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The shrinking newspaper

COMMENTARY | July 28, 2008

A Project for Excellence in Journalism report shows more of the same: more staff cuts, less newshole, less foreign coverage, less copy editing. But many editors surveyed see improvements in the product.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

More stories in a shrinking newshole, widespread staff cuts and slashed international and national coverage plague today's newspapers, concludes a Project for Excellence in Journalism survey of editors and senior newsroom executives representing 250 dailies.

Over half of all newspapers and 85 per cent of newspapers with circulation of over 100,000 have cut their staffs in the last three years. The price for the layoffs is much less proofread copy. Forty-two percent of the newspapers have slashed the number of copy editors and 30 per cent reduced the number of general assignment editors. Photographers were also among the most likely to get axed. 

International and national news is not only covered less but is considered less important by newsroom executives and editors. Sixty-four per cent of newsroom executives reported a drop in their international coverage and fifty-seven per cent have cut down on their national coverage. At a time when the United States is involved in two major armed conflicts overseas, only 10 percent of news executives ranked international news as "very essential.” And in spite of a presidential election near ahead, just 18 per cent of editors thought that national coverage was "very essential."

Local sections, on the other hand, are mushrooming, according to the survey. Some 62 per cent of the editors reported that they have increased the amount of space devoted to community news and 49 per cent have done so for state and local news. More resources are going to beats such as education, crime and local government.

The survey offers a mixed picture about the state of watchdog journalism. Some 91 per cent of editors said that investigative reporting was "essential." Thirty per cent reported an increase in the resources devoted to watchdog journalism but 24 per cent said that they've made cuts.

The overall newshole has shrunk and is packing in more and shorter stories than before. Sixty-one per cent of editors reported that newshole has decreased and 56 per cent said the average story length has decreased. Story count has either gone up or remained the same.

The Web has fundamentally transformed the daily newspaper into a supplier of up-to-date stories, videos and other content. Eighty per cent of the large papers have “early teams” that produce new content posted in the morning. Web editions of newspapers are now able to compete with television and radio to break news stories throughout the day. Some 70 per cent of the newspapers have staff-written blogs; 18 per cent said the blogs are copy edited before they go up.

The new skills in demand are Web-only editing and videography. In addition to great writing and ability to file quickly, multimedia skills are now considered as “essential” by 90 per cent of editors.

The transition to online journalism has aroused mixed feelings. Forty-three percent of the editors are “excited” about the Web, citing opportunities to pursue investigative reporting through data mining and to complement their real-time Web coverage with more narrative journalism in the print edition. However, 48 per cent of the editors are “conflicted” about the changes. “The demands of producing more Web content are diminishing the print product,” one of the editors told the researchers.

A successful economic model for online media, which only accounts for 10 percent of advertising sales, remains elusive. Almost all the editors surveyed are thinking of new ways to generate revenue and more than a half of the newspapers are experimenting with tabloid sections.

A sense of uncertainty about what the future newsroom will look like dominates. Only 5 per cent of the editors were “very confident” in giving a projection for the next five years.

At a time of massive staff cuts, perhaps the most surprising finding of this survey is that the majority of editors believe that their coverage has actually gotten better. Forty-three per cent cited improvement in the “quality of writing” and 58 percent said the “depth of reporting” has improved. Some editors pointed to smarter use of more limited resources as an explanation but the researchers suggest that psychology may also be in play. These editors are, after all, the survivors who must lead their staffs in uncertain times and who want to believe that today’s newspaper is still the best.

Assistant Professor of Public Relations and Journalism
Posted by Paul MacArthur
01/13/2009, 12:36 PM

I was interviewed about the future of newspapers and addressed some of the same issues. Check it out here:

http://www.ourblook.com/Future-of-Journalism/MacAr ...

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