News seen at risk of following ‘dinosaur’ dailies down
By Evan Lips | November 13, 2015, 5:00 EDT
In an unflinching report on the current state of journalism, the Brookings Institution proclaimed this week that so-called “hard news” is an endangered species along with the print newspaper “dinosaurs” that have purveyed the commodity for centuries.
Tribune Publishing, owner of broadsheet papers such as the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, spiked the Brookings study’s conclusions Thursday by saying it was looking to cut 7 percent of its staff of about 7,500 through buyouts. The company said layoffs may follow, the Associated Press reported. Tribune was among the leaders in seeking to integrate its print, broadcast and online news operations starting in the mid-1990s.
On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which produces several news dailies in western Pennsylvania in addition to its flagship Pittsburgh publication, said it would dismiss 153 of its 1,100 employees. Meanwhile, America’s second-largest newspaper chain, Digital First Media, earlier this week shed more than a dozen New Haven Register employees, continuing a pattern that’s seen the elimination of more than 150 jobs since a potential acquisition by a private-equity investment manager, Apollo Global Management, fell through.
Researched and written by Elaine Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele of the Brookings Center for Effective Public Management, the study does not mince words and cuts right to the chase in terms of trends the authors have identified:
- Print newspapers are dinosaurs
- Hard news is in danger
- Television is still important
- And so is radio
- News is now digital
- Social media allows news (and ‘news’) to go viral
- For the younger generation, news is delivered through comedy
The study takes a deep dive into newspaper circulation data to arrive at an unsurprising conclusion: “We now have many fewer papers serving a much bigger population.”
In 1945, the U.S. was served by 1,749 daily newspapers, a number that fell 24 percent to 1,331 in 2014.
“In the 1940s, somewhere over one-third of Americans received a daily newspaper,” the study says. “By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, readership was down by about half to less than 15 percent.”
The findings from the Washington-based think tank’s researchers regarding the decline of printed newspapers are hardly jaw-dropping. More startling is the study’s conclusion that “hard news is in danger.”
As online advertising revenue has failed to make up for losses in print advertising revenue, more sites are experimenting with “pay walls,” where readers can only access content if they subscribe or pay through ala-carte options. The practice, according to the study, has yet to see “universal” success. The drop in revenue has led to cuts in newsroom jobs. The researchers say employment of reporters, editors, photographers and other editorial staff in daily news has plunged 23 percent to 32,900 in 2015 from 43,000 in 1978.
“These raw numbers are significant in themselves, but they are more dramatic when increases in population are taken into account,” the study says.
The Internet has produced a limitless platform for news websites, Karmack and Gabriele acknowledge, yet they warn that the vast majority of these sites don’t do original reporting. Instead, they produce opinions and “takes” on news gathered by others, such as daily newspapers.
“While the Internet world has made it possible for everyone to express their opinion widely — whether they know anything or not — it has also confused readers,” Karmack and Gabriele say. “In the absence of supposedly neutral intermediaries such as reporters, fact-checkers, and editors, readers are having a hard time judging the credibility of what they read.”
The social media aspect of the news, in which stories can “go viral” and attract eyes and clicks by the million seemingly overnight, also means that content is dictated not by importance, significance or factual accuracy but by the number of clicks it gets, the authors say. So a story may be totally fabricated, yet receive millions of clicks, leading readers to question the value of “news.”
They also express concern about the failure to vet so-called “viral” stories, even by legitimate news sites. The study recalls the rush to identify the perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. A photo appearing on the social media site Reddit showed two marathon bystanders and speculated the men might be the bombers. The New York Post picked up the photo and plastered it on its front page. The two men depicted in the photo were exonerated.
“A great example of the value of social media,” Karmack and Gabriele say, referring to the crowdsourcing work and efforts combing through social media to unearth clues as to the bombers’ identities. “Except for one problem: it was wrong.”
An additional concern raised by the study is that an overwhelming majority of millennials, or people aged 18 to 29, get much of their news through two satirical shows aired on the Comedy Central cable TV network. “The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, both of which have left-wing tendencies and are not the neutral sources for news that were associated with network news programs years ago,” the study says.
In 2012, 43 percent of millennials viewed the Colbert report as their chief source for news, while 39 percent opted for the Daily Show. Karmack and Gabriele note that both Steven Colbert, the longtime host of the eponymous show, and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, have both moved on to other ventures. Stewart was replaced by Trevor Noah, “who has had an interesting career spanning educational TV, soap opera, and gossip TV,” the study points out.
Karmack and Gabriele conclude their analysis by wondering whether “the younger generation will continue to get their news in comedy form” or whether they will seek other outlets.