Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Writing on the Wall

The Pew Research Center released its State of the News Media 2013 report yesterday.

For someone like me, who worked for newspapers and a trade magazine for many years — in fact, I earned my master's degree while working full time for a newspaper — and now teaches journalism in the Dallas community college system, there is much to read and absorb.

And, since we are on spring break this week, I may spend a lot of my time doing precisely that.

But I've been doing some reading already, and there are a few initial conclusions I can reach.

On the one hand, I am heartened — somewhat — by Pew's conclusion that "[f]or the first time since the deep recession that began in 2007, newspaper organizations have grounds for a modicum of optimism."

I have to say "somewhat" because, more than five years later, newspapers are not healthy, and Pew is clear on that point. Each encouraging development in the newspaper business that Pew observes is "mostly promise rather than performance. The most basic indicators have not turned around. The industry is little more than half the size it once was. Considerable dangers persist."

Good — if not long overdue — adjustments are being made in the newspaper business, and I deeply hope they will herald a revival. But so far the promise still far exceeds the performance.

I am cautiously optimistic that will change even though Pew pulls no punches when it comes to the challenges still facing the print news industry.

Advertising continues to be a major problem. For six straight years now, print advertising revenue have dropped, and digital advertising seems to be leveling off, which, as Pew notes, "suggest[s] that corporations are shifting their advertising dollars to other platforms."

That is important, given the business' "historic over–dependence on advertising." To be sure, there are many more options for advertisers than there were when I graduated from college, and it makes sense that newspapers would lose a portion of that advertising revenue on which they have depended for so long.

It also makes sense that, in order to survive, newspapers would look for new ways to compensate for that loss. Unfortunately, many have resorted to the same old strategy, providing fresh examples of the truth of the old Einstein adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As is typical when times are hard, many newspapers have tried to make up for that lost revenue by trimming their payrolls — "Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000," Pew writes in its overview of the industry, "and below 40,000 full–time professional employees for the first time since 1978."

In most instances, journalists have been no different than anyone else who was affected by the recession. Their careers were interrupted through no fault of their own, and I am hopeful that, ultimately, print journalism will survive — albeit in a different form.

Their absence has been noticed. In Pew's words, "Nearly a third of U.S. adults, 31%, have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were accustomed to getting."

The product will have to improve, but it can only do so when newspapers have an adequate number of people on their payrolls to get the job done. I am cautiously optimistic that this can be achieved.

On the other hand, I am dismayed (but not really surprised) by Pew's confirmation of the many problems I see within broadcasting. Since many Americans simply do not read anymore, broadcasting is where most get their news, and that places a special burden on broadcasters.

Unfortunately, they are not meeting it. Instead, they pander to the lowest common denominator.

"In local TV," Pew writes, "sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink."

Pew says it sees "a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands."

That contributes to a general impression of bias in the media, an accusation that most often seems to be aimed at Fox News.

I am not an admirer of bias of any kind in the media, and I am quick to criticize the bias I have seen coming from Fox News (the most frequent target of such criticism) — but Fox isn't the only culprit, and Pew does not spare the others. MSNBC was far more biased in its reporting than either Fox or CNN, Pew reported, but all three were guilty of bias.

Bias is never justified in news coverage. It is acceptable in opinion pieces but only marginally. The thing that I believe is important to remember is that journalists, whether they report the news or comment on it, are guaranteed the same First Amendment rights American journalists have always been guaranteed.

I tell my news writing students to be like flies on the wall when they report the news. The reader, I tell them, should not be aware of their presence. That cannot be done in opinion writing. Thus, it is important that newspapers clearly label opinion columns and editorials as such, but it is also important for writers to use language that is appropriate for the kind of articles they write.

In recent semesters, I have been adding a segment to my news writing course on opinion writing, but I emphasize to my students that there is a huge difference between reporting the news and commenting on it, and I encourage them to respect that difference.

That doesn't mean that readers always recognize that difference.

At the community college where I teach, one student recently wrote a column that was critical of the Obama administration. This set off a virtual tidal wave of responses on the faculty email system that demonstrated all too clearly that supposedly educated adults, not students, didn't understand the difference between news reporting and opinion writing ...

Even though the column was clearly labeled "OPINION."

One respondent, who wrote a letter to the editor (which was published), erroneously called the column an "editorial," which is an opinion piece, but the terms editorial and opinion column are not interchangeable.

Since there apparently are people out there who do not know (or will not acknowledge) the difference between them, here it is in a nutshell. An editorial is typically published without a byline and purportedly speaks for the entire staff (hence, the use of the editorial we) whereas an opinion column speaks only for the person whose byline runs with it.

Both opinion writers and editorial writers are entitled to the same First Amendment protection as reporters.

There is much work to be done to repair the damage the recession has done to journalism, but it must be done if freedom is to be preserved, and it will take the best efforts of those who have dedicated their lives to the profession to accomplish it.

If that does not happen, the writing truly will be on the wall.

No comments: