State of the News Media: The Quiz

PEJ tests the plus ça change approach to news

So the Project for Excellence in Journalism has released its annual State of the News Media report. This year’s version, like its successors, is full of fascinating, telling, and occasionally surprising data about the news industry. It is also notable for being exceptionally melancholy, both in content and in tone. (“This is the sixth edition of our annual report on the State of the News Media in the United States,” PEJ notes in the report’s introduction. “It is also the bleakest.”)

PEJ published its inaugural effort at cataloging and trending the news industry back in 2004. In the ensuing five years, much—much—has changed…and yet, in other senses, much remains the same. In the spirit of Katia’s State of the Union quiz, see if you can identify which bits of analysis come from the 2004 report, and which from the 2009. An answer key is below.

1. America’s newspapers got smaller in just about every way.

2. Overall, the magazine industry is healthy, but its landscape is very different than it was even 10 years ago, let alone 20.

3. Newspapers in any given town usually remain the institution, at least as measured by number of reporters and editors and in our content analysis, with the greatest newsgathering capacity, the widest range of coverage, and largest number of stories each day. Newspapers, in other words, are still the biggest watchdog in town.

4. Refugees of the mainstream press helped launch or staff a number of independent new ventures online.

5. The ethnic press, a growing sector the last few years, saw its audience numbers become more complicated. The circulation for most of the African American papers declined. For Spanish-language dailies, results were mixed, while Spanish television stations gained.

6. In local television, a deteriorating market for advertising had analysts scrambling to revise their estimates downward as the year wore on. Most concluded that the final revenue numbers were as much as 7% lower than the year before and that profit margins had probably been cut in half.

7. Coverage in the general interest news weeklies (Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report) is edging into lighter areas such as pop culture, health and service. To survive, they are becoming less specialized experts in anything and more a lighter version on every topic.

8. Only two platforms clearly grew: the Internet, where the gains seemed more structural, and cable, where they were more event-specific.

9. In online content, citizen news sites that do original reporting gained some steam…especially in areas where traditional coverage has vanished. But, according to a study of citizen sites in 46 markets, they remain far from a substitute for legacy media. Their range of topics is narrower, the sourcing somewhat thinner and the content often not updated even once a day. They also trail legacy news sites in the various methods for distributing their content.

10. The data also suggest a clear trend in the changing nature of how Americans now learn about the world around them. People are relying more heavily — both during peak moments and in general — on platforms that can deliver news when audiences want it rather than at appointed times, a sign of a growing “on demand” news culture. People increasingly want the news they want when they want it.

11. Although some people report getting news online at the expense of getting it from magazines and newspapers, the majority of online news consumers say they spend as much time with print as they did before.

12. The Internet is the medium having the most success attracting young people to news, something that the older media were having trouble with before the Internet even existed.

13. Only the newsrooms of the three major cable channels were on a pace to increase their investment in newsgathering, at an average of 7%.

14. With 40 million active users of the mobile Web, advertisers spent $1.3 billion to reach them in [year], up 59% from a year earlier. News organizations are scrambling to establish beachheads in this new land, but old questions of revenue persist. Will the tiny banner ads pay enough to finance the effort?

15. The top 50 news websites saw traffic for the year grow 27%, according to PEJ’s analysis of comScore data, while all news and information sites grew 7%. The top four news sites —Yahoo,, and AOL—saw unique visitors grow 22% to 23.6 million visitors a month.

16. The numbers were bleak for newspapers in print, though better for their digital editions. Circulation fell 4.6 % daily and 4.8% Sunday for the latest period compared with a year earlier. That brings them down 13.5% daily and 17.3% Sunday since 2001. Traffic to newspaper websites is growing, however. Unduplicated Web audiences are now estimated to add 8.4% to the average newspaper’s readership, making up most, but not all, of the audience decline.

17. Perhaps the bleakest news came in for the American weekly news magazine. According a survey, less than a quarter of American adults said they read a magazine of some kind the day before—down from a third in 1994. Of the eight publications that PEJ tracks as news magazines, circulation dropped 4.8%.

18. The surviving newspapers in town have remained the one place where advertisers can reach the most people with a single ad buy. The demographics are also attractive. If you want to reach opinion and business leaders and the most affluent people in a town, newspapers are the way to go.

19. Radio news, already operating at a fraction of the size it did decades ago, seems headed into another period of contraction brought on by drops in local ad spending. Newsrooms – which already average only slightly more than two people and produce news for three stations – were expected to shrink further.

20. People like the convenience of the Web, its availability at work, its speed for delivering breaking news, and increasingly they are coming to trust the accuracy of the information they receive there. The problem is an economic one. How will Web journalism begin to pay its own way? If people increasingly substitute the Web for their old media before a robust economic model for the Web evolves, the economic effect could be devastating for journalism. Companies might begin to cut back significantly on their newsgathering abilities, as audiences abandon profitable old platforms in favor of less profitable new ones. The net in this case might weaken, not strengthen, the economic vitality of news organizations and the quality of American journalism.

Answers: 1. 2009, 2. 2004, 3. 2004,
4. 2004, 5. 2009, 6. 2009, 7. 2009, 8. 2009, 9. 2009, 10. 2009, 11. 2004, 12. 2004, 13. 2009, 14. 2009, 15. 2009, 16. 2009, 17. 2009, 18. 2004, 19. 2009, 20. 2004

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.