The Big News: Shrinking Reportage
Monday, March 13, 2006
An explosion of media outlets means we now have more coverage and carping about every conceivable event than ever before in history.
But we also have less reporting.
Hundreds of cable and radio commentators, and millions of bloggers, can sound off about the news in real time. But the number of old-fashioned fact-gatherers is dwindling, and will almost certainly continue to shrink.
In the Philadelphia area, for instance, the number of newspaper reporters has fallen from 500 to 220 in the last quarter-century. Most of the local television stations have cut back on traditional news coverage. Five AM radio stations used to cover news; now there are two.
These figures are drawn from a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism describing what it calls a "seismic transformation" in the media landscape. The good news is that the average consumer can in effect create his own news, picking and choosing from sources he trusts and enjoys rather than being spoon-fed by a handful of big corporations.
But the decline in the number of reporters, especially at newspapers, means less digging into the affairs of government and business. What is "most threatened," says the report, "is the big-city metro paper that came to dominate in the latter part of the 20th century . . . Even if newspapers are not dying, they and other old media are constricting, and so, it appears, is the amount of resources dedicated to original newsgathering."
Newspaper audiences may be growing online, but Web sites don't deliver the kind of revenue that can support large staffs of editors, reporters and photographers, so declining print circulation -- down another 3 percent last year -- could have major consequences. By the project's count, the industry has lost more than 3,500 newsroom professionals since 2000, a drop of 7 percent. The Washington Post said last week it would seek to cut 80 newsroom jobs through voluntary buyouts, the second such offer in just over two years, and attrition.
The papers have plenty of company. Circulation declined last year at the big three newsmagazines. Network evening news ratings dropped 6 percent and morning show ratings 4 percent. The number of network correspondents is one-third lower than it was in the mid-1980s.
The median prime-time audience for cable news was up 4 percent last year, driven mostly by growth at Fox News. But the study faults cable news for focusing mainly on a handful of breaking stories each day, sometimes creating "an odd hyperbole in which anchors endeavor to create a sense of urgency about small things." A prime example was the scare in May when a private plane flew into restricted D.C. air space, prompting evacuations at the White House and Capitol.
Early-evening news ratings for local TV were down 13 percent, the project says. And 60 percent of the local TV newscasts studied by the group -- once traffic, weather and sports are excluded -- consisted of crime and accident stories. What's more, the proportion of stories presented by reporters dropped from 62 percent to 43 percent between 1998 and 2002, leaving these programs increasingly driven by anchors.
On the radio stations studied in three cities, only 14 percent of stories involved sending reporters out in the field -- and most of those were pieces picked up from syndicates or National Public Radio.
"Everyone's got fewer resources, and yet everyone feels compelled to cover the same basic stories," says Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, whether it's a White House event, plane crash or high-profile murder. "It's a way of branding the event. They want Katie Couric or Wolf Blitzer or News4 Milwaukee there."