More News Outlets, Less News
Columbia University’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has released a new study that has discovered six new trends in the mass media. The one attracting early attention is this:
The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories. As the number of places delivering news proliferates, the audience for each tends to shrink and the number of journalists in each organization is reduced. At the national level, those organizations still have to cover the big events. Thus we tend to see more accounts of the same handful of stories each day. And when big stories break, they are often covered in a similar fashion by general-assignment reporters working with a limited list of sources and a tight time-frame. Such concentration of personnel around a few stories, in turn, has aided the efforts of newsmakers to control what the public knows. One of the first things to happen is that the authorities quickly corral the growing throng of correspondents, crews and paparazzi into press areas away from the news. One of the reasons coverage of Katrina stood out to Americans in 2005 was officials were unable to do that, though some efforts, including one incident of holding journalists at gunpoint, were reported. For the most part, the public — and the government — were learning from journalists who were discovering things for themselves.
Another trend, what strikes me as being somewhat related, is this:
The new challengers to the old media, the aggregators, are also playing with limited time. When it comes to news, what companies like Google and Yahoo are aggregating and selling is the work of others — the very same old media they are taking revenue away from. The more they succeed, the faster they erode the product they are selling, unless the economic model is radically changed.
There is no discussion of blogs, which presumably are finally no longer considered a “new trend,” but the combination of blogs and various aggregation services has helped spark the narrowing of topics, as it becomes easier to glom onto a handful of stories and then beat them to death with follow-ups, op-eds, analysis, and so forth.
NYT’s Katharine Seelye touches on the role of blogs as well:
On May 11, 2005, a date that was chosen randomly, Congress was debating the appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, the actor Macaulay Culkin was testifying in Michael Jackson’s molestation trial and car bombs in Iraq killed 79 people. On that day, the study said, ” Google News offers access within two clicks to 14,000 stories, but really they are accounts of just 24 news events.”
The coverage offered by 57 media outlets was examined in depth in three cities (Houston, Milwaukee and Bend, Ore., which were randomly chosen from lists of cities of different size and geographical location) and showed certain shared characteristics depending on the medium. Print and the evening network news, for example, focused on the violence in Iraq, a false alarm in Washington involving a small plane that violated restricted air space, and protests in Afghanistan. Cable television and the morning news programs highlighted Mr. Jackson’s trial and a murder in Illinois; local television and radio produced a steady diet of weather, traffic and local crime.
The blogosphere, meanwhile, shrugged off most of the breaking news, focusing largely on broader, longer-term issues. Contrary to the charge that the blogosphere is purely parasitic,” the study said, bloggers raised new issues. But they did almost no original reporting: only 1 percent of the posts that day involved a blogger interviewing someone else and only 5 percent involved some other original work, such as examining documents.
Ironically, LAT’s James Rainey just repackages the executive summary of the study as “original reporting.”
The problem with Google News, aside from its recent decision to drop most blogs from its aggregator, is that it lacks the ability to differentiate stories, leading to hundreds of “sources” that are nothing more than repackaged AP and Reuters copy. At least the blogs typically add commentary.
Howie Kurtz notes that, while the number of outlets offering news coverage may have grown, the number of reporters has not: “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.” He doesn’t mention, oddly enough, that his own paper, the Washington Post, has just announced yet another cut in its newsroom staff.
This is interesting, too:
“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.”
Quite right. This is a truly bizarre trend. Several years ago, the local news stations in many markets started doing two early newscasts, one on each side of the nightly network news show. Yet, there was actually less local news than ever before, as they started covering–or, rather, pretending to cover–national news events. Plus, more and more sports, weather, and fluff.