With the end of the year fast approaching, there is another wave of departures among journalists from two of the top news publications in the world. It has been widely reported that the New York Times is offering buyouts for employees, many of whom are newsroom stalwarts. While details on exactly who is accepting the buyouts remain a bit sketchy at the moment, the rumor mill suggests that the publication will say goodbye to several high profile journalists from its media, finance, culture and politics pages. And this week the New Republic is experiencing a mass exodus, further eroding journalistic integrity and experience.
This latest downsizing of reporters and others from the payroll should come as no surprise. The media landscape has been changing for quite a while now. In its 2014 media assessment, the Pew Research Journalism Project reported that for newspapers in particular, it’s been a rough road with circulation holding steady or showing a modest increase, while ad revenue continues to decline. Newspaper employment continues to drop, down 33% from the 1989 peak of 56,900 to 38,000 in 2012. So while what’s happening at the Times is not surprising, it gives me cause for concern as both a consumer of news and a communications professional.
Below are four reasons why we should all be concerned about the future of journalism:
1. Fewer Journalists, Less Experience, More Room for Error/Bias
As more and more seasoned journalists accept buyouts, retire, or give up and turn to other livelihoods, we all pay the price. Fewer reporters overall means less quality coverage. Gone are the days of the ‘beat’ reporter who became an expert in one area, like science. Sure there are reporters writing scientific stories, but many of them have never covered a science-related issue before. So their lack of knowledge and experience often shows in articles that, at best, can oversimplify complex issues or at worst, present a one-sided viewpoint. Veteran journalists are skilled at digging for the details, uncovering little known facts and perspectives, which provide a better story for the reader/viewer. Younger, less experienced reporters often don’t have that ability, because they simply have not had the chance to develop it. Dwindling news staff means each reporter faces increasing demands to cover more stories, on more topics, in a much shorter timeframe and for multiple platforms. The end result—the loss of quality coverage that can impact consumers’ ability to form educated opinions.
2. No Boundaries
The line between what is news and what is entertainment is getting more blurred each day. That’s where the loss of skilled print journalists is most keenly felt in my opinion. With so many different options for news content these days, it’s easy to find a headline or watch a snippet from the morning news shows. Unfortunately, it is also is easy to lose sight of the real news among the broad array of other information also presented. Consider the morning news programs. With a few notable exceptions, you’re just as likely to see an interview with President Obama as one with Beyonce and Jay-Z. You might see a clip from the head of the CDC talking about Ebola, and five minutes later see the family of the cat who survived a month in a shipping box when her family moved to Hawaii! Thanks to the Internet, competition for audiences is more intense than ever and that translates into more news outlets—both national and local—turning to entertainment to draw in their audience. While the rise of infotainment is understandable up to a point, the declining focus on hard news impacts us all. Take the Ebola outbreak as an example. Attention grabbing headlines and teasers helped draw in viewers, but often contributed to panic and misinformation instead of rational discussion and education of the audience.
3. Trust Issues
That brings me to the issue of trust. Exactly who do you turn to for news when there are literally hundreds of sources? Who has the definitive say on a controversial topic? When I was growing up, my parents tuned into CBS News and Dan Rather every night. They trusted Rather to tell them everything they needed to know about national news, and the local paper would do the same for local news. With news now coming at us every second of every day from myriad sources, how does a consumer know which source to trust? Is it the national network news? Is it the print reporter covering the topic for the first time? Is it the blog post from a citizen journalist? Is it the company-sponsored story that shows up packaged as news? Who do you trust when different news sources present different perspectives? How can you be sure you’re getting the information you need to make an informed decision on any topic? The answer may be to check many different sources, but sadly, few people have the time or inclination to do that. We all suffer from both information overload and information deficit. Too much information coming at us too fast means we’re less likely to really pay attention to the details, making for a poorly informed public.
4. News as a Commodity
The bottom line is this—it all comes down to money, with news now becoming just another product. So downsizing news staff is a purely business decision. It doesn’t matter whether a reporter is an institution at a publication like The New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier, with a legacy of insight and skill or a newbie fresh out of college. Both must contribute to the bottom line or risk losing their jobs. This commoditization of news has led to a variety of options for finding information, but it also requires people to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to judge the quality of that information. Gone are the days when news was motivated solely by the “peoples’ right to know.” The people still have a right to know, but that all important profit motive may now be the larger goal of news. And that’s a sad commentary—news or otherwise—for all of us.