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From AJR,   June/July 2013  issue

Really Bleak or Better than Ever?    

What’s the true state of journalism in the United States?


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

The latest report on the state of the news media by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism is relentlessly bleak.

Newspapers have sharply reduced their staffs. Local television is cutting back on news. Cable news has become cable talk. Politicians are bypassing the news media by getting their message out via social media.

Things are so bad that nearly a third of news consumers in the United States have turned away from a news outlet because they were so disappointed by the quality of its report.

Amy Mitchell, PEJ's acting director, warns darkly that "there are more signs than ever that the reduced reporting power in the news industry is having an effect and may weaken both the industry's capacity to produce in-depth journalism and its credibility with the public."

Slate's Matthew Yglesias begs to differ. In a piece headlined "The Glory Days of American Journalism," Yglesias writes, "American news media has never been in better shape. That's just common sense. Almost anything you'd want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips."

Using the crisis in Cyprus as an example, Yglesias details the rich feast of information that lies merely a click away in the digital age: articles from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The Economist; the blog of a top Greek economist; an interactive Reuters feature; an interview on Bloomberg TV; and on and on.

So who's right? Are we in news heaven or a news blackout?

The answer is yes.

It all depends on where you focus.On a big international story like Cyprus, Yglesias' point is well-taken. The digital age makes available an array of top-notch journalism from around the world that would have been unimaginable decades back.

The same is true on big political stories in Washington, D.C. You can check out the work of the legacy news outlets like the Times and the Washington Post and the Journal, then turn to new-media outfits like Politico and BuzzFeed and Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post. All file ample original content on major stories.

But it's deeper in the weeds that the problems lurk.

Let's return to Washington, D.C. Sure, there is plenty of coverage of the White House and political campaigns and the flap of the moment. But when it comes to the multitude of departments and agencies whose actions deeply affect the lives of American citizens, not so much.

In AJR's Summer 2010 issue, senior contributing writer Jodi Enda took a census of reporters covering those vital government outposts. Her findings were not reassuring.

"As daily newspapers continue to shed Washington bureaus and severely slash their staffs," she wrote, "fewer reporters than ever are serving as watchdogs of the federal government. Rare is the reporter who is assigned to cover one of the many federal departments, agencies or bureaus that are not part of the daily news cycle."

The coverage of the nation's vitally important statehouses has suffered a similar fate. Newspapers, long the major source of state government reporting, have cut back dramatically. The good news is that new digital initiatives have arisen in some states in an effort to bridge the gap.

How about investigative reporting?

Cutbacks at financially challenged legacy news outlets mean that many are doing far fewer investigations than in the past. The good news is the advent of startups, many of them Web-based nonprofits. ProPublica quickly made its mark as a generator of impressive accountability reporting, sometimes in tandem with established news outlets.

And locally focused investigative outfits have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Madison to Aspen. The key question: Can these nonprofits sustain themselves?

But it's at the local level where the carnage is most worrisome.

Pew reports local TV stations, never the epicenter of accountability reporting, devote 40 percent of their newscasts to weather, sports and traffic, while story lengths are shrinking. Stories about government and politics accounted for just 3 percent of airtime in the markets Pew studied.

And newspaper newsroom staffs have been devastated; they're 30 percent smaller than they were in 2000. All the "doing more with less" nonsense in the world can't hide the fact that this means much smaller, inadequate reports on matters of public moment in many markets.

Sure, digital startups like the ones DNAinfo.com has launched in New York and Chicago can help. But many of these initiatives are far smaller than DNAinfo.com's operations. They produce important enterprise stories but generally don't have the staff to cover an entire community. And, of course, there are no such startups in many cities and towns.

In a radically redefined news environment, it's a time of innovation and experimentation, which is exciting. It will be lot less daunting if and when an economic model for large-scale digital news outlets emerges.