July 21, 2008

The Changing Newsroom

Meet the American daily newspaper of 2008.

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.

The newsroom staff producing the paper is also smaller, younger, more tech-savvy, and more oriented to serving the demands of both print and the web. The staff also is under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.

Despite an image of decline, more people today in more places read the content produced in the newsrooms of American daily newspapers than at any time in years. But revenues are tumbling. The editors expect the financial picture only to worsen, and they have little confidence that they know what their papers will look like in five years.

This description is a composite. It is based on face-to-face interviews conducted at newspapers across the country and the results of a detailed survey of senior newsroom executives. In total, more than 250 newspapers participated. It is, we believe, the most systematic effort yet to examine the changing nature of the resources in American newspaper newsrooms at a critical time. It is an attempt to document and quantify cutbacks and innovations that have generally been known only anecdotally.

The study, by journalist Tyler Marshall and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, captures an industry in the grips of two powerful, but contradictory, forces. On one hand, financial pressures sap its strength and threaten its very survival. On the other, the rise of the web boosts its competitiveness, opens up innovative new forms of journalism, builds new bridges to readers and offers enormous potential for the future. Many editors believe the industry’s future is effectively a race between these two forces. Their challenge is to find a way to monetize the rapid growth of web readership before newsroom staff cuts so weaken newspapers that their competitive advantage disappears. In recent weeks—after this survey was completed—a new round of newsroom cutbacks, made against a backdrop of steadily deteriorating advertising revenues and rising production costs, intensifies the difficulty of the challenge.

This report is an attempt to document where newspapers are in that race. As editors cut back on coverage and staff, while at the same time building up their capacity online and in multi-media, what is being gained and what is being lost? What coverage is disappearing and what beats are considered sacrosanct? What new expertise has come into the newsroom, and what knowledge has been lost? In short, where is the industry headed?


The Key Findings:

  • The majority of newspapers are now suffering cutbacks in staffing, and even more in the amount of news, or newshole, they offer the public. The forces buffeting the industry continue to affect larger metro newspapers to a far greater extent than smaller ones. In some cases, these differences are so stark it seems that larger and smaller newspapers are living two distinctly different experiences. Fully 85% of the dailies surveyed with circulations over 100,000 have cut newsroom staff in the last three years, while only 52% of smaller papers reported cuts. Recent announcements of a further round of newsroom staff reductions at large papers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, indicates these differences may be widening further. Our survey found that more than half of the editors at larger papers and a third at smaller ones expect more cutbacks in the next year. But a weaker-than-expected economic performance during the first half of 2008 and grimmer forecasts for the rest of the year suggest some of those cutbacks have already been implemented and darken these projections even further.
  • Papers both large and small have reduced the space, resources and commitment devoted to a range of topics. At the top of that list, nearly two thirds of papers surveyed have cut back on foreign news, over half have trimmed national news and more than a third have reduced business coverage. In effect, America’s newspapers are narrowing their reach and their ambitions and becoming niche reads.
  • The culture of the daily newspaper newsroom is also changing. New job demands are drawing a generation of young, versatile, tech-savvy, high-energy staff as financial pressures drive out higher-salaried veteran reporters and editors. Newsroom executives say the infusion of new blood has brought with it a new competitive energy, but they also cite the departure of veteran journalists, along with the talent, wisdom and institutional memory they hold as their single greatest loss. Clearly stretched to describe what is unfolding in their newsrooms, editors use words like, “exciting,” “extraordinary,” “nerve-wracking” and “tumultuous.”
  • Newspaper websites are increasingly a source of hope but also of fear. Editors feel torn between the advantages the web offers and the energy it consumes to produce material often of limited or even questionable value. A plurality of editors (48%), for instance, say they are conflicted by the trade-offs between the speed, depth and interactivity of the web and what those benefits are costing in terms of accuracy and journalistic standards. Yet a similar plurality (43%) thinks “web technology offers the potential for greater-than-ever journalism and will be the savior of what we once thought of as newspaper newsrooms.”

Amid these concerns—and despite the enormous cutbacks and profound worries—editors still sense that their product is improving, not worsening. Fully 56% think their news product is better than it was three years earlier.

“I believe the journalism itself is discernibly better than it was a year ago,” said the editor of a large metropolitan daily, whose paper last year lost 70 newsroom employees. “There’s an improvement in enterprise, in investigations and in the coverage of several core beats.”

How such upbeat assessments stand up in the face of new staff cuts and more pessimistic economic projections is unclear. Several editors lamented the attendant loss of time to organize a thoughtful attack on a story, to think through precisely why a story is being done or how to make the story more meaningful. “There is a huge pressure to rush to publish,” one editor added in a comment on the survey.

Overall, newsroom executives say they feel broadly unprepared for the changes sweeping over them and seem uncertain where the changes would lead. Only 5% of those responding to the survey said they were very confident of their ability to predict what their newsrooms would look like five years from now.

“I feel I’m being catapulted into another world, a world I don’t really understand,” said Virginian-Pilot Editor Denis Finley. “It’s scary because things are happening at the speed of light. The sheer speed (of change) has outstripped our ability to understand it all.”

These are some of the findings of the study, which is based on interviews at newspapers in 15 different cities from four distinct regions of the country and a survey of senior news executives from 259 newspapers. That sample of newspaper executives includes more than half of all newspapers over 100,000 in circulation, and roughly one-third of those with circulations between 50,000-100,000. In total, more than one in every five of the nation’s 1,217 daily newspapers participated, making it one of the broadest surveys of its kind in recent years. The survey was executed online with the help of Princeton Survey Research Associates during the first quarter of 2008.

In this report we divide the analysis into six main areas:

  • Cutbacks, which examines the depth of staff reductions and how larger and smaller newspapers have been affected;
  • Changing Content, which looks at what topics are losing space and resources, which are growing and which are holding steady;
  • The Changing Newsroom, which charts the transformation of newsroom skills, demands and culture;
  • The Influence of the Web, which studies the enormous impact newspaper websites are having on newsrooms and on daily newspaper journalism;
  • Citizen In the Newsroom, which explores the growing influence and impact of journalism produced by non-professional journalists; and
  • The Future, which weighs the implications of smaller newsrooms, greater innovation, more financial pressures and the struggle to monetize the web.