The growth of the internet and the economic decline of mainstream local media have combined to give news consumers a very mixed bag.
The paradox is that the volume of information available on many important subjects has exploded while the accuracy of much of it has diminished, as many of the traditional “news gatekeepers” have lost influence or disappeared. Before I helped found the St. Louis (now Gateway) Journalism Review in 1970, I graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism.
This year, several classmates and I published, “Inside the Upheaval of Journalism,” a close look at how the news media have evolved over 50 years. It’s not a story of journalism’s decline. While the explosion of the internet has made misinformation rampant, the net has helped to revolutionize and improve news gathering and transmission.
When I joined the ranks of St. Louis journalists in 1969, the media still were stuck in the era of “The Front Page,” where reporters in Chicago’s criminal courthouse sat around a table waiting for news breaks that they could phone in to their respective offices.
In St. Louis, that meant going through the inefficient process of beat reporters calling in stories to rewrite men (virtually all were men) and losing much of the nuance and color in the process.
Perhaps my low point as one of these rewrite people was getting a call from a Post-Dispatch federal court reporter in April 1970 telling me that “one of our judges over here just was nominated to the Supreme Court.”
These were the days before there was intense national speculation about who would fill Supreme Court vacancies, so I, and apparently the newspaper’s beat reporter, were clueless.
It turned out that the nominee was Harry Blackmun, who that day was hearing cases in St. Louis as a federal appeals court judge normally based in Minnesota. Sadly, our newspaper had so little background on Blackmun that our story on his unexpected appointment was woefully inadequate, even though we had the chance to talk to him directly.
Such poor journalism would not be tolerated these days, at least on a national level, with reporters experienced in many subjects ready to tell readers and viewers the significance of news about not only court appointments but major developments in areas ranging from business to health to politics.
How has journalism in the United States evolved in five decades that our journalism review has been publishing?
Overall, the changes have been driven by technology. As veteran CNN producer Kenneth Tiven writes in the Columbia class of 1969 book, “The internet is one of the greatest change agents the world has ever experienced, not all of it good.”
The net has made the gathering and dissemination of information by journalists and by the general public much easier but so has it increased the spread of false information. Because it is so easy to gather data on just about any subject by surfing the net, the role of journalism has been both enhanced and diminished.
In 1969, most Americans got their news from a handful of major wire services, national and local newspapers, television and radio stations and a few national news magazines. Fifty years later, news still was available from most of these sources but via different delivery mechanisms known collectively as social media. Because the traditional news generators no longer held a virtual monopoly on the reporting of news, it now may come from anywhere, ranging from professional news gatherers to unreliable word of mouth.
Many smart news consumers rely on a few segments of the media to sort out truth from fiction. The Washington Post, for example, has compiled more than 20,000 misstatements by President Donald Trump in his four years in office.
By 2020, the legacy mainstream media were supplemented by any number of web-based news outlets that had demonstrated their reliability in the first 21st century’s first two decades.
An incomplete list includes The Daily Beast, Huffpost, BuzzFeed News, Vox, Slate, Politico, Axios, Five ThirtyEight and Vice, along with another long list of more specialized sites like ProPublica, Kaiser Health News, The Crime Report, and The Marshall Project. It is not unusual on any given day to see any of these sites and many others breaking news stories on significant subjects.
At the same time, the fast growth of the internet contributed to a devastating decline in local newspapers, as advertisers quickly moved online. Print advertising revenue fell from $49.4 billion in 2005 to $14.3 billion in 2018. About 1,800 of the 9,000 daily or weekly newspapers that were published in 2004 have merged or gone out of business, leaving 2,000 of the 3,143 counties with no daily newspapers.
Television news remains a prime source for many Americans, but a Pew Research Center study in 2018 found that TV led social media and news websites only by 49 to 43 percent as the main source for news consumers (radio and newspaper lagged far behind.)
If the methods of news delivery have changed dramatically, what about the content of the news? Again, the picture is mixed. The Columbia journalists who started 50 years ago reviewed coverage in detail in several important fields, including medicine, business, criminal justice, politics, and religion.
In most of these areas – plus several others that were not studied in the new book like education and the environment – national organizations of journalists have been formed that help keep a solid corps of reporters abreast of important trends.
Their stories may be seen both in mainstream print and broadcast outlets as well as the many online news organizations that have sprouted up in recent years. While the media cannot boast of producing comprehensive coverage of every major trend, arguably the collective impact of 21st century news reports keeps the interested public well informed on a long list of topics.
To take three of the issues most prominent in 2020 – health, politics and crime – it is clear that both national and local media have produced near-saturation coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the presidential election and the move to reform criminal justice prompted by the deaths of Black Americans at police hands.
At the same time, the severe economic restraints that have hit the news industry mean that while resources are poured into today’s “hot” stories, other areas are relatively neglected.
One is international coverage. Most major U.S. media have fewer foreign correspondents, and strife in many areas of the world means that the work is much more dangerous.
“An interactive world of bloggers, social media sites, and citizen journalists is now for many people, especially the young, the main provider of news,” writes Michele Montas-Dominique, a Haitian journalist and Columbia ’69 graduate.
The news that Americans get from abroad is much more likely these days to be reported by part-time “stringers.” Many of these people have more knowledge of their home regions than do U.S. correspondents who hold such positions for short periods. On the other hand, many are likely to be young, inexperienced reporters who have little professional preparation.
Local news coverage may have suffered the most
Like their national counterparts, local newspapers generally have many fewer staff members than they formerly did, and several have shut down their newsrooms permanently in the face of COVID-19.
It is impossible to quantify the losses because that would require identifying “missing stories.” Margaret Sullivan, media critic for the Washington Post and former editor of the Buffalo News, wrote about this trend in her recent book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.”
The decline in local journalism, Sullivan said, means that “meetings of public officials are taking place without coverage. Agency budgets and municipal contracts are going forward without scrutiny. Apparently, only a small percentage of the public sees the need to open its wallets for local newspapers or other local news sources, and as newspapers decline in staff and quality, they see even less reason to do so. Overcoming this vicious cycle is a steep climb.”
For more than 17 years, I have put together a daily news digest of the nation’s most important news on criminal justice, largely drawn from local media. While much investigative and award-winning coverage remains, it is clear that there are many fewer “enterprise” stories in which reporters produce investigative reports that go far beyond describing daily events and the reactions to them by government officials, interest groups or affected citizens.
This means, for example, that until this year, there was only episodic coverage of misconduct by local police officers. Despite Sullivan’s accurate laments about the shortcomings of local news reporting, the picture is not entirely bleak.
As much as the internet has helped to divert much of the advertising that had supported local newspapers, in many areas, nonprofit news organizations have sprung up on the web to report on key regional, state and local issues.
This trend is not true of the entire nation, but it includes outlets such as the Texas Tribune, the Colorado-based High Country News, Pennsylvania’s PA Post, Vermont’s VT Digger, and Oklahoma’s The Frontier.
Report for America, a three-year-old nonprofit, has placed more than 200 journalists in local newspapers around the U.S. by raising funds to pay up to half of their salaries, with the rest funded by the hiring newspaper and other local donations. This effort is filling only a tiny fraction of the job loss in local reporting, which the organization says plummeted from 455,000 in 1990 to 183,200 in 2016.
Another part of the picture is local television news, where stations have hired some of the laid-off newspaper reporters. Survey data from the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University show that as of 2017, local TV news employment has surpassed newspaper employment for the first time in more than two decades of research.
Despite these gains, it is evident that there is less consistent local news coverage in many areas of the U.S. than there was at many points in the last five decades.
As far as the people actually practicing journalism in the United States are concerned, the field once consisting of almost entirely white men has become more diverse. There were very few women journalists 50 years ago save in newspapers’ former “women’s sections,” but the percentage in all newsrooms rose to nearly 40 percent by 2017.
The 1968 Kerner Commission report said that blacks at the time constituted fewer than five percent of U.S. newsroom editorial employees. By 2018, people of color made up 22 percent of print newsroom staffers, 24 percent of online news staffers and 25 percent of television news employees.
Still, many news organizations acknowledged during the national uproar over race issues after the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis that their coverage of race issues over the years had been inadequate.
Where are today’s journalists coming from? Not all get formal education in journalism, but the number studying journalism and related subjects grew from about 100,000 in 1976 to more than 213,000 in 2013. The number of undergraduates in news courses dropped in the two years after that. No current data are available, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the total declines again during the economic downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While many news organizations are suffering economically, from the consumer’s point of view there has been a “democratization of the news business that puts the power of the pen into the hands of people who never could buy ink by the barrel,” writes Allan Mann, a Columbia journalism graduate who later was Vice President of Public Affairs for Kaiser Permanente health care.
Mann says the internet allows him to “create a newsfeed in the palm of my hand that delivers to me the best thinking of some of the most insightful people in the country—the men and women who write and comment on the news every day.”
The splintering of the news media in the internet age has indeed created a wide variety of sources for the intelligent news consumer. Still, the news media in the Gateway Journalism Review’s fifth decade face considerable challenges in their effort to give the nation an accurate, coherent account of where the nation is headed amid a health and economic crisis.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He formerly was a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and U.S. News & World Report. He was a founding member of the St. Louis Journalism Review in 1970. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.