Inside the Media
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Below are excerpts from the News Media Trends chapter of
Winning with the News Media
2005 Edition (8th)
Copyright © 2005, 2001, 1999, 1996
By Clarence Jones
News Media Trends
Traditional Outlets Decline,
The audience and the economic model for traditional news media are going through a period of violent change. Americans' appetite for news seems to be drifting away from newspapers and network TV.
Advertising, which has always been the financial backbone of American media, is also shifting dramatically. The media are experimenting with new formats.
A New Epoch
The Pew Research Center for People and the Press has traditionally measured news trends in America every two years. In 2004, Pew decided to do its study every year. The 2004 report calls current trends "an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television."
While there are many more traditional media outlets, they are catering to a shrinking audience. U.S. Supreme Court decisions for generations have upheld the idea that a large number of outlets is desirable, to give citizens a variety of perspectives that will help them reach the truth.
But what if the increasing number of diverse outlets is owned by just a handful of companies?
The immediacy of the Internet and cable TV have conditioned the audience to expect instant news, delivered live or within moments after the event occurs. The result is the deadline-pressured delivery of raw, incomplete data, rather than information that is well-organized and includes interpretation, a variety of sources, and cross-referencing.
The history of American journalism has been localized ownership, close to the audience. Its most prized goals were accuracy; fairness; unbiased decisions about the information it chose to deliver, and an ethic that ranked public service above financial profit.
The Rise of Mega-Media Corporations
But in the 1990s huge corporations spotted media outlets as cash cows, and began to buy them in great numbers. The corporate decision-makers for most outlets are now a thousand miles away. They measure success by profit and the company's stock price.
To make that happen, they use the same techniques used by corporations that produce cars or appliances. Decrease the number of employees. Demand more production from those who remain. Give them less time to do their work. Make them aware that their jobs depend on higher profits and stock prices.
This has resulted in a "thinning of the product," the Pew 2004 report says. Media corporations are "eating their seed corn."
As media companies decrease the quality and quantity of their news (while advertising rates increase), the Pew report says the audience is shrinking, and predicts the same thing will inevitably happen to profits.
What They Want, or What They Need?
One of the core debates in newsrooms has always been: Shall we give the audience what they want, or what (we think) they need?
A circular conflict has evolved. Circulation and ratings figures indicate the public wants news to be more entertaining, more sensational, more stylish and personalized. So the large media companies have delivered what the audience seems to want.
The result, according to current surveys, is public distrust of news operations as shallow, unethical, greedy. The news audience is angry at the media for giving them what they asked for.
As the audience lost its faith in the media, they began to drift away. From network nightly news to cable TV. To the Internet.
The number of people who get news from the Internet is sharply increasing. The Internet as an answer to the question was included for the first time in 1996 by the Pew Research Center. Only two per cent mentioned the worldwide web.
By 2004, 29 percent of those surveyed listed the Internet.
Where Do You Get Your News?
In 2004, 38 per cent of those surveyed said they get their news from cable TV. The nightly news was listed as a news source by 34 per cent. The combined television response (72%) was higher than the 60 per cent who listed network nightly news in 1994.
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The rise in dependence on cable television channels versus network nightly news broadcasts was most striking. In effect, the cable channels leapfrogged over the nightly network shows in just four years. The biggest losers were nightly network news shows, 10 points lower; and daily newspapers, nine points lower.
Those surveyed in 2004 who were between the ages of 18 and 29 said they got almost as much news about politics from TV comedy shows like Saturday Night Live (21 per cent) and The Daily Show (23 per cent) as they did from newspapers.
The Age Factor
Interest in news is proportional to age. Those over 65 years old said they spend 81 minutes per day — those under 25, only 31 minutes. And 37 per cent of those under 25 said they get no news at all.
It's easy to guess the makeup of a newscast audience. Track the commercials during a show. Because the evening news demographic skews older, most of the program commercials advertise products that treat high blood pressure, arthritis, incontinence, heartburn, sleeplessness and various other aches and pains of the elderly.
Advertisers track very carefully the audience demographics, no matter what the medium. They want to make sure they're targeting the people most likely to buy the products and services they're selling.
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News From a Variety of Sources
The basic philosophical goal behind government regulation of broadcasting has always been to ensure a wide variety of competing points of view. Deregulation is changing that concept.
The "press" is the only for-profit business granted Constitutional protection. Is that protection valid under the new ownership conditions?
There is now a major effort to remove all barriers that prevent the same company from owning newspapers, TV and radio stations in the same community. And to abolish limits on the audience one company can reach with its television properties.
This raises major concerns about competition, bias, balance and accuracy in the information these companies provide. How can viewers know whether the movie being touted on a TV show was produced by a network subsidiary? Is the review simply a cross-plug arranged by the mother company to boost ticket sales?
For financial reasons, many medical decisions are now made by the insurance company rather than your doctor. The question is often being asked now, how much is the choice of news stories influenced by corporate accountants rather than local editors? Hard to tell.
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