I can hardly believe I’m ready to write a second blog post about a single paragraph in a 122-page report. But I question the notion that the quality of news coverage in the United States has been declining and will get worse before it gets better.
Here’s passage in question, from the Post-Industrial Journalism report by the Tow Center for Digital Media:
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 blogged Monday about the community-size issue. Now I want to address the issue of whether news coverage has been declining and will get worse before it gets better.
I absolutely disagreed with the contention that community size is the primary factor affecting the quality of a community’s journalism. I’m less certain of the question of declining quality, past and present. I’m not going to say they’re wrong, but I can’t agree with their statement of the reduction in quality as a fact and with their conviction that journalism is going to get worse.
Without question, the quantity of newspaper journalism has declined with the loss of 26 percent newsroom jobs since 2007, according to the American Society of News Editors newsroom census of daily newspapers. Quantity of news is certainly related to quality, and lots of those cuts have been buyouts and firings of outstanding journalists whose loss has, without question, also harmed the quality of newspapers.
But at the same time, some newspapers have been aggressive in maintaining their commitment to investigative journalism and in improving their use of digital techniques such as liveblogging, curation, databases, social media, multimedia storytelling and data visualization. I believe the increase in fact-checking has improved political reporting, which has focused too much on horse-race journalism and day-to-day trivia. And Nate Silver’s analysis of polling has elevated the horse-race journalism.
So even among newspapers, I don’t think the story is simply a decline in the quality of journalism. The newspapers’ story is a complex mix of decline and improvement. However, just because the loss of some 15,000 journalists is too significant to overcome, I’ll concede a net loss of quality in newspaper journalism.
Broadcast newsrooms haven’t had as severe a loss in staffing, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that their journalism has declined, too.
I’m not going to concede, though, that we have a net decline in the news ecosystem in the quality of news coverage. Post-Industrial Journalism was about the full news ecosystem and the report gives considerable attention to several examples of the digital journalism startups that are improving the quality of journalism: ProPublica, Homicide Watch, Texas Tribune, SCOTUSblog, Voice of San Diego and others.
Local news startups are so plentiful now that they have their own association, Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers.
I’m not going to say with confidence that the quality of news has actually improved, but I think it has. And I’m not going to contend that it won’t decline in the years ahead, but I’m optimistic.
I am tremendously impressed with the young journalists I have worked with at Digital First Media, TBD and the Cedar Rapids Gazette in recent years. My optimism soars as I meet with student journalists (I’ve visited more than two dozen journalism schools in the past few years).
I respect the views of the outstanding scholars who wrote Post-Industrial Journalism (C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky). I would be interested in why they believe journalism has declined and why they believe that decline will continue. (I’ve asked them directly and will add any response they send my way.)
Measuring the quality of journalism is difficult, but I would like to see an effort by some scholars to answer this question in greater detail. How do you measure? By big stories uncovered? By ethical problems such as this year’s plagiarism offenses? By introduction of new journalism techniques? By the prevalence of grammar and style errors? I don’t know.
But I don’t think journalism was riding high before the collapse of advertising revenue and the slashing of newsroom staffs. I sensed a complacency in journalism in the late 1990s and early this century. The greatest failing of journalism during my career, in my view, was the gullible reporting on weapons of mass destruction by every national news organization except Knight-Ridder. And that wasn’t an isolated instance. Journalism didn’t adequately warn of the subprime mortgage or Enron ripoffs. (Admittedly, we may not know for a few years where our watchdog reporting is failing us now.)
Journalism is in a period of great turmoil, without question. But when I look at where we were a decade ago, I believe the quality of journalism is actually improving, and I am optimistic that it will continue to improve.
Disclosure: Emily Bell interviewed me in her research for the report and I am cited as a source, though not on this question. (I can’t recall whether she asked me about it.)