A "new paradox of journalism" has emerged in which the number of news outlets continues to grow, yet the number of stories covered and the depth of many reports is decreasing, according to an annual review of the news business being released today by a watchdog group.
Many television, radio and newspaper newsrooms are cutting their staffs as advertising revenue stagnates, but blogs and other online ventures lack the size or inclination to generate information, reports the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The study depicts the media in an interregnum -- with the reach of print, radio and television reduced, but the promise of an egalitarian online "citizen journalism" unfulfilled.
"It's probably glib and even naive to say simply that more platforms equal more choices," project Director Tom Rosenstiel said. "The content has to come from somewhere, and as older news-gathering media decline, some of the strengths they offer in monitoring the powerful and verifying the facts may be weakening as well."
As a result, consumers need to get information from a variety of sources to understand the world around them, the study concludes. It also finds that public opinions about the traditional media, though still low, have improved in a few respects.
The swiftly shifting platforms for information -- with network news available by podcast and U.S. soldiers maintaining blogs from Iraq -- have created an odd interplay between new and old media, the study found.
Companies like Google and Yahoo have managed to thrive and generate enormous advertising revenue, in part by aggregating and distributing information produced by traditional media outlets.
"The more they succeed," the project said, "the faster they erode the product they are selling, unless the economic model is radically changed."
The study predicts that old-media outlets may begin this year to demand compensation from aggregators such as Google News. Alternatively, new-media companies could build their own news operations, but those efforts have been slow in the making.
The most threatened of the traditional media continue to be newspapers, particularly big-city dailies. Weekday circulation dropped 2.6% and Sunday circulation dropped 3.1% as of September from the year before; print advertising declined; and a 1% to 2% increase in ad revenue came almost entirely because of growth online of about 30%.
The country lost 306 daily papers, 17% of the total, between 1960 and last year.
At the remaining papers, cumulative cuts of reporters and editors over the last five years amounted to about 6.5%. The reductions are disturbing but constitute something less than a "death spiral" for the newspaper business, which still posts profit margins of 20%, the report says.
Still, a funk has settled over many newspaper journalists who believe the public-service focus of the industry is endangered. At many old-media companies, "the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over," the report concludes. "The idealists have lost."
The second-largest newspaper chain by circulation, Knight Ridder Inc. -- owner of 32 dailies including the Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News and Miami Herald -- is expected to undergo another round of newsroom reductions regardless of the outcome of current attempts to sell.
Newspapers have not been alone in suffering cuts in news-gathering resources.
The study's review of content across the media found that radio stations put few reporters in the field and Internet bloggers tended to offer opinions rather than new information. The study found original reporting in just 5% of blog postings it reviewed.
The study cited Philadelphia to illustrate the shrinking firepower being trained on the news. Only about half as many reporters cover that metro area today than in 1980, with the number of newspaper reporters dropping from 500 to 220. Five AM radio stations carrying news have been reduced to two. And local television, with the exception of the Fox affiliate, has cut traditional news coverage.
"In the future, we may well rely more on citizens to be sentinels for one another," the report says. "No doubt that will expand the public forum and enrich the range of voices."
Examples of such sources include radio interviews of Iraqi citizens produced by Swarthmore College students and a similar initiative to deliver municipal radio news in Minnesota.
"The worry is not the wondrous addition of citizen media," the report says, "but the decline of full-time professional monitoring of powerful institutions."
The study found a mixed bag in assessing public attitudes toward the media. Forty-three percent of Americans see the press as moral, up from 39% in 2002 but down from the mid-1980s. And 59% rate the press as "highly professional," compared with 49% in 2002.
But according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, whose research is cited in the study, 75% of Americans believe news organizations care most about "attracting the biggest audience" compared with 19% who think the organizations' priority is "informing the public." And 72% saw the press as favoring one side, up from 66% two years earlier.
"Journalists need to redefine their role and identify which of their core values they want to fight to preserve -- something they have only begun to consider," the report says.