State Of The News Media: On Life Support

This month, the Pew Research Center released its annual State of the News Media Report. The results are grim. The report portrays an industry that is calcified, monolithic and unwilling to overcome the bias that, like an aggressive form of cancer, is causing its death from the inside out. The mainstream media complex is clearly on life support.

The opening of the report is devastating:

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report. Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.

The report goes on to detail how this massive downward spiral of news staff has led to less content, both in print and on the air. In an ever more desperate attempt to earn ratings with an ever shrinking reporting staff and on ever tighter budgets, news is being replaced with opinion at an alarming rate. And consumers are noticing:

This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. And findings from our new public opinion survey released in this report reveal that the public is taking notice. Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.

News outlets are scrambling to keep up and to try to salvage any vestige of power to retain their subscribers and viewers. In the age of democratized and digitalized information, this is an ever more difficult task. Have you noticed the size of your daily newspaper, if you’re still actually subscribed? My local paper is a shell of its former self. The Sunday paper is the size of what used to be the daily, and the daily is little more than reprints of national news outlets and press releases. Some days it’s smaller than my college newspaper in the early 90s. As the PEW study notes, outlets like MSNBC and CNN have replaced or augmented news content with opinion or discussion. News programs spend much more time on interviews than on preparing stories.

So, if you’re trying to get your news out to a wide audience, what are you to do in this new environment? PEW notes that more and more newsmakers are opting to do their own reporting:

…. newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media.  They are also seeing more success in getting their message into the traditional media narrative.  

So far, this trend has emerged most clearly in the political sphere, particularly with the biggest story of 2012—the presidential election. A Pew Research Center analysis revealed that campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans ….

….There are signs of this trend that carry beyond the political realm, as more and more entities seek, by various means, to fill the void left by overstretched editorial resources …. an analysis of Census Bureau data by Robert McChesney and John Nichols found the ratio of public relations workers to journalists grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2008—and the gap has likely only widened since.

In that supplemental report on coverage of the 2012 Presidentail race, PEW came to 5 clear conclusions:

1) In the 2012 race for the White House, journalists played a smaller role in shaping what voters heard about the presidential candidates. In the 2012 campaign, only about one quarter of the statements in the media about the character and records of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney came directly from journalists while about half came from political partisans. In 2000, half of the statements about the presidential candidates came from the media and only about one-third from the partisans.

2) The candidates and their allies used that leverage to push negative messages about their opponent through the media.  Almost three-quarter of the statements about each candidate’s character and record were negative compared with less than 30% positive. In 2008, most of those statements about Obama were positive while McCain’s was moderately more negative than positive.

3) Horserace coverage was down, but coverage of the issues didn’t fill that gap. In 2012, the amount of coverage devoted to tactics, strategy and polls declined to 38%, down from 53% in 2008. But that attention to policy issues—both foreign and domestic—barely budged, inching up from to 22% in 2012 compared with 20% four years earlier.

4) Obama made greater use of social media messaging than Romney, but the overall conversation in social media was negative toward both men. In the period studied by Pew Research, for example, the Obama team produced about 25 times more Twitter posts than the Romney campaign. But on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, users were consistently more negative than positive about both candidates—although Romney fared somewhat worse.

5) More spending on political ads did not translate into a bigger audience for media outlets. A record $2.9 billion was spent on political advertising on local television, but news audiences fell in the key local news timeslots. The overall audience for broadcast network news also declined and on the three major cable news channels, CNN, MSNC and Fox News, the overall audience barely inched up.

It’s not just PEW, either. Gallup released a poll in September 2012 showing that fully 60% of Americans do not trust the media:

The current gap between negative and positive views — 20 percentage points — is by far the highest Gallup has recorded since it began regularly asking the question in the 1990s. Trust in the media was much higher, and more positive than negative, in the years prior to 2004 — as high as 72% when Gallup asked this question three times in the 1970s.

It has long been my contention that distrust in the media is a direct result of liberal bias – both the spin on stories and the selection bias of liberal editors deciding what is and what is not news. Mike Flynn of has an interesting take on why distrust of the media is growing, and how it’s related to the liberal bias that is becoming ever more obvious:

The media has long had at least a slight liberal bias, but changes in technology and the market have pushed it much further left. In decades past, the media could act as a gatekeeper and decide what was and wasn’t news. They could push coverage favorable to liberals, but few people realized they were doing this. They were able to give an unnoticed and subtle nudge to politics.

They can’t do that anymore. They may ignore the news that the events in Libya were a terrorist attack rather than a riot, for example, but the information will still get out. They may try to ignore the economic slowdown, but people still feel the results. The media can no longer control information. As a result, rather than gatekeepers, they have become active participants in the political battles. Their liberal partisan bias is now obvious to everyone.

It would appear that viewership is in direct relation to the lack of bias exhibited by a news outlet. John Nolte notes at Breitbart:

In their never-ending crusade to dishonestly marginalize Fox News, members of the mainstream media love to casually compare Fox News to MSNBC. The idea is to falsely brand Fox News as MSNBC’s ideological cable news counterpart; as though both are equally partisan, extreme, and opinionated.

What Pew found is that the outlier is MSNBC: 85% opinion, 15% reporting. Fox News, however, is much closer to CNN. Whereas CNN spends 54% of the time reporting and 46% on commentary, Fox News spends 55% on commentary and 45% reporting.

I have often heard the point argued that newspapers are failing due to the cratering of ad revenues, because more and more folks are going online to shop instead of using classified ads. While this effect is undeniable, I think that only tells part of the story. After all, broadcast news ratings are way down as well, and more money than ever is being spent on TV ads. When you routinely disrespect half your customer base, is it any wonder that your sales go down?

But news directors and newspaper editors continue to push a liberal agenda at the expense of telling a fuller, richer story from both perspectives. Especially in the age of more choice, more cable channels, more blogs, more social media, more citizen journalists and more democratization of information, traditional media is going the way of the dinosaur. The bottom line is that we no longer need to find a way to get the gatekeeper to grant us access. We have all the tools we need to bypass them altogether.

The only thing that is surprising about this is that the gatekeepers are willfully choosing to aid in their own suicide.