- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

It’s grim in journalism, but not hopeless, according to “The State of the News Media 2008” report, a massive annual assessment of print, broadcast and online news released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In a word, the press is more “troubled” these days. The future, however, is not without promise.

Nationwide, reporters, editors, producers and executives collectively worry about financial woes, fragmented audiences and an identity crisis brought on by the clash between the mainstream press and the vibrant but often unvetted surge of citizen journalism. The fourth estate wonders if traditional news values will suffer under strident demands to cultivate more readers, viewers and listeners through slick and entertaining delivery systems.

Rumors of journalism’s demise, though, are premature.

“Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old-media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than ever before,” the study said, noting that the top-10 news Web sites draw “mostly from old brands.”

The much-ballyhooed world of citizen blogs, meanwhile, may have “limitations.”

Though they may be going online for news rather than rattling a newspaper or watching primetime, Americans have not abandoned the traditional media, according to the research. Advertisers, meanwhile, have yet to migrate to the Internet. Dwindling revenues have taken their toll, prompting nationwide media layoffs — and heady demands on remaining staffs.

“The crisis in journalism, in other words, may not be strictly loss of audience. It may more fundamentally be the decoupling of news and advertising,” the study said.

“Despite all this, those who remain in the newsroom, particularly in print, evince a stubborn optimism, a sense of mission to prove what they consider a calling still has resonance and in time will find financial footing. … Experimentation is proving liberating,” the study said.

It analyzed 70,000 stories from 48 news organizations to reveal a “narrow” news agenda: A quarter of the reports last year covered the Iraq war and the 2008 presidential election alone.

Aside from news of Iran and Pakistan, foreign coverage made up less than 6 percent of the mix — with limited information on such bread-and-butter issues as rising gas prices. The news media also had a “short attention span,” quickly abandoning questions raised by such events as the Virginia Tech massacre or the collapse of a major Minnesota bridge.

News itself is in metamorphosis. Though continual updates are paramount, “service” has become the new motto. The focus is not about journalists — it’s about their audiences.

“Service broadens the definition of what journalists must apply. Storytelling and agenda setting — still important — are now insufficient. Journalism also must help citizens find what they are looking for, react to it, sort it, shape news coverage and — most important and least developed — give them tools to make sense of and use the information,” the study said.

It also found that the prospects for user-created content appears limited and “less valuable” as freewheeling amateur newsgatherers increasingly restrict their content and interactive activities by adopting the “gatekeeper” role of traditional journalism.

Journalists themselves are embracing technology. A nationwide survey of the press conducted for the report revealed that majorities say blogs, citizen postings and other newfangled factors are making journalism better. The newsroom itself is now perceived as “innovative and experimental.”

Marketing experts and ad agencies, meanwhile, appear to be having trouble keeping up with the changes, with the media landscape emerging as a true work in progress.

“Advertising executives, in other words, do not have answers any more than news professionals. … For now, the future seems to point to more confusion and fragmentation before new models emerge,” the study said.

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