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Fewer journalists, and a clog at the top

COMMENTARY | September 29, 2006

Indiana U. report shows sharply fewer reporters and editors at traditional news media and a clog at the top positions, making it harder for young people to advance and, perhaps, making the news business less attractive as a career.

By David Weaver

As someone who has practiced, taught, and studied journalism for nearly 40 years, I am troubled by some of the findings from our most recent survey of nearly 1,500 U.S. journalists, the fourth in a series that began in the 1970s. I think those who depend on the news media to know what is happening in the larger world outside should be concerned as well.
The study finds many similarities between the U.S. journalists of the early 1990s and the early years of this decade. But there are some disturbing trends, including a decrease in the full-time journalistic workforce in traditional news media, an increase in average age, and only slight growth in the proportions of racial and ethnic minorities. These findings suggest problems for young people who want to advance in mainstream U.S. news organizations.  

The study was published in August as a book, The American Journalist in the 21st Century, which I wrote with four colleagues from the Indiana University Journalism School. It was sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (The two previous ones were funded by the Gannett Foundation and the Freedom Forum, and the first survey was underwritten by the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation.)

Many of the most desirable jobs are held by people now in their 50s and still some years away from retirement. Without new growth in these news media, there will be relatively few opportunities for advancement for the next decade or so, making it difficult to retain the brightest and most ambitious young journalists, especially women and people of color. Perhaps more importantly for the overall society, a decrease in the number of journalists is also likely to mean that stories that need to be told will not be reported.

We found that the number of full-time daily newspaper journalists decreased by 12 percent from just over 67,000 to fewer than 59,000 from the early 1990s to the early years of this decade. Radio and major news service journalists also decreased in number. The number of weekly (or less than daily) newspaper and television journalists increased somewhat. Altogether, we estimate a decrease of about 6,000 full-time journalists working for traditional mainstream news media in the U.S., from a high of 122,000 in 1992 to about 116,000 in 2002. This number does not include part-timers, stringers and others working for more specialized or non-English language news media.

And while data compilation for this survey ended in 2002, cuts in staff since then have continued, often more severely than in the past, compounding the problems for aspiring reporters and editors – and for news coverage as well.

In other areas, our survey found that neither journalists nor the general public changed substantially in political leanings from 1992 to 2002, although journalists in 2002 were less likely to identify with the Democratic Party than a decade earlier and slightly more likely to identify with the Republican Party. Journalists’ political views and political party identification did vary considerably by gender, race and ethnicity, and type of news medium, so there is not a monolithic political mindset among U.S. journalists. This is important to remember, given the perennial charges of political bias in news coverage and  widespread assertions that the political views of individual journalists influence their news coverage.

On a more positive note, journalists in 2002 were a bit more satisfied with their work than a decade earlier, and the percentage planning to leave the news media during the next five years dropped a bit from just over one-fifth to nearly one-sixth. Journalists rated their news organizations’ efforts to inform the public somewhat higher than in 1992 and tended to agree that the quality of work was rising at their news organizations. In addition, median salaries outpaced inflation during the 1990s, and supervisors were perceived as meeting more often with their staffs in 2002 than in 1992.

Less positively, we found that although salaries rose faster than inflation in the 1990s, the actual average purchasing power of U.S. journalists in 2002 still remained below that of the early 1970s, and the pay gap between men and women did not shrink during the 1990s. These gender disparities in pay and job satisfaction will not help to recruit and retain women journalists, but it is encouraging that the median salaries of men and women U.S. journalists hired during the 1990s were essentially equal.

Reporters’ perceived autonomy and influence in the newsroom both declined during the 1990s, continuing a downward trend from the early 1980s. Perceived autonomy and influence are both predictors of higher levels of job satisfaction and, more importantly, both could have serious implications for the freedom and diversity of news coverage. If reporters are not able to cover stories they think are important, this can negatively impact the ability of journalists to provide a full and fair account of the day’s events—something that is necessary for an informed citizenry in a democracy.

The combination of decreasing numbers of full-time journalists and the continuing drops in perceived freedom to select stories are worrisome trends for those who care about the quality of reporting in this country. There may be many important events and issues that are not being reported because of these trends.

One thing seems certain—if the number of journalists and their freedom to select stories to report continues to decline, and if some of the best and brightest young people are not attracted to journalism, we will all be the losers in terms of knowing what is going on in the larger outside world.

[Click here for some of the survey’s key findings, posted at Poynteronline.]

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