Darkness on the edge of town: Newspapers 2008

July 21, 2008

new-york-times.jpgThe Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism just published a 36-page study called “The Changing Newsroom: What is Being Gained and What is Being Lost in America’s Daily Newspapers?” The upshot? This little number and this one would make good visual analogs.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

“Meet the American daily newspaper of 2008. It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.”

And financially speaking:

“Despite an image of decline, more people today in more places read the content produced in the newsrooms of American daily newspapers than at any time in years. But revenues are tumbling. The editors expect the financial picture only to worsen, and they have little confidence that they know what their papers will look like in five years.”

The next 35 pages go into more depth on this, and even if you think you’ve read this news before, the Project offers a good deal of insight because of in-person interviews with journalist Tyler Marshall that were conducted in late 2007 and early 2008. It also was based on a survey sent to the editors of 1,217 daily newspapers (only 259 responded).

Here are what the PEJ considers its key findings. I’ll offer some of the nuggets that I found interesting afterward:

  • Metro papers are suffering more than smaller papers.
  • U.S. papers are narrowing their reach and their ambitions and becoming niche reads, particularly by cutting back on overseas, national and business news.
  • Newsroom culture is increasingly dominated by the young, who are hungry and energetic, but lack the wisdom of their elders. Editors describe the change as exciting, extraordinary, nerve-wracking and tumultuous.
  • Newspaper websites=hope. They also=fear. They offer lots of advantages, but also require too much energy to produce material of limited or questionable value.

Here are the other findings that jumped out in the study, with handy headings provided by Media File:

Sometimes travel pays. Just not all the time.

  • Larger papers have closed most of their overseas bureaus, but in some cases, that’s a defense against pack journalism. “The Philadelphia Inquirer closed the last of its foreign bureaus in November 2006, yet it still maintains money in its editorial budget for staff foreign travel. Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow said this money is tapped when editors conclude a staff reporter can add significant value to a story.”

Cut Iraq if you must, but do NOT mess with my crossword.

  • These sorts of cuts have frequently been met with intense reader protest… Conversely, more draconian measures, such as cutting off foreign news, eliminating or merging features sections, laying off the staff science writer or downsizing the editorial pages have produced comparatively modest reader reaction.

Sometimes cutting is not starving.

  • “The editor of a large metro daily said he still sent his paper’s movie critic to cover out-of-town film festivals, but now limited the assignment to only a few days instead of the full event. ‘We still have the coverage,’ this editor said. ‘But instead of the full ten days, we’ll go for five.'”

Multitask or die.

  • “Reporters who once concentrated on one beat or specialty now frequently have two or three. … In interviews, editors of newspapers that had undergone significant newsroom cuts repeatedly found themselves hard-pressed to name beats that had been abandoned completely, but they agreed the coverage had become thinner and, because of that, its quality had diminished.”

This story looks accurate. Let’s run it.

  • “The ranks of editors who check stories prior to publication are thinning. Four out of ten newspapers reported that they have reduced the number of copy editors in the last three years, while just 12 percent have increased.”

Drunk on ink, dry online.

  • “Convincing newspaper advertising sales staff to become more active in selling to the web is also viewed as an essential, overdue step… In interviews, newsroom executives complained that advertising departments traditionally have been far more resistant than their editorial counterparts to the changes brought by the Internet age.” That’s because 90 percent of Internet revenue is still print, so that’s where the big deals are.

Grab an oar, start rowing.

  • “Fully 97 percent of editors responding to the survey said they were active, at least to some degree, in the search to develop new revenue streams.” In other words, the historical wall between news coverage and selling ads is dissolving. More than half of newsroom editors told the PEJ that they were unconcerned, or at least not very concerned, about this.

Editors are insane.

  • “Many of the editors express a remarkable — at times almost eerie — optimism despite the adversities they have faced.”

(Photo: Lightning strikes the New York Times building. Courtesy: Reuters)


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It is a pain to watch this slow bleeding of journalism. With the new trends newspapers are just producing what people want to read (aka. entertainment, headlines)rather than what people need to know.
The consequence of which could be masses of ingnorant people manipulated by a few aristocrats…

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

I do suggest that newspapers should be renamed “community reference sheets”

Posted by Narayanan Madhavan | Report as abusive

Local newspapers in smaller markets decided to focus on the picayune and emotional issues versus broad and objective journalism—at the siren call of their salespeople.

Now that the real level of interest in such tabloid stories has crowded out the need for substantial stories, some news editors still do not recognize they have “backed the wrong horse” in the race.

Simply put: you cannot sell enough legitmate newspaper advertising if you are not a legitimate source of news, only a repeater of the tabloid-style journalism’s news.

Posted by Charlie French | Report as abusive

When writing a novel we are informed never to write a sentence with more than six words in it. I suppose that last sentence would therefore be eliminated. That goes for the last one as well.

But this one not.

Posted by sally | Report as abusive

On the contrary, a leaner newsroom will be much more efficient than an over staffed newsroom. To be sure there is an optimum number and that is the number that should be sought. Every industry would be more efficient if croyism and nepotism were forbidden and abolished.

Posted by Richard Paden | Report as abusive

I guess I’m one of those insanely optimistic editors. I’ve had successful stints at a wire service, a metro and now a mid-sized daily. I wouldn’t want to be in another industry right now.

Yes, we’ve reduced national and international coverage, but we’ve not abandoned those subjects. We are making tougher choices and ensure that our product is dominated by local news and features that aren’t all over CNN, our local TV stations and the blogging community.

The world has not lost its need for people who know how to gather and distill information. There’s a shift in who is doing that and how the information is being presented, but good fundamental journalism will survive.

I’m grateful the bleeding in home delivery and advertising is slow. That’s given the newspaper industry time to recover from a slow start online and to experiment with new ways of generating revenue.

Posted by Juan Elizondo | Report as abusive

“..The editors expects the financial picture only to worsen..”

And, evidently, grammatical errors to worsen as well.

All in all, the loss of access to in-depth, well-researched, intelligent news, whose source is known and accountable, is another nail in the coffin of a working democracy.

Posted by Beth | Report as abusive

Ouch, Beth. Yes, that was my mistake. I corrected it.
Seems like it’s time to praise crowdsourcing…

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

Hi, I worked for the Phladelphia Inquirer. I left and am soooooo happy in my new non-newspaper career!!! I worked through five buyouts, two sales of the paper, two layoffs – please the stress was horrible!!!!
The best thing I ever did was leave, re-train and start a new career.
For 30 years I LOVED my newspaper reporting job – but ther last four years at the paper were sheer torture – bad , mean spirited, rotten managament, fear every day of layoffs, sale of the paper, losing benefits in every new contract – that is STRESS!!!
Please – everyone working that way – GET OUT NOW!!! Don’t be the last one out – leave now with dignity and the time to re-build your work life.
You can hang on – but you will be hanging on like anyone still employed as a pay phone installer!!! There is NO future for newspapers!!! Find a new job you will love as much – I did and you can!!! Don’t hold onto the past – leave and be happy!!!
God bless all!!!

Posted by Marie | Report as abusive