The challenge is to turn the current moment of transformation into a reconstruction of American journalism, enabling independent reporting to emerge enlivened and enlarged from the decline of long-dominant news media. It may not be essential to save any particular news medium, including printed newspapers. What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.
Accountability journalism, particularly local accountability journalism, is especially threatened by the economic troubles that have diminished so many newspapers. So much of the news that people find, whether on television or radio or the Internet, still originates with newspaper reporting. And newspapers are the source of most local news reporting, which is why it is even more endangered than national, international or investigative reporting that might be provided by other sources.
At the same time, digital technology—joined by innovation and entrepreneurial energy—is opening new possibilities for reporting. Journalists can research much more widely, update their work repeatedly, follow it up more thoroughly, verify it more easily, compare it with that of competitors, and have it enriched and fact-checked by readers. “Shoe leather” reporting is often still essential, but there are extraordinary opportunities for reporting today because journalists can find so much information on the Internet.
Many newspapers are extensively restructuring themselves to integrate their print and digital operations, creating truly multimedia news organizations in ways that should produce both more cost savings—and more engaging journalism.
Los Angeles Times reporters Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting by using both the Internet and in-person reporting to analyze why the number and intensity of wildfires has increased in California. They found good sources among U. S. Forest Service retirees by typing “Forest Service” and “retired” into a Google search and then interviewing the people whose names came up. “The Internet,” Boxall said, “has made basic research faster, easier, and richer. But it can’t displace interviews, being there, or narrative.”
At the same time, consumers of news have more fresh reporting at their fingertips and the ability to participate in reportorial journalism more readily than ever before. They and reporters can share information, expertise, and perspectives, in direct contacts and through digital communities. Taking advantage of these opportunities requires finding ways to help new kinds of reporting grow and prosper while existing media adapt to new roles.
These are the issues that this report—based on dozens of interviews, visits to news organizations across the country, and numerous recent studies and conferences on the future of news—will explore, and that will lead to its recommendations.
What is happening to independent news reporting by newspapers?
Metropolitan newspaper readership began its long decline during the television era and the movement of urban populations to the suburbs. As significant amounts of national and retail advertising shifted to television, newspapers became more dependent on classified advertising. Then, with the advent of multichannel cable television and the largest wave of non-English-speaking immigration in nearly a century, audiences for news became fragmented. Ownership of newspapers and television stations became increasingly concentrated in publicly traded corporations that were determined to maintain large profit margins and correspondingly high stock prices.
Quarterly earnings increasingly became the preoccupation of some large newspaper chain owners and managers who were far removed from their companies’ newsrooms and the communities they covered. To maintain earnings whenever advertising revenues fell, some owners started to reverse some of their previous increases in reporting staffs and the space devoted to news. Afternoon newspapers in remaining multipaper cities were in most cases merged with morning papers or shut down. In many cities, by the turn of the century—even before Web sites noticeably competed for readers or Craigslist attracted large amounts of classified advertising—newspapers already were doing less news reporting.