What is Happening to Local Journalism
What is Happening to Local Journalism
The scope of the challenge facing journalism has been evident for years. As early as 2006, the American Press Institute (API) issued “Newspaper Next: Blueprint for Transformation.” It concluded:
We find the evidence overwhelming: This is change on a grand scale, driven by a fundamental transformation in the connection between humans and information. The social impact is likely to rival the advent of movable type and mass literacy. The change is advancing quickly toward a new reality in which people can get any information, any time and any place, and publish their own content at will. In this century, vast reserves of human intelligence, creativity and productivity will be unlocked as billions of individuals around the globe use this new access to knowledge to maximize their potential. The impact on human freedoms and quality of life is sure to be immense….
The trigger is technological, but the impact is behavioral. As individuals respond to the infinite range of choices available to them, this will reshape the media landscape and, over time, society itself…. While the implications and possibilities for both society and business are immense, among the first to feel the impact — as both threat and opportunity — have been the traditional media. For them, this long-term revolution in human behavior creates an intense near-term crisis.1
That crisis has accelerated. By far the most comprehensive assessment is from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Annual State of the Media Report. It estimated that newspapers headed into 2010 “devoting $1.6 billion less annually to news than they did three years earlier.”2 The Pew PEJ 2010 analysis shows:
- Newspaper advertising revenues fell 43 percent in the three years ending in 2009. Losses averaging 26 percent in 2009 alone “left newspapers downsizing everything—the physical dimensions of the paper, the space devoted to news and, most painfully, their roster of news professionals.”
- Roughly 15,000 full-time reporting and editing jobs disappeared during that period, the total falling from 55,000 to roughly 40,000. That means that newsrooms have shrunk by 27 percent in three years.
- Newspapers have lost 16.9 percent of their circulation in three years and 25.6 percent since 2000.
- During 2009, newspaper online advertising revenues declined 10 percent, having grown at a robust rate as high as 35 percent a year earlier in the decade.
- Local television ad revenue fell 24 percent in 2009, triple the decline the year before. Radio was off 18 percent. Magazine ad pages dropped 19 percent and network TV 7 percent. Online ad revenue over all fell about 5 percent. The report speculated that revenue losses associated directly with network TV news and online news sites fared even worse.
Two others aspects of the PEJ annual reports are of particular concern to democracy.
The first is that technology is lessening the ability of journalists to hold those with power accountable, which has been a historic function of American journalism. The trend was noted by PEJ in its first annual report on the state of the news media in 2004. It described a vicious cycle in public attitudes toward the press, saying disinvestment in news was reinforcing the public’s suspicions that news organizations are motivated more by economics than public service. One consequence was deeply troubling: “Those who manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them.”3
The second concern is that digital technology is shifting more emphasis and resources toward breaking news. The 2010 PEJ report said, “What is squeezed is the supplemental reporting that would unearth more facts and context about events…While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.”4
This concern is driven by cuts in traditional media content throughout the news and information ecology of local communities. “In short, the cutbacks in old media are drastically affecting not only traditional media but still significantly impact online content as well,” the PEJ report said.5
An example of these concerns can be seen in the reduction of news staffing of state capitols. A survey by American Journalism Review in 2009 found 355 newspaper staff reporters covering state capitols full time. This is a decrease of more than 30 percent from the 524 counted in 2003, the year of AJR’s previous census.6
In the same vein, The Knight Commission Report cited a 2008 study that found “members of Congress who are covered less by their local press work less for their constituencies, as evidenced by lower federal spending in their districts. They vote their party line more often, testify less often before congressional hearings, and appear to serve less frequently on constituency-oriented committees.”7
The Commission said this research suggests a tie between news coverage, voter awareness, and official responsiveness. Voters living in areas with less coverage of their members of Congress were found to be “less likely to recall their representative’s name and less able to describe and rate them.”8
Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson made this same point in their 2009 report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”:
Accountability journalism, particularly local accountability journalism, is especially threatened by the economic troubles that have diminished so many newspapers. The shrinking of metropolitan dailies has had a ripple effect because so much of the news that people find, whether on television or radio or on the Internet, still originates with newspaper reporting. And newspapers are the source of most local news reporting, which is why it is even more endangered than national, international, or investigative reporting that might be provided by other sources.9
The Knight Commission emphasized that the vitality of professional journalism is essential to public accountability. New technologies and techniques can bring more information to light and can complement or substitute for more traditional journalism, theCommission said. “But in the end, the goals of journalism persist and remain vital.”
The Commission said, “The journalism of the future may or may not take the familiar form of newspapers. But for true public accountability, communities need skilled practitioners. They ask tough questions. They chase obscure leads and confidential sources. They translate technical matters into clear prose…. Part-time, episodic or uncoordinated public vigilance is not the same.”
At least for now, the Commission’s observation is supported by research that indicates “local citizen journalism news and blog websites fall short of matching online news sites run by legacy journalism organizations and the disparity is evident across numerous measures.” The research study said citizen journalism news sites and blogs provide a service, but don’t yet offer robust alternatives to local news websites run by legacy media.
“Citizen journalism today is far from fulfilling the early promise that many early proponents envisioned. It is clear that such enterprises are not replacements for legacy news media and the newsgathering capabilities of professional newsrooms, even those newsrooms that have been decimated by downsizing,” the study said.The citizen journalism and blog sites were found to be less timely and have less news than daily newspaper sites.
A report about the study said it found “Commercial news sites offer more interactive polls and surveys, more display and classified ads, and more transparency in their operations than citizen-run sites. A significantly higher percentage of commercial sites display privacy policies, outline guidelines and restrictions for contributors’ behavior, list legal and copyright information, and provide ways for users to contact them than do the citizen-journalism sites studied.”10
Likewise, a Congressional report on the state of the media in July 2009 concluded, “As old-style, print newspapers decline, new journalism startups are developing around the country, aided by low entry costs on the Internet. The emerging ventures hold promise but do not have the experience, resources, and reach of shrinking mainstream newspapers.”11
In July 2010, a study funded by the National Science Foundation found that the bulk of news about local government continues to come from daily and weekly newspapers. This was true in metropolitan central cities and suburbs. Citizen news and blog sites provided less than one percent of the local government news stories in the sample studied.12
All of this suggests that legacy media remain critical to healthy information flows in local communities. But they face these key questions:
- How much time do they have to transform themselves?
- Are they capable of making the changes necessary in that time?
Downie and Schudson observe the following:
Newspapers and television news are not going to vanish in the foreseeable future, despite frequent predictions of their imminent extinction. But they will playdiminished roles in an emerging and still rapidly changing world of digital journalism, in which the means of news reporting are being reinvented, the character of news is being reconstructed, and reporting is being distributed across a greater number and variety of news organizations, new and old.13
While legacy media play a vital role in a healthy news and information ecology, emerging media also can play a vital role. A report on community journalism from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism said,
The activity in citizen media continued to expand in 2009. Advancements in technology further enabled citizen monitoring, and the popularity of Twitter and other social media aided in dissemination. And this all comes as many communities face cutbacks and reduced coverage from traditional media.
This area of journalism is still in its infancy and, as those involved in citizen journalism explain, the landscape continues to broaden. Financially, they face some of the same burden as legacy media do today, but in some cases without established overhead costs. Of course, they face daunting challenges in developing newsroom capabilities, obtaining financial support and understanding changing news preferences.
Despite the gaps between legacy news coverage and citizen news, highly promising citizen and alternative sites are emerging daily. Imaginative news formats, partnerships, formats, technological capabilities and passionate supporters of journalism values offer significant reasons for optimism as journalism continues its mission to inform citizens, make their lives better and nurture democratic processes.14
In some cases this emerging journalism can address coverage needs that were never effectively reported by traditional media. A content analysis of citizen blog sites, citizen news sites and daily newspapers indicated that citizen journalism sites, including both news and blog sites, differed significantly from newspaper sites.15 The content analysis showed that:
Like weeklies, citizen news and blog sites can serve as complements to daily newspapers. They can provide opinion and hyperlocal news that large dailies do not. Dailies have more resources, but they tend to concentrate those resources on issues that affect larger geographic areas in their markets. The dailies are less likely to cover details of a neighborhood than are citizen news and blog sites, unless they actually imitate these citizen sites. Perhaps serving as a complement better suits these citizen sites.16
The Project for Excellence in Journalism has suggested that the futures of new and old media are more tied together that some might think:
While there are some competing values and different reportorial cultures, in the end new and old media face the same dilemma and may be much more aligned in their search for revenue than many have thought. In some cases, there will be formal alliances or networks of new and old media. One concept that will get more attention is collaborations of old media and citizens in what some call a ‘pro-am’ (professional and amateur) model for news. Yet how traditional news organizations cope with such partnerships, the rules for what is acceptable and what is not, remain largely uncharted.17
In the local news and information ecosystem, diversity is a necessary component for a healthy environment.18That is why the Knight Commission called for journalism that is abundant in many forms and accessible through many convenient platforms. Legacy and emerging media both are crucial, as is the potential to create journalism in non-traditional institutions such as higher education, community and non-profit institutions.
1. American Press Institute. (2006).Newspaper next: Blueprint for transformation (p. 6) Retrieved from http://www.newspapernext.org/N2%2520report%25202-07%25202.pdf
2. Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The State of the News Media:An Annual Report,” 2010. Chapter: Newspapers, by the Project For Excellence In Journalism and Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute. The Pew analysis also showed that newspapers have lost 16.9% of their circulation in three years and 25.6% since 2000. During 2009, newspaper online advertising revenues declined 10%, having grown at a robust rate as high as 35% a year earlier in the decade. Local television ad revenue fell 24% in 2009, triple the decline the year before. Radio was off 18%. Magazine ad pages dropped 19% and network TV 7%. Online ad revenue over all fell about 5%. The report speculated that revenue losses associated directly with network TV news and online news sites fared even worse. Available at http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/printable_newspaper_chapter.htm).
3. Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. (2004). Overview. In The state of the news media 2004.Retrieved from http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2004/narrative_overview_eight.asp?media=1 The trend was noted by PEJ in its first annual report on the state of the news media in 2004. It described a vicious cycle in public attitudes toward the press, saying disinvestment in news was reinforcing the public’s suspicions that news organizations are motivated more by economics than public service. One consequence was deeply troubling: “Those who manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them.”
4. Pew 2010 Annual Report, Chapter: Overview. “Shrinking newsrooms are asking their remaining ranks to produce first accounts more quickly and feed multiple platforms. This is focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive. It is also leading to a phenomenon in which the first account from newsmakers — their press conferences and press releases — make their way to the public often in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim. Those first accounts, sculpted by official sources, then can rapidly spread more widely now through the power of the web to disseminate, gaining a velocity they once lacked. That is followed quickly by commentary.” Available at: http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview_major_trends.php
5. Pew 2010 Annual Report, Chapter: Overview. “An analysis in PEJ’s 2010 report of “finds that 80% of the traffic to news and information sites is concentrated at the top 7% of sites. The vast majority of the top news sites (67%), moreover, are still tied to legacy media financed largely by their shrinking end of the business. New media are growing, but their ranks among the most trafficked sites are still small. Another 13% of these news sites are aggregators, whose content is derived from legacy media. Only 14% of these sites are online-only operations that produce mostly original reportorial content rather than commentary.” Available at: http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview_major_trends.php
6. American Journalism Review (2009, April/May). AJR’s 2009 count of statehouse reporters: State by state numbers. American Journalism Review. Retrieved from http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=4722
7. Knight Commission Report, p. 14.
8. Snyder, J, M,, Jr., & Strömberg, D. (2008). Press coverage and political accountability [NBER working paper no. 13878]. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w13878.pdf. A new Princeton study even suggests that when news outlets close, people disengage more broadly from community affairs. The year after the Cincinnati Post closed “fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the suburbs most reliant on the Post, incumbents became more likely to win re-election, and voter turnout fell.” Schulhofer-Wohl, S.,&Garrido, N. (2009, October).Do newspapers matter? Evidence from the closure of the Cincinnati Post. Retrieved from http://www.princeton.edu/wwseconpapers/papers/wwsdp236.pdf
9. Downie, L., Jr., & Schudson, M. (2009, October 19).The reconstruction of American journalism. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved from http://www.cjr.org/reconstruction/the_reconstruction_of_american.php?page=all
10. Neuharth, D. (2009, August 9). Citizen journalism sites: No replacement for legacy media coverage of local news. Retrieved from http://www.rjionline.org/research/stories/citizen-legacy/index.php. This post cites research by Esther Thorson, Margaret Duffy, Stephen R. Lacy and Daniel Riffe.
11. Kirchhoff, S. M. (2010)The U.S. newspaper industry in transition. (Congressional Research Service R40700). Retrieved from www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40700.pdf. “The U.S. newspaper industry is suffering through what could be its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.…In the past year, seven major newspaper chains have declared bankruptcy, several big city papers have shut down, and many have laid off reporters and editors, imposed pay reductions, cut the size of the physical newspaper, or turned to web-only publications. As the problems intensify, there are growing concerns that the rapid decline of the newspaper industry will impact civic and social life.”
12. Baldwin, T., Bergan, D., Fico, F., Lacy, S., & Waldman, S. S. (2010). News media coverage of city governments in 2009. Retrieved from http://www.quello.msu.edu/index/publications/detail/322/
13. Downie & Schudson
14. Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. (2010) Community journalism. In The state of the news media 2010. Retrieved from http://stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview-3 Retrieved from http://stateofthemedia.org/2010/special-reports-economic-attitudes/community-journalism/
15. Lacy,S.. Duffy, M.,Riffe, D., Thorson, E., &Fleming, K. (2010),Citizen journalismweb sitescomplement newspapers.Newspaper Research Journal,(31)2.43–44. Retrieved from http://aejmc.org/topics/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Lacy.pdf. The authors concluded, “The citizen news sites and citizen blog sites appear to be very different. The citizen news sites resemble daily newspaper sites more than do blog sites, which indicates clearly that blog and news sites are not necessarily substitutes for each other within a local community.” .
16. Ibid., p. 44.
17. Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. (2010) Overview.In The state of the news media 2010. Retrieved from http://stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview-3
18. The concept of an information ecosystem is explored by Steven Berlin Johnson in his blog. Berlin, S. B. (2009, March 14). Old growth media and the future of news [Blog post]. Retrieved from