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.
The Internet revolution helped to accelerate the decline in print readership, and newspapers responded by offering their content for free on their new Web sites. In hindsight, this may have been a business mistake, but the motivation at the time was to attract new audiences and advertising for content on the Internet, where most other information was already free. Although the readership of newspaper Web sites grew rapidly, much of the growth turned out to be illusory—just momentary and occasional visits from people drawn to the sites through links from the rapidly growing number of Web aggregators, search engines, and blogs. The initial surge in traffic helped to create a tantalizing but brief boomlet in advertising on newspaper Web sites. But the newfound revenue leveled off, and fell far short of making up for the rapid declines in revenue from print advertising that accelerated with the recession.
The economics of newspapers deteriorated rapidly. Profits fell precipitously, despite repeated rounds of deep cost-cutting. Some newspapers began losing money, and the depressed earnings of many others were not enough to service the debt that their owners had run up while continuing to buy new properties. The Tribune chain of newspapers, which stretched from the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune to Newsday, The Baltimore Sun, and the Orlando Sentinel, went into bankruptcy. So did several smaller chains and individually owned newspapers in large cities such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia. In Denver, Seattle, and Tucson—still two-newspaper towns in 2008—longstanding metropolitan dailies stopped printing newspapers. More than one hundred daily papers eliminated print publication on Saturdays or other days each week.
In just a few years’ time, many newspapers cut their reporting staffs by half and significantly reduced their news coverage. The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom shrank to about 150 journalists from more than 400; the Los Angeles Times’s to fewer than 600 journalists from more than 1,100. Overall, according to various studies, the number of newspaper editorial employees, which had grown from about 40,000 in 1971 to more than 60,000 in 1992, had fallen back to around 40,000 in 2009.