The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
“Bulletins from the Future,” The Economist
It’s not all bad news in the business of journalism.
It’s not all good, either — and hardly as promising as the prospects for the computer programming industry, to which the news media is increasingly beholden, as Rosenstiel and Mitchell point out in the overview of PEW’s annual report on American journalism.
But “after two dreadful years,” the report opens, “most sectors of the industry saw revenue begin to recover.” While newspapers continue to struggle and the three cable news channels saw their first audience decline in years, PEW reports that signs of traction are beginning to show in development of new journalistic business models. Patterns that indicate future growth are also emerging in the way that people access — and may be willing to pay for — “news and information” online and through mobile devices.
Still, there are challenges. The State of the News Media report evokes Robert Picard’s assessment of the “de-skilling” of the profession due to “lower pay, more demands for speed, less training, and more volunteer work” among journalists. It’s a trend that is certainly exacerbated by the morphing of audiences into not only consumers but also contributors and distributors of news, which Tom Standage points out audiences have become in “Bulletins from the Future.”
An attitudinal opposition among the public toward paying for online news and information is another persistent challenge in the new media landscape. Again, it’s not all bad. PEW tells us, “While currently 5% of adults report paying for local news content online, nearly a quarter (23%) say that they would be willing to pay at least a small amount…” Nonetheless, that leaves roughly 3 out of 4 people currently unwilling to do so.
And why would they pay for it? Most people, according to PEW, say that losing their local papers would matter not much (nearly 30%) or not at all (39%). Only 28% of respondents felt the loss would have a major impact on their ability to stay informed about their communities.
I am left wondering about the difference between perception and reality in the latter set of data. My experience with the sole local daily newspaper (which also posts all its articles online — recently behind a paywall) in my hometown of Portsmouth, New Hamsphire, is that it’s a favorite target of criticism among many people across most socio-economic boundaries. And with good reason. The paper blatantly panders editorial decisions to favor and even lure business advertisers, and too many front-page, top-of-the-fold headlines are about puppies or lost rings for it to be taken all that seriously. And this is from the 13th largest city in the state, not an isolated hamlet in the boondocks.
Nonetheless, the news about city government and state-level affairs that the paper also publishes makes it the only source of substantive local reporting. While criticisms of the Portsmouth Herald are well-deserved, I believe it’s also undervalued as a whole. Yet this conundrum is partly of its own making, and I can’t imagine that it’s unique to Portsmouth. If local papers like the Herald did more to earn the respect of their readers, would more people be willing to pay for them?
Another PEW data set that makes me wonder is that more than a third of “mobile local information consumers say they and others like them can have a big impact on their community.” This sounds promising for the ideal of journalism fostering a healthy democracy, but I am curious how accurate their feelings are. I also wonder how many of the people who feel so empowered actually act on their perceived potential.
The PEW study finds that news savvy is claimed less according to traditional fault lines of race and more along contemporary class divisions according to education and income. At the same time, many trends of mobile device usage do — for the time being — correlate to race, as well as age. Learning such demographic information about audiences will certainly help media catering to their demands and interests. And this, no doubt, feeds the growing plurality of news sources in America.
In some respects, as Standage points out, this plurality is a return to the past, before mass media became the dominant paradigm for the industry. But rather than assume that repetition makes this current trend benign, we would do well to study that era — in particular how it defined a national dialogue across the fault lines of income, race, education and age. Given the current tensions between classes and ideologies in our country, I believe we should attempt to learn from that history, rather than simply repeat it.