Winter 2004

Symptoms of Underlying Stress in Journalism

By John McManus
Punditry and attitude are more symptoms than causes of changes in American journalism. Think of them as signs of stress, foreshocks, as more powerful forces interact under the surface due to transformations in the technology of news distribution and, with this, the economics of journalism.

Technological innovations that began 150 years ago are what shaped today’s relatively impartial mainstream journalism. The steam-powered press and the telegraph ended the era of the partisan political press—a period when news was largely punditry, enabling a truly mass media by lowering production costs. From the mid-1800’s until the 1980’s, technology and economics combined to apply a centripetal force on news to create a more uniform product designed to appeal to mass tastes.

But as business—with the capital to purchase and operate the press—became the primary producer of news, its purpose changed from political persuasion to selling. Partisanship fell from favor because it limited the customer base. The telegraph also fostered neutral “bare facts” reporting. Many newspapers could use the same wire story if it were written from no obvious point of view. In the 20th century, mass advertising enforced an editorial environment that offended no potential customers. Once newspapers discovered Wall Street in the 1960’s, chain ownership spread like a sniffle in a daycare center. The product of one MBA-managed newsroom became hard to distinguish from another.

Now cable and satellite television transmission and the Internet are shifting the ground again and fracturing the mass audience into interest groups. As bloggers demonstrate, one can reach a million households today without working for a media corporation. Now technology and economics are beginning to exert a centrifugal force on news, this time pulling it apart into niche markets.

As a result, the best days of the leading news providers of the centripetal era—metro newspapers and televised news—are probably either passing or past. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the best journalism is behind us, only that we are entering a bumpy transition period.

Network newscasts have lost almost two-thirds of the audience share they drew 30 years ago. Newspaper penetration continues to fall. Their most profitable pages, the classified ads, are moving to the Web. Big-box retailers like Costco don’t advertise like traditional department stores. At the same time the Faustian bargain news corporations made with Wall Street is coming due. To stoke their stock prices, many news firms are hollowing out newsrooms. The most recent survey of American journalists finds a majority for the first time complaining that profit demands are hurting news quality.

Punditry and attitude flourish as resources for reporting grow scarcer and news providers aim at niche audiences. Without enough reporters to consistently turn up interesting stories, push the columnists out front. Writing colorfully or with edge adds entertainment value. Today Fox draws a larger audience by abandoning impartiality to pander to conservative tastes than it would by upholding the norms of mainstream journalism and competing for the shrinking middle with other networks.

Ethnic and alternative media are the expanding areas of journalism. Both cater to niche audiences and are understaffed relative to mainstream newsrooms. Least staffed and, not surprisingly, most extreme in attitude is the burgeoning blogosphere. Most bloggers can’t afford reporting. Commentary is cheap—and the more pungent, the more likely to attract a following.

There are advantages to greater diversity of news and views. But right now disadvantages seem greater. Opinion can’t substitute for the information that solid reporting turns up. And the more extreme the ’tude, the less likely it is to be consumed by—much less inform or persuade—anyone who doesn’t already hold the author’s worldview.

In our economically interdependent world, reliable news ought to be more valued than ever, since the consequences of being uninformed are more grave. So the market for such information should remain strong, even as it continues to fractionate. And how we receive it will continue to migrate from paper and scheduled newscasts to increasingly mobile laptops and cell phones. Some system of micro-payments for information, now provided for free, will have to arise as a younger generation gives up the paper on the stoop for the report on the Web.

The “bundling” strategy of the newspaper, with its smorgasbord of news, might be going the way of the general practitioner in medicine. Journalism is finally entering the age of specialists. Using Web search tools already available, consumers can scan the Internet for news from specialists they choose. The most successful Web sites are likely to be those that establish trust, but to do this will require a lot more than attitude and punditry.

John McManus, author of “Market-Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware?,” directs the Grade the News project at Stanford University.

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