CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
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Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry

This is the second in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. Our posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from the specific evaluations. Join CIRCLE for an ongoing discussion of the posts using the hashtag #ChangeTheDialogue, as well as a live chat on Tuesday, June 25th at 2pm ET/1pm CT/11am PT.

Two Democracy Fund grantees–the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the Columbia Journalism Review–worked to support reporters and editors in order to improve their election coverage and better inform the public on key issues of national concern. We evaluated these initiatives by interviewing some of the potentially affected journalists, 97 in all.

One theme that emerged very clearly was the challenging situation that confronts the news industry. This context has been well documented in other research. For example, according to a study of the changing news environment in Baltimore, conducted by the Pew Research Center,  the number of news outlets in the city has proliferated to 53 “radio talk shows, . . . blogs, specialized new outlets, new media sites, TV stations, radio news programs, newspapers and their various legacy media websites.” But the number of reporters has fallen. That means there is more written and spoken about the news than ever, but it is highly repetitive. A search of six major news topics found that 83 percent of the articles and blog posts repeated the same material—sometimes with commentary—and more than half the original text came from paid print media such as the Baltimore Sun.

In turn, Baltimore’s remaining professional journalists are so overstretched that they cannot provide what is called “enterprise reporting” (digging to find new information not already in the public domain). The city government and other official institutions now have more, rather than less, control over the news. The report notes, “As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.”

Our interviews found ample evidence of similar conditions. One reporter said, “the political reporting in our state has shrunk to the point where a lot of the major reporters are ones that have been doing it for decades and, quite frankly, their reporting (and lack of digging) reflects how tired they are.”

On the whole, our interviewees were very pleased to be provided with support in the form of CPI’s in-depth reporting and the Columbia Journalism Review’s coverage of their work. For example:

  • “Without that kind of work I don’t know how one could sort themselves through what’s happened, unless they’ve been following for the past 5 years.”

  • “Without Open Secrets and CPI I don’t know how a journalist who is new could figure this stuff out.”

They noted various ways in which these interventions had affected them. They mentioned learning about good practices that are used in other newspapers, getting ideas for stories, and encouraging high quality work. Commenting on the CJR’s effort, one reporter said, “It sort of serves as a watchdog to remind people to do a good job, to do a thorough job, to look for fresh angles, to dig beneath the surface, and, ah, hopefully those are things that I’m doing already.”

Local coverage emerged as an area that needs special attention and support. As a reporter told us, “One of the faults with journalism coverage and journalism criticism, in general, is that it tends to focus on the big national players and the big national issues. And as we’ve seen a number of major publications pull back on local coverage …, it’s become all the more important that we have some sort of press criticism function taking care of local media and engaging with local media. And I think that a lot of reporters working locally and regionally would benefit from that sort of attention and that sort of engagement as well.”

There were, however, a few concerns that also related to the limited capacity and fragile financial condition of the news industry. CPI’s model is to provide in-depth reporting that news sources can use in writing their own articles and broadcasts, and a few respondents were worried that CPI might become a competitor for readers. The Columbia Journalism Review wrote appreciative as well as critical articles about political news coverage, but a few respondents felt that these articles did not demonstrate adequate sensitivity to the limited capacity of local newsrooms. Although most interviewees were pleased with the CJR’s coverage, the relatively few respondents who felt it was unfair were likely to think that the CJR’s correspondent had overlooked their limited capacity to accomplish what was being suggested.

CIRCLE’s interviews suggest the following conclusions:

  • Because of staffing cuts and turnover in the profession, the news media struggles to cover politics. They are aware of their difficult situation and generally grateful for assistance.

  • Providing high-quality information and constructive criticism does change reporters’ behavior.

  • Professionals in the news media are understandably somewhat sensitive about being given advice unless the person offering it recognizes the practical limitations they face.

  • They are also concerned about being manipulated by ostensibly nonpartisan organizations that they fear may have partisan objectives. (See our previous blog post on the problem of distrust.)

  • Interventions designed to support the news media should not inadvertently compete with the news media by taking away readers or viewers.

This post is cross-posted on the Democracy Fund blog. Stay tuned for more analysis in the upcoming weeks. The previous entry in the series can be accessed at:

  1. Educating Voters in a Time of Political Polarization

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