Pew Report: Mainstream News Resources Down, Viewers/Readers Leave

4 minute read
Barry Levine avatar

Almost a third of Americans have abandoned a specific news outlet because it no longer provides the same quality of news they are accustomed to getting. That’s a key finding in the Pew Research Center’s annual media report.

The report, The State of the News Media, prepared by the Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, is the tenth annual look at the condition of American journalism. The American news industry, Pew said, “is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.”

Newsroom Employment Down

Newsroom employment is down 30 percent since its peak in 2000, and has dropped below 40,000 employees for the first time in nearly a quarter century. On local TV news, government coverage is half what it was in 2005, and cable coverage of live events has dropped 30 percent.

Amy Mitchell, acting director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that “the reduced reporting power in the news industry is having an effect and may weaken both the industry’s capacity to produce more in-depth journalism and its credibility with the public.”

However, it’s unclear from the report whether some reporting trends are the result of cutbacks, or simply the way many mainstream news outlets choose to orient their stories because such approaches are better for ratings or readership. For instance, the report noted that reporters in the 2012 presidential campaign “acted more as megaphones, rather than investigators of the assertions put forward by the campaigns.”

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The report added that only 27 percent of the statements in the media about candidates’ records or character came from journalists, while twice that amount came from political partisans. Even only a dozen years ago, Pew said, the ratio was weighted the other way: half of records/character comments came from journalists and a third from campaign representatives.

Learning Opportunities

Diminished Information or Better Sources?

Pew also noted that CNN now produces fewer packages, that MSNBC and Fox present mostly what the report described as “opinion,” and that mobile display news is dominated by six companies, none of which provide news. Additionally, between 2011 and 2012, the audience for digital content rose 7.2 percent and cable increased 0.8 percent, while newspapers dropped by 0.2 percent, network TV by 1.9 percent and local TV by 6.5 percent. Paid access to digital content is rising and sponsored content is booming.

As a journalist and an avid news hound, I would take Pew’s observation about abandoning conventional news sources further. Consider political news. Even a casual observer of mainstream news outlets in the last few American election cycles can discern that the vast majority of what passes for mainstream political journalism simply reports the horse race -- who’s up in the polls? Who made a strategic error? What’s the effect of this move on the race?

With so little of American mainstream political reporting including information that actually affects peoples’ lives, perhaps the wholesale abandonment of conventional election reporting becomes less mysterious -- and possibly less a result of budget cutbacks. I, for one, voraciously devoured 2012 election news, but rarely checked TV, except for live events, because of this domination of horse race coverage -- most of which, as I knew from numerous other sources, misinterpreted the available information. Print news was ancient history by the time it arrived, and even newspapers’ websites, such as the New York Times, were often dominated by conventional wisdom.

For this viewer/reader, the abandonment of TV/newspapers is not because of cutbacks in journalism that I used to know, but because of the availability of on-demand, multiple, up-to-the-second high quality online news and information sources that present the truth of a story, not simply on the one hand this/on the other hand that or here’s the horse race.