. Authorities wanted to alert the local community about the toxic fumes and related dangers, and contacted the local radio stations,” says Lewis.

“But they were owned by a national company, Clear Channel, which had no staff locally, and no local news or public affairs programming. So local citizens could not be alerted about a real public health and safety subject via the airwaves in that municipality.”

Media concentration is a global phenomenon.

Grupo Prisa is Spain’s largest media conglomerate, best known for ‘El País’, the country’s leading paper, but also encompassing over 400 radio stations in Spain and Latin America, along with magazine and book publishing, press distribution, marketing, rights management, television broadcasting and production, film, video and music recording interests.

It has stakes or controls media in Mexico, Panama, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Venezuela and the United States.

With Telefónica and Vivendi, Prisa controls Sogecable, whose principal areas of business are terrestrial television (Canal+ analogue) and direct-to-home satellite pay television services (Canal Satélite Digital).

When Vía Digital (the second pay TV operator in Spain and part of the business controlled by Telefónica at the time) merged with Sogecable in 2002, many considered it a threat to competition. The new company would control a combined market share of about 80 percent of subscribers.

A senior editor at ‘El País’ admitted to IPS in an off the record conversation that the paper’s coverage of the deal had been partial.

Can or should regulators do something to protect diversity and journalistic standards?

In the United States, “it is fair to note that federal regulatory agencies are often captured by the powerful interests they have been established to oversee,” says Lewis.

“When a federal agency such as the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) accepts 2,500 all-expense-paid trips from the industry it is supposed to regulate, as my centre disclosed in May 2003 on our Web site, such a conflict of interest casts a pall over any regulatory decision.”

Regulators did nothing to block the merger of Disney and Comcast. But because of Comcast’s bid, Disney’s share price increased steeply, and made the deal too expensive for the former; thus the move failed.

“The generally held wisdom in the U.S. is that media monopolies will continue to grow as long as the FCC allows it to happen, which has been the essential pattern for the past two decades,” says Lewis.

“If there is one thing we all have been reminded of in the past couple years, it is that capitalism cannot function without democracy,” he adds.

“As we have seen with the Enron, Worldcom and many other recent business scandals, unmitigated greed and fraud not only are economically destructive, they undermine consumer and investor confidence and trust in general.”

“Why would one sector of the economy, the media corporations, receive special dispensation, and be given essentially carte blanche?” asks Lewis.

“Media corporations already enjoy a disproportionate amount of political power, for not only do they attempt to influence the public policy process like everyone else — with campaign contributions, free trips, lobbying ¡- they actually control whether or not a politician’s face or voice is on the airwaves. Now, that is real power!”

According to McChesney, media moguls have an interest in pushing the idea that the current concentration in the industry is the result of free market forces, instead of the consequence of “explicit privileges”, in the form of tax breaks and licences granted to commercial interests.

“In theory, the FCC is supposed to allocate monopoly licences in the public interest à But in practice, nothing like that happens,” he adds.

McChesney compares the FCC’s role to a famous scene in the movie ‘The Godfather II’, “when Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone and several other American gangsters meet on a rooftop in Havana to divide up the island between them”.

“They do so by each taking a slice of a cake with the outline of Cuba on it.. Roth intones, ‘Isn’t it great to be in a country with a government that respects private enterprise’.”

“They fight against each other for the biggest slice. The public has no role in it whatsoever,” McChesney says.

But there may be light on the horizon, he suggests.

The FCC tried recently to lift a ban on cross-ownership of television stations and newspapers. But Congress has not yet passed a new rule.

In 2003, millions of Americans stunned the political establishment by joining to fight the concentration of media ownership. According to McChesney, that signals a “renaissance” of informed public participation in media policy-making.

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