Relentless 'hollowing out' of newsrooms shapes all beats, and our democracy

In a break from usual practice, this Religion Guy Memo examines the over-all situation of the American news media.

When times are tough, specialty beats — like religion — become especially vulnerable.

The news biz is transfixed by the mutual rancor between the incumbent American president and the political press corps, which reached another nadir last week. The performance -- on both sides -- hasn’t been this nasty since 1800, when hyper-partisan newspapers manhandled the feuding Adams, Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson. Here’s hoping for a letup 221 or 225 years later when the Donald Trump administration ends.

Meanwhile, media toilers and consumers should be alert to the ongoing broad, bad context within which journalism functions, summarized in this headline: “The Hollowing Out of Newsrooms.” That’s how “Trust,” the Pew Charitable Trusts magazine, upsums data compiled by the Pew Research Center for its latest “State of the News Media” report as of 2017.

One major caveat: As Pew acknowledges, 2017 is a somewhat misleading year for assessing audiences because we’d expect a decline from 2016 with its intense interest in the election. However, Trumpish fascination continued through 2017 and Pew says post-election falloffs usually hit cable news but have little impact on newspapers, network TV or radio. The next report, for 2018, will be significant given fascination with the campaign just past. (Note: These surveys exclude magazine journalism. Non-fiction books are a whole other story.)

Pew’s first such report back in 2004 warned that “most sectors of the news media are losing audience,” therefore “putting pressures on revenues and profits.” According to the latest report, total newsroom employees, whether reporters, editors, copyreaders, photographers or videographers, declined by nearly a fourth between 2008 and 2017, from 114,000 to 88,000.

Let’s look at conditions medium by medium.

Newspapers — Their devastation led the pack, with staffs dropping by nearly half over those same years, from 71,000 down to 39,000. Since 2006, advertising revenue (combined print and digital) has dropped by two-thirds thanks to Craiglist’s demolition of classified ads plus losses in display ads. In the past year, circulation (print plus digital) for English-language dailies fell 11 percent. Dead trees, anyone?

As a result, 21 states do not have even a single newspaper with a regular Washington correspondent. Staffing on state and local government also suffers and in these cases no national media pick up the slack.

Also worrisome for democracy, newspapers and associated news agencies still provide much of the reliable reported information picked up by TV and the Internet. As Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute says, “When you diminish newspapers, you diminish the real reporting.” Other outlets may contribute, but now-shrinking newspapers have historically “carried the newsgathering load.”

Network Broadcast TV — News programming on ABC, CBS, and NBC together (not including their online text and video) lost viewership from 2016 to 2017, down 10 percent for breakfast time, 7 percent for the evening news, and 12 percent for TV newsmagazines. Revenues held generally steady.

Local TV — News audiences for local stations affiliated with the four networks (Fox broadcast added) also slumped in the year, with the biggest drop in the morning, down 15 percent. Station revenues also slumped 13 percent, though that was to be expected as those repellent campaign attack ads disappeared. Stations’ digital ad revenues grew 3 percent.

Cable News — The cumulative viewership of perennial ratings champ Fox News plus CNN and MSNBC fell 12 percent in prime time from 2016, although revenues increased 10 percent and, significantly, newsroom spending increased 6 percent.

Radio — Unlike declines elsewhere, news audiences held steady for American Public Media, National Public Radio, and Public Radio International. Otherwise, the large and rowdy realm of AM news-talk is too complex to gauge. Audiences for online radio and podcasting are growing, by all indications.

Digital News — After several years of notable growth, 15 major Web-only sites combined saw monthly unique visitors fall by 5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017 compared with the previous year, although revenues rose in 2017. Heavy use of social media may mean people are accessing legitimate news articles that way, but the sharp decline of journalists’ ranks raises questions about quality, Pew observes.

Again, you can access Pew’s full report here.

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