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State of the News Media: “Limited Ambition”

Facing audience decline, growing public disapproval and shaky economic health, news organizations are narrowing—not broadening—their outlook.

That’s the sobering conclusion of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), which releases its annual State of the News Media report on March 12. (The executive summary is available at www.journalism.org/summary.pdf.)

“We sense the news business entering a new phase,” the report says, “a phase of more limited ambition,” in which news outlets “are becoming more niche players, basing their appeal less on how they cover the news and more on what they cover.”

PEJ, which has run its yearly media checkup since 1993, warns that this “narrowing of focus” is risky. “Concepts like hyper-localism,” it says, “can be marketing speak for simply doing less. Branding can also be a mask for bias.”

The report caps another year in which TV news has lost viewers across the board.

Broadcast-network news, which began 2006 with the promise of fresh faces and renewed interest, ended the year with a million fewer evening viewers—the same rate of decline it has sustained for the past 25 years. Morning audiences fell to 13.6 million year over year, the lowest point this decade. And PEJ found that network news departments have shrunk by 10% since 2002.

Cable news audiences dropped, too, led by the first viewer bleed-out at Fox News since it launched in 1996. Still, despite gains at CNN, its sister network Headline News and MSNBC, Fox News remains the clear leader and is projected to overtake CNN in profits, thanks to the bump in license fees it extracted from operators.

And though local news lost viewers in every time slot, PEJ finds the local news business to be healthy, with 2006 ad revenues—driven by political spending—showing a 10% increase.

According to a survey of news directors, staffing at local-TV newsrooms is at its second-highest level since 1993. And the station market has been its strongest in years, with more than 80 TV stations changing hands in the first half of 2006.

The press has been slow in reacting to the fact that it is “no longer gatekeeper of what the public knows,” the report says. But network news has begun to use the Web to its advantage, particularly CBS News, which has “one of the Web’s most diverse and robust news sites.”

THE END OF THE ARGUMENT

Among seven general trends the report identifies in 2007 is the decline of what it calls the “Argument Culture” in news—typified, in PEJ’s estimation, by CNN’s defunct shoutfest Crossfire. In its place is an ascendant “Answer Culture” led by news personalities and programming that purports to offer “solutions, crusades, certainty and the impression of putting all the blur of information in clear order for people.”

Although PEJ detects this trend in network news, with Dateline’s pursuit of child predators on NBC and even Good Morning America meteorologist Sam Champion’s plugs for “green consumerism,” cable news has embraced “answer” journalism most aggressively—perhaps, the report says, because it has ceded to the Web “what was once its main appeal: news on demand.”

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, whose O’Reilly Factor is still the most watched cable news show, long ago provided the model for the polarizing cable news personality. But MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Headline News’ Glenn Beck have led a shift to “even edgier opinion.”

CHARLIE BE “GOOD”

As for public attitudes toward the press, PEJ sees signs that the entertainment-fueled perception of journalists as “exploitative jackals” is fading. But public skepticism and perceptions of bias appear to be growing.

With the highest “believability” rating, 28%, CNN can still reasonably claim to be “the most trusted name in news.” But that’s a 24% drop since 2000, part of a general decline in believability.

And given ABC World News’ recent ratings surges, PEJ’s findings about attitudes toward the network anchors appear prescient.

Of the three anchors, CBS’ Katie Couric may have been the most recognizable to those surveyed in September 2006. But when asked to describe each anchor, more people (71%) used the word “good” to describe World News anchor Charles Gibson than they did for Couric (57%) or NBC’s Brian Williams (65%).

With John Eggerton

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