May 23, 2004

Bottom-Line Pressures Now Hurting Coverage, Say Journalists

Commentary: A Crisis of Confidence

By Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell

While their worries are changing, the problems that journalists see with their profession in many ways seem more intractable than they did a few years ago.

News people feel better about some elements of their work. But they fear more than ever that the economic behavior of their companies is eroding the quality of journalism.

In particular, they think business pressures are making the news they produce thinner and shallower. And they report more cases of advertisers and owners breaching the independence of the newsroom.

These worries, in turn, seem to have widened the divide between the people who cover the news and the business executives they work for.

The changes in attitude have come after a period in which news companies, faced with declining audiences and pressure on revenues, have in many cases made further cuts in newsgathering resources.

There are also alarming signs that the news industry is continuing the short-term mentality that some critics contend has undermined journalism in the past. Online news is one of the few areas seeing general audience growth today, yet online journalists more often than any others report their newsrooms have suffered staff cuts.

Only five years earlier, news people were much more likely to see failures of their own making as more of an issue. Since then, they have come to feel more in touch with audiences, less cynical and more embracing of new technology. In other words, journalists feel they have made progress on the areas that they can control in the newsroom.

While feeling closer to audiences, however, news people also have less confidence in the American public to make wise electoral decisions, a finding that raises questions about the kind of journalism they may produce in the future.

There are also signs that the people who staff newsrooms, at least at the national level, tend to describe themselves as more liberal than in the past.

These findings, which build on work by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Committee of Concerned Journalists five years ago, mark the beginning of an annual collaboration between the Pew Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism to monitor the feelings of journalists.

In addition to assessing the change from 1999, this survey puts down some new baselines for further study–matters such as whether the press is too timid, the impact of cable, the Internet and political ideology.

What Journalists Are Worried About

News people are not confident about the future of journalism. Overall, they appear split over whether journalism is headed in the right or wrong direction. At the national level a slim majority are pessimistic. At the local level a slim majority are optimistic. Broadcasters are more pessimistic. Print people are more optimistic. Internet journalists are the most optimistic of all.

Yet eliminate certain job descriptions and things look bleaker. Nationally, remove business executives and a majority of journalists think things are moving in the wrong direction. At the local level, it is only senior news managers who are confident. Business executives are split.

More important, the source of their concern is different than five years ago. Increasingly, journalists worry that the economics of journalism are eroding quality.

Sizable majorities of journalists (66% nationally and 57% locally) think “increased bottom line pressure is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage.” That is a dramatic increase from five years ago, when fewer than half in the news business felt this way.

And their concerns may be justified. The State of the News Media 2004 report produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in March found that most sectors of the news media have seen clear cutbacks in newsgathering resources. The number of newspaper newsroom staffers shrunk by 2,000 between 2000 and 2004, a drop of 4% overall. Some major online news sites saw much deeper cuts, such as MSNBC, which cut around a quarter of its staff between 2001 and 2003. Radio newsroom staffing declined by 57% from 1994 to 2001. After an uptick in 1999, network staffing began to drop again in 2000. Since 1985 the number of network news correspondents has declined by 35 percent while the number of stories per reporter increased by 30 percent.

Nationally, quality is still the problem news people worry about most but they are worried about it less than five years ago. Locally, as many journalists now cite economic pressure as journalism’s biggest problem as point to a lack of quality.

And those who have felt the economic pressure more acutely are the most worried of all. Among those who reported staff cuts in the last three years, three-quarters feel increased bottom line pressure is “seriously hurting” news quality. They also were more likely than average to name economic and business pressures as journalism’s biggest problem.

There are also signs that the economic influences on the news business have become more pernicious. Five years ago we found that financial pressure in the newsroom was “not a matter of executives or advertisers pressuring journalists about what to write or broadcast.” It was more subtle than that.

Unfortunately, that is less true today. Now a third of local journalists say they have felt such pressure, most notably from either advertisers or from corporate owners. In other words, one of the most dearly held principles of journalism–the independence of the newsroom about editorial decision-making–increasingly is being breached.

There is also alarming news here for the Internet. Advertiser and corporate interference with the news content are similarly high among those who work in online news, where the line between independently produced content and advertising may be harder to detect.

These numbers bear watching–closely.

A Newsroom-Executive Divide

All of this may be at the root of another problem that has intensified over the last five years. There is a manifest and widening gulf between journalists and the people they work for.

The survey broke news people down into three separate groups. Executives were those who have chief financial responsibility for the news company–publishers, CEOs, chief financial officers. Senior news executives included editors-in-chief, executive editors, managing editors and executive producers, down to assistant managing editors. Newsroom staff included everyone from bureau chiefs down to cub reporters.

In general, journalists have less confidence in their bosses than they did a few years ago.

Less than a third of national journalists rate their leadership as “excellent,” down six points from five years ago. Less than a quarter of local journalists feel that way, also down slightly from five years ago.

It may be no surprise that the level of confidence in the bosses declines as you move down the ranks. Yet now even senior news managers are not confident in the people above them.

It is here, at the level of senior news executives, where the rating of the leadership has dropped most precipitously. Five years ago, 42% of senior news executives nationally had high confidence in their bosses. Today, just 30% do. Locally, the number is 18%.

What is behind the widening morale problem in newsrooms?

The survey results offer two possible explanations. One is that executives and journalists cannot even agree on the basic situation in their newsrooms. Nationally, journalists are twice as likely to report that their staffs have decreased as are business executives who run news companies.

A second divide between executives and newsroom staffers is over the question of the impact of economics. Nationally, journalists are more than twice as likely as executives to say bottom line pressure is eroding journalistic quality. The divide exists at the local level as well but not as drastically.

Whatever the reasons for this, unless staffers and bosses can agree on first describing what is going on in the company and then agree on its impact, it seems doubtful they could agree on how to deal with it.

Specific Areas of Concern

Beyond cutbacks and pressure to help advertisers or corporate siblings, journalists have other worries as well. Five years ago, people in the news business shared two overriding concerns. As we said back then, “They believe that the news media have blurred the lines between news and entertainment and that the culture of argument is overwhelming the culture of reportingConcerns about punditry overwhelming reporting, for instance, have swelled dramatically in only four years.”

Today, the concerns are more varied and less easy to categorize. The worries about punditry are still there but they have diminished both nationally and especially locally.

A bigger issue now is a sense of shallowness. Roughly eight-in-ten in the news business feel the news media pay “too little attention to complex issues,” up from five years ago to levels seen in the mid-1990s, at the peak of the fascination with tabloid crime stories like O.J. and JonBenet Ramsey.

On the issue of accuracy, journalists seem divided. Nationally, the number of journalists who feel that news reports are increasingly sloppy and inaccurate is rising. Locally, it is dropping.

And about some matters people in the news business–across all levels–are clearly less worried than they were five years ago.

Fewer journalists today see the press as too cynical. And, compared with five years ago, fewer also see journalists as out of touch with their audiences.

Both of these are areas that reform movements such as public journalism–which was concerned with trying to reconnect journalists and the public–focused on.

The Internet as a Place of Confidence and Cuts

In such a landscape, the Internet should be a glimmer of hope, and in many ways it is. The State of the News Media 2004 report found that the Internet was one of the few places where news audiences were growing. Just as importantly, young people sought out news online in the same percentages as older people. Privately, some of the country’s top newspaper executives report that they now have more readers on the web than they do in print. Financially the picture is also promising, if embryonic. Revenues from the Internet, according to the State of the News Media report, are growing exponentially, though for now they remain small.

Generally, the Internet journalists surveyed, most of whom work for websites of major news organizations, reflect that booming sense of the future. They rate their product highly: fully 85% give the websites of national news organizations a grade of A or B.

Journalists also seem less fearful of technology. While majorities feel the Internet has too much unvetted and unfiltered material, most news people also now see the 24-hour news cycle as not harming journalism. More journalists than five years ago think the Internet is making journalism better.

Yet the survey points to something troubling here that online journalists are privately frustrated by. The Internet is the most likely place in journalism to be suffering staff cuts (62%).

Given the growth in Internet news audiences and the growing confidence of journalists about the content, one might have expected that companies planning on the future would be moving resources into this growth area.

The fact that this is not happening has two possible implications. First, it suggests that the news industry is managing for the short-term to such a degree that it is leaving malnourished the one area that could grow the business out of its current dilemma of declining audience. To maintain profits, it is penny wise and pound foolish. If this is the case, it would be an old story–and a familiar mistake–repeated again.

The other possibility is that the news business has lost confidence in the basic economic principle that had fueled its development for much of the last 200 years:

Namely, that if you can aggregate a large-enough audience in one place, the revenue stream will work itself out eventually.

Yet the companies who produce online news apparently do not have confidence that will happen here. If they are not willing to invest in the newsroom now, when audience and revenues look promising, what will ever convince them to?

Confidence in the Public

Ultimately journalism is predicated on faith in the public. Here, journalists’ views have become dramatically more pessimistic.

The percentage of national journalists who have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the American public to make good decisions has declined by more than 20 points since 1999. Confidence among local journalists has fallen as well.

What is going on? Does this suggest that as news people get closer to their audiences they conclude people are less wise than they once believed? Is it possible that market research data is persuading journalists today that they understand their audiences better and also that those audiences are dumber than they thought?

Or, is the loss of confidence in the public more tied to journalists’ views about the content of news? They see news doing a poorer job of covering complex issues and conclude that this will leave Americans unprepared for making good decisions.

It is also possible that journalists are leaping to another conclusion: They see the content of the news becoming shallower and conclude that this must be what the public wants or why else would their organizations be providing it?

There is also a fourth possibility: liberal journalists unhappy with President George W. Bush’s policies could be dismayed that the public chose Bush in 2000 and until recently have largely approved of his performance.

In the end, whatever the cause of declining faith in the public, the implications are troubling. Even if the economics of journalism work themselves out, how can journalists work on behalf of a public they are coming to see as less wise and less able? A cynical view of the public becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads journalists to produce a shallower product because they think the public cannot handle anything else.

Politics and Ideology

The findings on politics also point to trends worth watching. Journalists tend to be split over whether the press has become too timid and also too easy on Bush–and the split is between national journalists and local. The national journalists tend to feel the press has been insufficiently critical of Bush. National journalists also are the more likely to describe themselves as personally liberal.

But this does not mean that journalists want to abandon the model of the independent press. Across the board, news people disapprove of news organizations having a decidedly ideologically point of view. Even among Internet journalists, often thought of as writing with more edge, three-quarters do not favor moving toward
this more ideological, more European model of journalism.

The fact that journalists are more likely to see a conservative tilt in the news than a liberal one invites various explanations. It could be a sign of liberal bias. It also could be a natural response by journalists tired of people producing partisan journalism on the right positioning themselves as the counterbalance to a mainstream press they characterize as left wing. There will be no settling of that.

On the other hand, the fact that the New York Times is the organization most often cited as liberal may embarrass the Times. The fact that large majorities of journalists cite Fox as conservative may not embarrass that cable network.

Journalists’ own politics are also harder to analyze than people might think. The fact that journalists–especially national journalists–are more likely than in the past to describe themselves as liberal reinforces the findings of the major academic study on this question, namely that of David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, in their series of books “The American Journalist.”

But what does liberal mean to journalists? We would be reluctant to infer too much here. The survey includes just four questions probing journalists’ political attitudes, yet the answers to these questions suggest journalists have in mind something other than a classic big government liberalism and something more along the lines of libertarianism. More journalists said they think it is more important for people to be free to pursue their goals without government interference than it is for government to ensure that no one is in need.

This libertarian strain is particularly strong among local journalists, who are also more likely to describe themselves as moderate.

More research here is probably useful. The debate over press ideology is fraught with difficulty. Some of the research done in the past has been, frankly, poor, and on the other side, some journalists would rather not face the question at all. Neither of these approaches is satisfactory.

But there is something here for journalists to be concerned about.

Crossing from Concern to Frustration

Five years ago we found a profession that had become more concerned about its performance and more willing to adapt. The findings back then, we said, paint “a picture of an industry aware it is at a cross roads. Journalists have come to agree with their critics and are embarking on self examination that is a likely first step to change.”

Today, some of that change has happened, but what remains are problems that seem more structural and protracted.

While journalists feel they have gotten closer to their audiences and more willing to innovate, they also are more pessimistic about the public. It is possible that journalists feel they have done much of what they can do themselves to address journalism’s problems. What they are left with are issues they cannot contend with alone. And they believe the companies they work for in the last five years have moved in ways that have only made things worse.

On top of that, there are signs that the growth areas in journalism are not seeing the kind of investment of resources to build for the future.

If five years ago we saw the seeds of change, today we see a trend toward fragmentation among all players involved ­ journalists, executives and the public.

Not only do they disagree on solutions, they seem further apart on identifying the problems.

Bill Kovach is chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Tom Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Amy Mitchell is associate director.