A sunnier outlook

Press Releases
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 3, 2014

The Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project released its annual State of the News Media report last week, and its outlook on the journalism landscape is decidedly less bleak than the one published a year ago.

“Even as challenges of the past several years continue and new ones emerge, the activities this year have created a new sense of optimism — or perhaps hope — for the future of American journalism,” the 2014 report reads. “[T]he level of new activity this past year is creating a perception that something important, perhaps even game-changing, is going on.”

Contrast that to this passage, from the 2013 study, which described the news industry as: “undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.”

This year’s report (the 11th of its kind) highlights the expansion of “digital native sites” that are infusing new money, energy, and tech-savviness into the business of news-gathering. While print newsrooms continue to slash jobs (a depressing 16,200 newspaper positions were lost between 2003-2012), more than 5,000 journalists now hold full-time editorial jobs at almost 500 digital news outlets, the report says, pointing to sites like BuzzFeed (which has a news staff of 170), ProPublica, Mashable, and Vox Media.  One notable area of digital-only investment is in international reportage, which “comes amid pullbacks in global coverage from mainstream media.” Vice Media has 35 overseas bureaus, for example.

Online news video is another area experiencing growth, though it’s unclear how this trend will develop over time. Of the 63 percent of Americans who watch videos online, 36 percent watch online news videos, many of them young people. Vice, NBC, and the Huffington Post all invested in digital news video production in 2013.

“But a closer look suggests that digital news video does not necessarily have a clear or simple  path to becoming a major form of news in the future,” the report’s authors add, citing the high cost of producing good-quality video (not to mention streaming it) as a major challenge. 

Many Americans still get their news from local television, a sector that saw its audiences increase in 2013 for the first time in five years, with viewership increasing in every key time slot. That’s cool, but the picture isn’t entirely rosy.

“Almost 300 full-power local TV stations changed hands in 2013, at a cost [of] more than $8 billion,” the report says, putting more stations in the hands of a few large owners. This happened locally last October when the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Maryland-headquartered company that owns the largest number of local television stations in the country, acquired the assets of WPFO-Portland (a/k/a MyFox23) for $13.6 million.

“One measurable impact” of the trend “has been fewer stations originating local news content;” another is the increasingly common practice of sharing news content among stations as well as with other media such as radio or newspapers. While some say these types of content-sharing arrangements give outlets more resources to produce better quality news, others worry that viewers are losing access to independent sources.

The report also contained (kind of) good news for my particular sector: Circulation for the top 20 alternative weekly newspapers (a list that does not include the Portland Phoenix) declined again in 2013, but at a slower pace (6 percent) than in 2012 (8 percent) or 2011 (14 percent). 

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