Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The changing newsroom: good, bad and ugly

Project for Excellence in Journalism released an excellent study today titled, “The Changing Newsroom“. Based on survey responses from 259 newspapers and in-depth interviews with senior executives at 15 newspapers, it’s a very thorough study of changes to the content and business models of American newspapers. If there’s a single conclusion one could draw from the study, it’s that newspapers have radically changed their ambitions from providing a wide view of news around the world, to providing excellent local content. This isn’t always an easy change. One editor said that the hardest loss in his newsroom has been “the concept of who and what we are”.

For those of us who hope that journalism will thrive in a digital age, this report includes the good, the bad and the ugly. On the good side, there’s ample evidence that newspapers have embraced the internet and, as Jay Rosen memorably said almost four years ago, “bloggers versus journalists is over.” Not only is virtually every newspaper expanding their web presence and migrating fast-moving content on the web into the next edition of the paper, the majority of papers (100% of large newspaper – circulation 100k+ – and 63% of smaller papers) have started staff blogs. Most of these blogs are either unedited or edited after publication. And 40% of papers (50% of large papers) now incorporate some form of citizen media into their coverage, and very few editors (less than 10%) rejected the idea that citizen media could be incorporated in some form into professional journalism. (There’s a possible pro-geek bias in the survey, which was conducted via email, leading participants to an online survey. True luddite editors were likely left out of the sample set.)

While newspapers are publishing less news overall, they’re publishing more, shorter pieces, and some editors feel like they’re providing better breadth of coverage. And 56% of editors felt like the quality of their paper was better than 3 years ago, with 29% conceding that their papers are now “different”.

The bad news is that newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money online. Roughly 90% of revenue for the newspapers surveyed comes from their print editions, not from online sections. 59% reported staff cuts in the past three years, and 61% reported reducing their “newshole”, the part of the paper that actually prints news. And 73% of papers have physically shrunk, using smaller page size, a move that’s often associated with shrinking the overall size of a newspaper. 97% of editors report that they’re actively involved with searching for new revenue streams for their papers… so much for that Chinese wall between the editor and publisher.

The ugly news, so far as I’m concerned, has to do with the change of mission of the newspaper, specifically a shift away from foreign and national news to an increased focus on local and community news. 64% of newspapers reported that they’d decreased the amount of foreign coverage in their papers, and 46% said they’d reduced the number of reporters focused on these stories. There were dramatic declines in national news coverage as well, with 50% of papers reporting less space on these sorts of stories. 62% of papers have increased their coverage of community news, and while 97% of newspaper editors called local news “very essential” to their papers, only 10% felt that international news was very essential.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Newspapers realize that they’re in a different world than ten years ago. People who are interested in following international news are likely to look for international news online, or in a major newspaper like the New York Times. What’s worrisome is that it’s not clear that the major newspapers are going to step up to the task. They’re also looking local, with 94% calling local news very essential and only 28% calling international coverage very essential. The percentage of large circulation papers who’ve cut international news coverage over the past three years is slightly larger than the percentage of small papers (which may reflect earlier cuts made by those smaller papers.)

Local coverage makes economic sense for newspapers. Most newspaper advertisers are local – they may be pleased that the paper’s coverage can potentially reach international audiences, but they’re selling to people in the paper’s geographic area, and they’re most concerned with content specifically for that local audience. Local content is much, much cheaper than sending reporters overseas to cover stories, and the temptation to cover international stories using wire services has led newspapers like the Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun to close their last overseas bureas. The consequence – whatever international content a paper publishes is content that is available elsewhere, published in a major paper like the Times or the Washington Post or available via a wire service.

This trend isn’t new, by the way. In 1997, James Hoge Jr., the editor of the influential journal Foreign Affairs, published an essay memorably titled, “Foreign News: Who Gives a Damn?” Hoge saw a steep drop in international coverage from the early 1970s to the 1990s, and noted, “Except for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90, the coverage of such internaitonal news in American media has steadily declined since the late seventies, when the cold war lost its sense of imminent danger.” Depending on who you ask, the trend may be even longer than that – in the brilliant “The Creation of the Media“, Paul Starr notes that newspapers in pre-revolutionary America routinely published 75% or more international news – publishers were skeptical that readers would pay to hear about news they could get from talking to their neighbors.

Hoge suggests that the drop in news coverage from the 1970s to the 1990s had to do with the end of the Cold War, and the perception of the world as a safer – and therefore less interesting – place. The same circumstances that compelled Francis Fukayama to declare the end of history seemed to offer good reasons to stop reading the international section of the newspaper. But recent events – 9/11, bombings in Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca, Jakarta, Istanbul, London and Madrid, long wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, as well as the international dynamics surrounding global warming, petroleum prices and a worldwide economic downturn – would all seem to offer compelling reasons for readers to care about international news.

If there’s less international news in newspapers (and, as other studies suggest, in television newscasts), is that the fault of news organizations, who’ve figured out that it’s more economical to deliver local coverage, or is it the fault of consumers, who aren’t demanding more international news? The PEJ study doesn’t address this directly, but offers a depressing note from one editor, who tells the interviewer that readers complain vociferously when the paper removes TV listings or shrinks the crossword, but hasn’t complained about cuts in international or domestic coverage.

My fear is that international news will fall victim to a collective action problem, a version of the tragedy of the commons. For each individual paper, it’s in their economic interest to focus on local news and hope that readers who have a concern with international news will read that paper as well as the local paper, or access that paper online. Unfortunately, this appears to be leading to a situation in which only the largest papers are able to deploy resources to cover international stories and small and mid-sized papers are simply delivering wire service content. What happens if the New York Times or Washington Post decide it’s not economically viable to continue providing international coverage? Recent cuts at the LA Times – one of the papers historically committed to international reporting – are likely to shrink its coverage dramatically.

I wonder if, on some level, a lot of webfolk believe that we’re going to move into a new media space where everyone focuses on reporting local news well, and where we can get a global picture by reading lots of local news from around the world. (Indeed, that’s one way to think about what we do at Global Voices.) That’s not going to work, for two reasons. Local coverage is contextualized for local audiences. Read a story from a local newspaper across the country or across the world and you’ll discover there’s background information missing that you’d need to understand the story – the editor of the local paper expects you to know the distances between places, the identity and backstory of prominent people mentioned in the paper. Reading a story without context makes you more likely to misinterpret, and can make it much harder to connect with the story.

I’m able to read newspaper stories from hundreds of African newspapers via AllAfrica.com, and while I follow African events more closely than most Americans, I often end up needing to do research simply to read the daily news in most of these papers. It’s not that the stories are poorly written – they’re simply not written with me as part of the audience. (And then, of course, there are language issues. And issues around censorship and media control. If you want news from China on protest movements around property rights from local sources, you need context, language skills and experience hunting for underground media that you probably don’t have.)

There’s a more important reason why it’s hard to get global coverage by gluing together local coverage – you don’t know what to pay attention to. Local papers publish every day, whether there’s a lot or a little news – simply reading all of them isn;t an option. What responsible newspapers have done well for decades is organize information on their front pages so that readers know what they need to pay attention to, locally, nationally and globally. You may disagree with the decisions made by a publication, but this filtering function is incredibly important… and incredibly powerful. Without it, you’re left to search for information on topics you think are important, or seek out local coverage in places you think are important.

My experience is that people come to Global Voices for information on a story or a region when large newspapers or newscasts have declared a topic newsworthy. We’ve covered Burmese bloggers for years, but we only saw deep, sustained interest in what those bloggers were saying when the “saffron revolution” became front page news in American and European newspapers. These papers set the news agenda, and even in an age where web surfers can look for information on any concievable topic, my experience is that interest closely follows the news cycle. And if the newscycle focuses less on international news because newspapers dedicate fewer resources to international coverage, bloggers and net surfers will pay less attention to these stories online, I predict.

In his decade-old paper, Hoge wonders if we’re entering a period where international news matters only to a small group of people who feel like they’ve got political or business interests in the international sphere. I think that’s become true, with an expansion of that category to include hardcore news junkies, and I think those folks are looking for news in newspapers that have declared themselves to have international ambitions, like The Economist or The Guardian. What worries me is that, with less international news in newspapers and newscasts, most citizens are going to end up feeling like these are issues they have no information about, no opinions on, and no ability to influence. In a world where the hard local problems demand global solutions, that’s an ugly development indeed.

4 Responses to “The changing newsroom: good, bad and ugly”

  1. This study seems to have done a good job analyzing the supply of news. How about the demand/consumption? That is, are Americans more internationally savvy now than in the past? Even though their papers are covering local news more, is anyone looking at their consumption of online international news?

    Also, that’s a great point about local news and context. I’ve struggled to use AllAfrica frequently because so much of the content requires Wikipedia trips…

  2. Chad Orzel says:

    I wonder if the context problem isn’t an opportunity for some sort of group blog-type thing? That is, somebody could set up a site that grabs good stories from local media and annotates them with links to provide the necessary context for readers from other regions.

    It would probably be really boring to do by hand, but I’d bet that a lot of it could be automated.

  3. Ethan says:

    Kevin, those are good questions – well beyond the remit of this study, and pretty hard to answer. Not only would you need a large study with careful sampling, you’d need a baseline to compare to from earlier days. And you’d need to ask questions like “what’s the interest level on international news we’d like Americans to have?”

    Chad, I think the blog model is workeable within expert areas. For instance, my friends who work on blogs like Registan.net are central Asia experts capable of contextualizing the news for an audience. And there’s Roland Soong’s brilliant EastSouthWestNorth, which translates and contextualizes Chinese news for western audiences, and vice versa. But these are small labors of love, and in both cases, there are lots of questions about how these projects can scale. And they still don’t answer the question of how you get people to pay attention to these issues.

  4. johne says:

    This is a US study, and it would be interesting to know if anything similar has been noted abroad. Drawing from my limited experience, the excellent breadth of overseas coverage that was offered by the good Ecuadorian papers (though it did lack depth, usually being confined to wire service reports) has diminished considerably in recent decades.

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