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As Consumers Jump Ship, News Outlets Shift Priorities


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tom Gjelten, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Today, we talk about the state of the news media. Last week, The Phoenix, Boston's long-running alternative weekly, published its last issue, one more example of the changing media environment. And it's not just local newspapers. Americans are abandoning their long-trusted news outlets in high numbers.

Close to a third say it's because their previously favored media no longer provide the news and information they'd been used to getting. That's according to a new report from the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism. We will talk to the principal author of the Pew report about those findings.

But first, how do you get your news, and how has that changed? Is the news as important to you as it used to be? Do you read, listen or watch as much as you did a year ago? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And, of course, you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, it's basketball time, March Madness. Or is it March Sadness? But first, Amy Mitchell joins us. She's the acting director for the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism. Their annual "State of the News Media" report was released today.

Amy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

AMY MITCHELL: Thank you. It's great to be here.

GJELTEN: Good. Amy, one of the striking findings in this report is the one that I just mentioned, that nearly a third of the people who are responding to your survey say they have turned away from their trusted news outlets. Explain that to us, please.

MITCHELL: Well, one of the things we wanted to explore in this report is how the various pieces of the pie are adding up. You know, what's the impact of the cutbacks that we've seen year after year after year across the industry of the financial structures in the media are facing? So we asked the public if they had abandoned or stopped going to a news outlet because it was no longer giving them what they were accustomed to getting from that news outlet. And, indeed, 31 percent said they had left an outlet for that reason.

GJELTEN: Now, what strikes me about that finding, Amy, is it suggests that maybe that those of us in the news business can't simply, you know, say that economic changes or this loss of advertising revenue is causing us trouble. Maybe we're just not providing the programming, the news that people are demanding.

MITCHELL: Well, and certainly, those two things are likely connected. You know, it's difficult to provide the same level of news with many fewer people than perhaps you had in the past, less ability to go out, less ability to stay on a story longer, to be following a story that's slow-moving, that's not one that's jumped out in the news.

So one of the questions is: How do you balance, as a news organization, the ability to work with fewer resources, to continue to look for the financial means to support your organization, while also delivering to your audiences, to your consumers the product that they're counting on you for?

GJELTEN: Who exactly is abandoning their news outlets? Did you find any differences, for example, on the basis of social class, income, education, et cetera?

MITCHELL: Well, indeed, we did. We see that those who are the most likely to have abandoned a news outlet are those that tend to be more highly educated, tend to have higher income levels in the house, more male than female. And many of these attributes are tied also to the kinds of consumers and Americans that we see as heavier news consumers overall. So, in likelihood, those that are the most engaged in the news product that they're turning to day in and day out.

GJELTEN: Have you found, Amy, that there might be some alternative way to finance the newsgathering that people clearly still want and still demand? You know, there's been talk recently about nonprofits getting involved in supporting, foundations getting involved in supporting newsgathering. Are there any sort of models out there or thinking about models that might sort of bring a revival of old-fashioned newsgathering?

MITCHELL: Well, one of the areas of activity, of strong activity over the last year, was exactly that, was trying - was many in the news industry, particularly the newspaper industry, in saying we've got to not just do little experiments here and there, but try some real innovation to find some new revenue streams that may not even be connected to our news product.

There are certain companies that are now serving as Web analytics, consultants for businesses in their local area to help, you know, advise them on how they build their websites, revamping entirely their ad sales departments, rethinking their print product. What is it that we want to have in our print product, and is that different from our digital product?

Another thing that newspapers are doing is beginning more and more to charge for their digital product, ask people to pay for the content that they're getting online, often in that metered kind of model that the New York Times began itself a couple of years ago. And they're starting to see some success from that.

GJELTEN: You know, it's interesting, Amy, it seems to me that this is a complex phenomenon, not a simple phenomenon, and I'm saying that as I look at Page B4 of the New York Times today. B4 is - they carry the story of your report coming out, says local TV news is following print's path. Study says channels cut back, despite the public's desire for news.

Now, just to the right of this story about your report, there's a story about HLN - I think that used to be Headline News, a CNN offshoot - saying that their coverage of a murder trial has bolstered ratings at that network. Apparently, they have found that their viewers really turn on to coverage of sensational trials, and now there is a new trial underway, and this is bringing a boost in ratings. Well, that doesn't sound like the kind of news coverage that people are demanding.

But on the other - at least the kind that you're talking about. But on the other side of this page, there's a story about the recent issue in Time magazine, a 36-page article about why medical bills are killing us, 25,000 words written by Steven Brill, and this article says that this issue of Time magazine is on course to become its bestselling cover in nearly two years.

So clearly, there is still - on the one hand there may be a market for TV coverage of sensational trials, but there is still a market for in-depth, investigative, hard-hitting coverage that really takes a long time and a lot of resources to produce.

MITCHELL: That is a fascinating juxtaposition there. And, indeed, it does seem that there are both. And one of the things we've seen with the development of the mobile market in particular is a moving back to long-form reading, sort of reinvigoration or re-interest in actually sitting down and reading something out of enjoyment, coming across articles that you weren't looking for and choosing to read those, reading two or three articles at a time, which is not at all the way that the desktop realm of the earlier digital era was working, where it was very much built around search and find and then run off to the next thing - so this re-acquaintance with long-form reading in a way that people are finding enjoyable and are now tying to personal interest.

GJELTEN: But the trick is to find a way to finance that kind of reporting.

MITCHELL: Absolutely. And there are more and more news organizations that are beginning - as I think you mentioned earlier - to partner with certain specialty news-producing organizations like the Kaiser Health News Service or Inside Science, where they're, in many cases, being written and reported by longtime journalists who are doing in-depth pieces that that news organization may not be able to do on their own anymore, and they're running them as bylined pieces with full attribution to that original source. So there are opportunities there.

GJELTEN: We have an email, Amy, from Jared(ph), who says something that you've already alluded to. He says, he writes us: I no longer use cable news channels for my news. I frequently use my smartphone to read news from various news outlets. OK, two questions, here: One, is this change in technology and the way people access their news? But when they read news on the smartphone, what outlets are they reading? What are the outlets, do you think, that Jared is talking about here?

MITCHELL: Well, when we ask people the outlets that they tend to go to most, you do end up with many of the big sort of nationally known names like CNN, New York Times and others, partly because when you're going to a local outlet, there aren't as many people across the country that go to that same local outlet. So it does tend to balance things in the direction of national outlets.

But people are going to a range of things on their smartphones. And one of the things that we saw - and this is particularly true among the younger generations - is that they're happy to read long-form on their phones, to watch a video on their phone. So the idea of this small screen isn't something that's inhibiting their ability to go deep with news.

GJELTEN: That's really amazing, isn't it? I mean, I certainly don't read - I don't have the patience to read long-form journalism on my smartphone, but evidently other people do. Amy Mitchell is the acting director of the Pew Research Project for Excellence in Journalism, and they have a new State of the Media news report out today.

Now, a somewhat more alarming trend that you have detected, Amy, is that as news organizations find they don't have the money to produce reports on their own, they are taking pre-produced reports or reports that are actually paid for by somebody else. Can you tell us about that trend?

MITCHELL: One of the things that's happening as technology is growing, and the ability to work in technology is crossing into all different kinds of sectors, is that there's more opportunity for newsmakers to reach Americans, to reach consumers directly in a way that really wasn't possible in the pre-digital era.

Newsmakers have always been working to try to get their messages in, and there's sort of been this, you know, this pull-and-tug with the news industry in terms of, you know, news industry needing people as sources, and the sources wanting it to be their message. But there's more and more ability on the part of the newsmakers - whether it's people in politics or government agencies or corporations - to either bypass the media altogether and go directly - we certainly saw that in the 2012 campaign, with all of the different social networking that the campaigns did - but also to be able to work to get their messages more directly into the media itself, because, in many cases, those reporters aren't able to stay on top of a story in the same way or to take one particular piece of information from a newsmaker and then use that to go do a fuller report, to go do deeper analysis and deeper reporting.

GJELTEN: And you say that there are actually some companies that are dedicated exclusively to this practice of producing content for news media. I want to ask you about that when we come back, because we are going to talk more with Amy Mitchell after a short break. In the meantime, we want to hear from you: How do you get your news, and how has that changed over the last year? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. We're talking about the state of the news media. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


GJELTEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tom Gjelten. Every year around this time, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism releases their State of the News Media Report. The 2013 edition is out today, and it contains some striking findings about how Americans get their news and whether Americans are really that interested in getting news at all.

That means, of course, we want to hear from you. How do you get your news, and has that changed in recent years? And what's your appetite for news these days? Do you consume it at the same rate you did a year ago? Tell us. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Amy Mitchell is our guest. She's the acting director for the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism, which released the State of the News Media report today. But before I go back to Amy, I want to go to A.J., who's on the line from Indianapolis, Indiana. Good afternoon, A.J. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.

A.J.: Hi. I just called to say that I've pretty much quit listening to our local news stations because so much of it focuses on their Facebook comments and things like that. I watch it for the weather reports, and that's pretty much it.

GJELTEN: And that - you'd like to watch it for more than just weather, I assume, A.J.

A.J.: I would like to see some depth in local news reporting. There's very few places that I can get it. Our local newspaper has shrunk to the size of a college notebook, and it's really frustrating. There's no place to get local news.

GJELTEN: Amy Mitchell, that's - I think that's ringing a bell with you, isn't it?

MITCHELL: Well, absolutely, according to the data that we gathered here. We looked at a mix of local stations and compared what we saw in 2012 to what we saw in 2005. And among these stations, 40 percent of the air time - that's not just stories, but of the air time, was devoted to weather, traffic and sports. That's a big increase compared with 2005, and one of the areas that increased the most was actually coverage of sports, where it looks in these stations like there's almost a third leg to what they're packaging as the primary areas of focus in these newscasts.

GJELTEN: Now, Amy, is sports cheaper to cover than news? I mean, local news shouldn't be all that much more expensive to cover than local sports, right?

MITCHELL: Well, and it's a question, too, of trying to appeal to figuring out what audience you're going to be able to grab. Government reporting, in contrast, was cut in half during this time period. And local sports at least is something that you can sort of segment into your newscast. So you know you're going to have X amount of time devoted to weather, X amount of time to traffic and X amount of time to sports, and you're going to turn it over to your sports guy or your sports woman.

And so it is something that can be programmed in a way that does make it less cumbersome in terms of trying to figure out, well, what's the story of the hour? What do we need to go send a reporter to investigate this week or this day?

GJELTEN: Let's go now to Tom, who's on the line from Syracuse, New York. Good afternoon, Tom. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.

TOM: Hi. I guess much like your last caller, the local news on TV - we used to have three stations, now two of them have the same news. Our newspaper recently went to just delivering four days - or three days a week. And the paper that's left, as your last caller said, is just this tiny, little thing. So I didn't want to pay a dollar for it. It seemed dumb to me.

But after a couple of weeks of not getting the paper on alternate days, I realized: Where else am I going to get the information about the school board, the city council, what's happening with - you know, we have a kind of slimy developer here in town. What's he doing? So I actually have gone back to getting the newspaper, even though it's about six pages long. But the content that they put out over the Internet seemed even skimpier than the newspaper.

GJELTEN: That's what I was about to ask you, if there maybe was - if you could get the news on a daily updated basis on the Internet.

TOM: And, of course, I'm embarrassed to admit this: I'm 50. I don't want to sit here and put my readers on and scroll through my phone. But when I have done that, it seems even skimpier than the paper they're still producing.

GJELTEN: Amy, do you have any guidance on that? Are news organizations, you know, as they sort of move away from print, from the print media, are news outlets sort of devoting more resources, perhaps to their online, their digital version?

MITCHELL: Well, it's sort of a yes and no question. When the transition to digital was really beginning to sort of move strongly three or four years ago, we heard again and again from news outlets, from newspaper organizations, that they had hit a point where the digital came first. So digital was not only first place of publication, but was the orientation around which stories were being written, stories were being reported. What was in their mind first was the digital version, and then the paper ended up sort of being the place of record, you know, what came out the next day.

Now, more and more, we are seeing newspapers and newspaper organizations going to three-day-a-week or four-day-a-week print publications and just being online in those other areas. And some of the early indicators of papers that have gone that route suggest there isn't a whole lot more in what they're producing on the Web, and that it may be more out of a cost efficiency, a cost savings, as opposed to a way to serve their customer better.

It's still very early in those days, and that is an area that we'll be doing further research into in the coming year.

GJELTEN: Let's shift a little bit to international news, the national and international news now, Amy. We mentioned briefly before how some interested parties are actually producing news content and giving it to stretch news organizations, which then run that content without always making clear who has paid for the reporting.

Tell us, for example, about the government of Malaysia and what they are doing within the American, the U.S. news media these days.

MITCHELL: Well, there was a report that came out earlier this year that revealed that the government of Malaysia had actually bankrolled propaganda that appeared in several major U.S. news outlets. These aren't - these are names - news outlets that are familiar to very many of your listeners here - and being able to actually produce news reports, put them in the hands of folks at these news organizations and get them in the pages of those products.

We're also seeing things like an organization called Contently, which connects thousands of journalists - many of them which have been print reporters - to commercial brands to help those brands produce their own content. One of the examples was Degree, which now actually has a magazine, a Degree magazine about outdoor life and living that sort of exemplifies the Degree person that would use that deodorant, and produces that purely as a brand product, but comes out to look like a magazine.

Fortune magazine took the step of launching a program that they call the Fortune TOC, which is trusted original content, where Fortune writers create original Fortune-branded editorial content for the marketers to then put on their websites. So really a mixing and a sort of back and forth, where it can be often difficult for the consumer to figure out which side of the line they're on.

GJELTEN: And Amy, I want to read now an email we just got from Peter in Boise, Idaho. He says he used to watch television news: My main interest was politics, but I would also learn about local news, interest pieces, et cetera. Lately, I have been on my smartphone or computer going to websites that focus entirely on politics. The political news is definitely better on these websites.

However, I wonder if I am pigeon-holing myself. Is the digital age of newsmaking making us less well-rounded? Of course, if you pick up a newspaper, you're going to see political news, but right next to it, you're going to see some other - another type of story. What about this, Amy? Do you think that readers are sort of narrowing their interests too much by looking for what interests them on the Web?

MITCHELL: It's a serious question to consider. And if news outlets aren't going to be covering the broad range, if you can't find the politics that you used to turn to your local outlet for, then you're naturally going to be searching for it and be drawn to something that's specifically devoted on that area of interest where you can find it digitally, which means you're not going to come across that other incidental news that might not be exactly up your stream, but you'd say, oh. You know, there's an interesting science piece here today that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise, and I'm going to take the time to read this.

So there is a real question of to what degree we are narrowing ourselves by the direction that the media - that the news industry is heading. And, you know, one of the things that we saw, we did a survey of local news and where people are going for local news. We asked them a range of different kinds of subject areas, from education to restaurants, to weather and traffic, to government.

And local TV was still first, but the primary place people were turning to it for, even a couple years back, was for weather and breaking news, to a certain degree, and traffic. And as we see that also increasing in what they're devoting their time to, those are things that, in many cases - whether it's a smartphone or a tablet or your desktop - are replaceable by any number of different on-demand outlets that may or may not actually be a news organization itself.

And so as news companies are thinking of what is it that we can offer that is unique and is valuable content that others can't produce, even within our - the resources that we have, news, weather, sports, traffic, breaking news are things that many of us are in the realm of.

GJELTEN: Let's go next to Rick who's on the line from Palo Alto, California. Rick, what are - what's your interest in news thee days?

RICK: Well, I find that I'm having to find my international news, more and more, true, basically, government subsidized news outlets. You know, BBC, you know, NPR, PBS have a little bit of government subsidy and really, this isn't a surprise, and I think that's the answer to what you guys are talking about with the market and the content. You know, if United States subsidized it's media to the extent that Great Britain does or event to the extent that they did when the nation was founded - because, by the way, there's a very long history of government subsidy of early newspapers for the Pony Express.

I was lucky enough to take a class from Mr. Robert McChesney, the media scholar in undergrad. And, you know, if we subsidized our media to the extent that basically, anyone else does, including ourselves in our past, I think these - a lot of these problems, you know - it's impossible to get international news. It's impossible to get local news from the U.S. media.

GJELTEN: Well, Rick, I'm sure that there are some listeners out there who would see potential problems with having the government subsidize news operations. I mean, those who value independence from the government might not welcome that development.

RICK: You'd think so? But you know, if you look back at the Iraq war, you know, 10th anniversary today, basically, the entirety of the independent U.S. media was completely bought into the closed case, by Colin Powell, the only dissenting voice was PBS and NPR. So it's counter-intuitive, but seems like in actuality, you know, the government subsidy - subsidized media does a pretty good job of watching the government.

GJELTEN: Well, that's very kind of you to say that about NPR. I think we were pretty much all in that boat together at the time. What about that, Amy? What do you - what patterns do you see as far as government support for journalism and what effect that could have?

MITCHELL: Well, you know, let alone listeners that might think that there was some - the crossing of the line that should not be occurring there. The journalists themselves have, for decades and decades, very much expressed little interest...


MITCHELL: ...in having a government subsidy for their news product. There is just a - almost a religious, sort of, divide here between the governments that, we as journalists, would say, we feel that we are doing the watchdog roll over and having them pay for the production of those - of the news. You know, that said, there are other people in organizations that are getting into funding certain aspects of news reporting and journalism, like foundations and through entropic groups, that, you know, several years back, journalists were also less comfortable with. And the question was, what we get to a place where there's a safety zone, where we know that they're not going to be having an influence on the content. It's a tricky landscape to move into.

GJELTEN: Indeed, it is. Amy Mitchell is the acting director for the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism. And we are talking, today, about the state of the news media. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Amy, we have a tweet here, an interesting tweet from Chris who says - I don't if Chris is a man or a woman, but Chris says - Chris is following a particular reporter, a columnist as opposed to a news organization on Twitter and he says that - she says - whatever, that, Twitter has worked well for me. I'm curious about - I actually get a lot of my news these days from Twitter because I follow people who have interest similar to mind and they link to important reports that I might otherwise have missed. How important has Twitter become as a news source?

MITCHELL: Well, it's interesting. Twitter, in many ways has evolved as a news source from, you know, the first years where it was, you know, trying to cram whatever you could into those 100 plus characters that you've got, and having that be the news itself that you are communicating - whether it was whatever I was doing that day or live tweeting an event where you literally had 30 tweets over the course of a half hour as people put line by line by line and do a tweet - to becoming more, now of actually, say, a place to point out interesting articles or videos or graphics that I should be aware of, then I should be taking the time to read. So, using the links along with the comment to point people that are following you, two interesting things that are important for that group or for that individual to be aware of and to consume. One of the questions that circles back is, again, is this narrowing the kind of new that I'm getting, and I'm just using to follow people that think like me or see things the way I would see things and what is that doing for my overall news consumption.

GJELTEN: Let's go now to James. He's on the line from Bradford, Pennsylvania. James, what's the state of the news media in Bradford, Pennsylvania?

JAMES: We have an internet forum that a lot people actually turn to instead of the newspaper because the form, people go out and keep their own pictures and publish them immediately saying, get the news right away...

GJELTEN: Interesting.

JAMES: ...and a lot of times it's a lot more in-depth, personal because people use an anonymous name. I thought it was good either because the news, they have to fact check everything but to see, there are a lot of people turn to the forum first.

GJELTEN: This in the -u and the form is just citizens themselves reporting news, you're saying?


GJELTEN: Do you see much of that, Amy?

MITCHELL: Well, you know, what's interesting is when the blog era was sort of getting off the ground and these very small, kind of, citizen websites. There was a concern in news organizations that these one or two person shops would supplant the work that news organizations were doing, because they were connected to the community and they could focus in on particular things. But what happened was actually many of these citizen-journalists, if you will, found that it was actually pretty difficult to report the news, to actually go out and do stories. And the pure amount of reporting that they were able to do was, you know, naturally far, far less than what any news entity could produce on its own, and it was also difficult.

So they - it turned into a little bit more, in most cases, of a auxiliary effort, if you will, where citizens are commenting on or adding to or sharing and linking together reports that in most - in many cases are coming originally from a more established news outlet.

GJELTEN: Amy Mitchell is the acting director for the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism. Their annual State of the News Media Report has just been released. Amy, thanks for being here.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

GJELTEN: Coming up on the opinion page, you may be pumped up for the NCAA basketball tournament, but sportswriter Dave Kindred's come down with a severe case of March sadness. He will explain after a short break. I'm Tom Gjelten. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.