IN a country where a free press is enshrined by constitutional amendment and newspapers measure success by Pulitzer prizes as well as profits, concern about failing titles is coupled with anxiety about what impact the industry’s financial troubles will have on journalism.
American journalism is “under enormous stress”, Arthur Sulzberger, chairman of The New York Times, recently told a university audience. Quality reporting, whether on local government or Iraq, was becoming harder to pay for and “the immediate future looks, at minimum, grim”.
The damage already done to newsroom resources is spelt out in a report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, released on Monday. By the end of 2009, US dailies will employ 20-25 per cent fewer journalists than in 2001; foreign staff have suffered even deeper cuts; and half of the states in the country no longer have a newspaper covering Congress.
While some online-only newsrooms offered “solid journalism in niche areas of interest”, these and the new voices of citizen journalists and bloggers are in aggregate “far from compensating for the losses in coverage in traditional newsrooms”. The limited resources of most online news organisations could be finished off by a single lawsuit.
Not everyone is alarmed by the changes. A separate Pew study last week found that only 43 per cent of Americans thought that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community a lot. A similar number – 42 per cent – said they would not miss their local paper at all if it were to disappear, even though newspapers remain the second largest source of local news after television, well ahead of radio and the internet.
The dilemma for proprietors is that cutting editorial costs, while often a necessary response to falling revenues, risks alienating more customers. “The core journalistic values have to be there for the product to perform,” cautions Anthea Stratigos, a publishing consultant. This can still be achieved, other analysts say, if news organisations focus their limited resources well.
Pew offers one piece of positive news for “legacy” news providers, whose online audiences grew far more last year than did those for new media. “The old norms of traditional journalism continue to have value,” it concludes.
But it has one further demoralising message: “Journalism, deluded by its profitability and fearful of technology, let others outside the industry steal chance after chance online,” it says. Journalists, in other words, do not even have the consolation of being able to blame others for their woes.