I found myself agreeing again and again with Post-Industrial Journalism, a report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. But I disagree with this statement, which received lots of attention when the report was released last month:
The effect of the current changes in the news ecosystem has already been a reduction in the quality of news in the United States. On present evidence, we are convinced that journalism in this country will get worse before it gets better, and, in some places (principally midsize and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse.
I just Googled the part of the second sentence before the comma and got 321 hits, so lots of commentators have repeated this point in their responses to the report.
First, I must praise the report’s authors, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky. They have written one of the most insightful reports about journalism that I have ever read. One of the reasons I have taken so long in responding is that I am in large agreement with them and didn’t want to write a post just summarizing and echoing.
I will deal separately with the questions of whether the quality of news has fallen and whether it will get worse before it gets better. And I will also address a broader question that the report raised. But first, I want to dispute the notion that the quality is more vulnerable in midsize and small cities with no daily paper.
I have worked in cities of varying sizes, from the small town of Shenandoah, Iowa (current population just over 5,000), to the big town of Minot, N.D. (42,000), to the small city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (metro population 258,000) to the largest metro areas in two states, Des Moines (570K) and Omaha (865K) to two major metro areas, Kansas City (2 million) and Washington (5.6 million).
I have trained and consulted in newsrooms all along that spectrum of community sizes in 44 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces as well as several other countries. I have judged journalism awards recognizing work from large and small newspapers. My current company, Digital First Media, operates in a similar range of communities and I have visited most of our daily newsrooms and several weeklies.
Of all the journalism topics I have addressed in this blog, I may be most qualified to address the question of how the size of a community relates to the quality of the journalism. And I can say emphatically that the size of the community and frequency of print publication do not dictate the quality of the journalism. (more…)