(Mint Press) – The age of the newsroom may be passing by. According to the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), in 2012 there was 40,600 total journalists and editors working in newsrooms in the United States. This is the lowest figure observed in the 34 years that the ASNE conducted its newsroom survey, and it is a continuation of the decline in newsroom staffing that has been underway since staffing levels peaked in 1990.
This is coupled by a steady outpacing of departures to new hires, a trend that has continued since 2008. In 2012, 89 percent of all minority newsroom staff and 94 percent of all White newsroom staff were retained — an increase from the 2009 low point, in which 262 minority staffers were hired but 1,116 were terminated, and 1,379 White staffers were hired but 6,452 were let go.
These numbers reflect two things.
Disregarding the accuracy of the ASNE survey (most news organizations, such as the Huffington Post, Politico, AOL, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, for example did not participate in the survey), first — as Rick Edmonds of Poynter pointed out — ASNE’s numbers reflected only full-time newsroom employees. The economics of news publishing has changed, and more often than not, newsrooms are relying on freelance bloggers and writers and part-time in-office staff to meet production needs without the expense of hiring, training and providing benefits for a full-time employee.
Second, until recently, news was centralized. Newsrooms across the nation would scramble to be the first to carry a story and bureaus and affiliates around the world would hussle to vet facts, secure interviews and arrive at the site of breaking news. Traditionally, publishing the breaking news was a multi-person, multi-site enterprise. However, the coverage of the Arab Spring — in which one person with a cellphone and a Twitter account was able to out-report billion dollar news outlets — showed that news and news production can, indeed, be a democratic process.
Jared Nichols, futurist, strategy consultant and president of the Jared Nichols Group, argues that the newsroom in its current form is outmoded. “The newsroom model needs to rethink it’s value in the 21st Century,” he said. “This is the dawn of the information age. The newsroom is packed full of top talent trained with the skills to uncover, report and make sense of endless streams of information. That being said, the newsroom of the future has the potential to be a think tank on steroids.”
While independent reporting and blogging offer exceptional opportunities for non-mainstream stories to be covered, the “democratizing” of the news industry threatens to damage one of the most enduring protectorates of the common good.
The changing face of journalism
For most people under the age of 45, the news is delivered digitally. According to the Newspaper Association of America, only 29.6 percent of all adults 18 to 34 receive their daily news from a newspaper — either in print or digital form. Three-quarters of all newspaper readers are older than age 45.
As reported by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, since 2005, print advertisement for newspapers has fallen from a high of $49.275 billion to 2011’s $23.941 billion. Since 2006, pure-play Internet outlets (such as Google) have taken the lion’s share of local online advertising — nearly twice that of newspapers. Profit margins for the major media companies have dropped since their high in 2000 by nearly 10 percent.
In response to this, the majority of the major newspapers changed formats. The Rocky Mountain News and the Tucson Citizen shut down. The Tribune Company, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Sun-Times Media Group, Freedom Communications and Philadelphia Newspapers LLC all declared bankruptcy since December 2008. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News were forced to reduce services or force employee concessions.
The problem with the newspaper industry lies in its business model. As the demand for news increases, so does the avenue of free content. Very few would willingly pay for a news subscription if they can get the news for free elsewhere. Attempts to monetize content tend to turn away readers or are ultimately futile — for most newspapers, web advertising accounts for only 10 to 15 percent of total revenues.
“What’s going on in the news business is a lot like what’s happening with music,” said Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief of Pro Publica. Free distribution of content over the Internet has created “a total collapse of the business model.”
As such, newsrooms have had to cut staff and hiring. The remaining staff must compete with the push to get stories out faster than the bloggers and their competitors, which results in shorter stories with fewer sources. Since 2003, the Washington Post has dropped the number of long-form stories (stories that are longer than 2,000 words) by more than 50 percent. The New York Times’ long-form stories’ count has dropped by 25 percent, and the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times have also seen significant drops in story lengths.
In addition, stories are given less time for vetting and fact checks, resulting in an increasing number of corrections.
The rise of the blogs
This is, in part, turning readers to blogs and independent media outlets to receive the news coverage that is missing from the major news outlets. The shift of revenue from the traditional newsrooms to the bloggers have created a substrata of media that is almost indistinguishable from the mass-media strata. Despite an expansion of the blogosphere from 27 million in 2006 to more than 133 million blogs, the top players, who rarely change — Politico, the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, National Review, Entertainment Weekly, Talking Points Memo, etc. — have more name recognition than most major market newspapers.
Of the top 50 blogs, 21 are owned by the major media conglomerates, such as Disney and Fox.
This, however, does not preclude the tweet about a major incident or the clip broadcasted on YouTube showing a story no one saw before and that everyone will be talking about later.
Such a lack of control over the veracity of democratically-produced news and the notion of “piggybacking” off of mainstream journalistic reporting is a point of concern.
David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” argued during a Senate committee hearing: “The Internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin — namely the newspapers themselves.”
This may be missing the point. As argued by Alan Mutter for Editor & Publisher:
“Unfortunately, the digital strategy undertaken to date by most publishers is to port their newspaper-style content to the Web and then repurpose the material for mobile devices. The warmed-over digital fare offered by the typical newspaper falls well short of the expectations of two whole generations of consumers who are not only empowered by technology but also damn well sure of how to get what they want.”
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