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A Primer on Media in the 21st Century

Although it says rumors of the death of traditional news media are exaggerated, the Project for Excellence in Journalism catalogs some methods for staving off the demise.
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This is the first of two articles examining the Project for Excellence in Journalism's latest annual examination of the news media in the United States.

Traditional news media — newspapers, magazines and television news organizations — are testing novel responses to stem the steady losses of their subscribers, viewers and advertisers.

Beyond cost-cutting measures like reducing staff, pulling back coverage and shrinking the size of their printed products, news organizations are sharing work with longtime rivals, using amateurs as volunteer reporters and moving heavily or totally online. They're also turning to new and untested methods for raising income.

The efforts are catalogued in the Project for Excellence in Journalism's sixth annual report on "The State of the News Media."

With the recession exacerbating downward trends at many news organizations, the media's state now is "the bleakest" since PEJ published its first report in 2004, the authors conclude. Not only has the well-chronicled decline of newspapers continued apace, but magazines and television also are in trouble.

One counterpoint: Cable news audiences and income soared because of interest in the stations' extensive 2008 campaign coverage. Ratings "plummeted" after the election, the report said, then picked up in early 2009, indicating that the cable channels "might retain some, but not most," of their 2008 viewership.

Most newspapers remain profitable, and the report's authors "do not subscribe to the theory that the death of the industry is imminent." But profit margins are declining, however, and if that is not reversed, more papers will go out of business, the report warns. Staff cuts create "significant erosion" of the comprehensive reporting newspapers do more than any other news medium. The authors worry that diminished content will cause further readership drops.

For magazines, "2008 may be seen as the year when the traditional mass audience model finally collapsed," the report says. U.S. News moved almost entirely on line, and Time and Newsweek aimed their reporting at smaller, elite audiences.

Local television revenues fell 7 percent, something unheard of in an election year when candidates spend heavily on advertising. Revenues fell even for network news programs whose ratings rose.

To cut costs and increase reporting resources, a growing number of newspapers are sharing their reporters' work. In Florida, for example, the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald have merged their state capital bureaus. The eight largest newspapers in Ohio share stories. Even the prestigious Washington Post has begun sharing some reporting with The Baltimore Sun.

"We expect the content-sharing movement to gain momentum quickly through 2009," the report's authors wrote. "Some edge of competition is being lost, but so is a lot of duplicated effort."

Some newspapers are turning to their readers for help in so-called "citizen-journalism" projects. The Oregonian in Portland enlisted citizen volunteers to help cover the state's 2008 presidential caucuses, for instance. The News-Press in Fort Meyers, Fla., recruited local experts in various fields to lend their knowledge to reporting projects.

Still, the report says, other attempts to employ volunteers have failed. A majority of editors interviewed for a survey last year gave a "cautious assessment" of the value of amateur reporting, the report reveals. The newspapers' professionals had to spend significant time working with the amateurs in order to obtain publishable stories, several editors said.

Some papers are outsourcing noneditorial functions, such as payroll operations and customer-service phone centers. Advertising production has been moved as far away as India. Dean Singleton, owner of the 54-paper MediaNews Group chain, has talked of shifting some editorial functions abroad.

Despite continuing circulation declines, newspaper readership may be growing because of visits to the papers' Internet sites. Unique visitors to the Web sites increased about 16 percent during 2008, outnumbering the papers' daily circulation. Web visitors add an average 8.4 percent to papers' print readership, the report said.

News organizations have not figured out how to make money online, however. Few news organizations charge for access to their Web sites. Newspapers generate just 10 percent of their revenues on the Internet.

That leaves the media looking for new income sources.

One proposal is to develop a system of micropayments that would allow Web sites to charge visitors a few cents for reading a story, listening to an audio file or viewing a video or photograph. The report's authors discount micropayments' potential, however.

Instead, they suggest exploring:

• Requiring Internet service providers to pay news organizations for content, just as cable systems pay television stations and cable channels.

• Demanding payment from aggregators, such as Google News, that provide public access to content produced by newsgathering organizations. The publisher of The Wall Street Journal, one of the few big papers seeing even anemic circulation gains, has called Google a "vampire ... sucking the blood" from newspapers.

• Enabling advertisers to sell their wares through news media Web sites.

• Expanding the number of niche Web sites that charge for access.

Most traditional media are continually expanding their Internet presence. They're also looking to push their content beyond computers to various portable devices.

Nearly 40 U.S. and foreign newspapers — From The New York Times and Las Vegas Review-Journal to The Times of London and Shanghai Daily — can be read on the Kindle wireless device for monthly subscription prices ranging from $6 to $15. Kindle screens — 6-inch or 9.7-inch — make for easier reading than cell phones.

Network and cable television programming can be viewed on some cell phones now. Using new mobile digital television (DTV) technology, local stations plan to start telecasting directly to phones and other portable devices this year. The broadcasts will be accessible on DTV-capable devices. Receiver chips to upgrade other devices could become available by the end of the year.

The chips will make broadcasts available on cell phones, laptop computers, personal digital assistants, portable media players, gaming devices, in-vehicle entertainment systems and global positioning system devices.

Television networks also are moving to increase the revenues they receive from local affiliates, the report says.

Traditionally, networks have paid affiliates to carry network programming. Ten years ago, Fox required affiliates to pay for the right to broadcast network programs. NBC did the same last year, although that won't take affect until most network-affiliate contracts expire in 2012 and 2013.

CBS is seeking a share of the income its affiliates receive from cable systems. It's also looking at supplying its programs directly to cable and satellite systems, bypassing affiliates completely.

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