Yes, there are continuing signs of economic trouble for the business of newsgathering and distribution -- in particular for newspapers, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
But a mix of good journalism and smarter business operations bodes well for news as envisioned by the nation's original "freelancers" -- the writers who drafted and adopted the First Amendment's protection for a free press.
The Pew Center's State of the News Media 2012 is a snapshot of a profession in deep change -- positive and negative. In 2011, the negatives included a finding that "losses in print advertising dollars outpaced gains in digital revenue by a factor of roughly 10 to 1, a ratio even worse than in 2010." Pew noted that "when circulation and advertising revenue are combined, the newspaper industry has shrunk 43 percent since 2000."
But the report also found that last year, a growing number of traditional news operations took steps toward a new web-based economic model to replace one based on huge profits from print classified and display advertising.
The Associated Press launched a partnership with more than two dozen news companies to license news content and collect royalties from aggregators -- attacking both the technology and mentality that a "free press" somehow means free news.
Mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets are bringing readers back to news; there are signals in the Pew report that people are willing to spend more time on news rather than just entertainment or social networking.
About a tenth of daily newspapers have launched some sort of digital subscription plan or "pay wall" -- a pay-to-see system, Pew said. Some are also developing their own staffs to harvest online business themselves, rather than through expensive third-party vendors.
Perhaps the most encouraging words from the Pew report, in a summary by Amy Mitchell and Tom Rosenstiel, are that we continue to look to traditional news outlets -- and locally, newspapers -- for the information we need about how our communities are operating, and to keep a watchful eye on government.
Again from the Pew study: "Among all adults, newspapers were cited as the most relied-upon source or tied for most relied upon for crime, taxes, local government activities, schools, local politics, local jobs, community/neighborhood events, arts events, zoning information, local social services, and real estate/housing."
One constant in all of this change has been that high-quality journalism flourishes even in the worst of times. In a recent Scripps Howard Foundation journalism-awards competition, entries included major investigative reports, among them an effort by a small, two-person newspaper in North Carolina that has defied official pressure and threats of violence to hold local government officials accountable.
Here are just a few examples from the Scripps Howard entries of why journalism has a bright future, and why a free press deserves not only to survive but thrive:
•A New York Times yearlong investigation of more than 2,000 state-run homes for the developmentally disabled that led to reforms.
•A five-part Wall Street Journal series that exposed pervasive mismanagement in the Social Security Disability Insurance system, prompting resignations, investigations and long-term efforts to overhaul the system.
•Weekly reports from the above-noted Yancey County News, Burnsville, N.C., that has exposed absentee-ballot fraud, ethics violations, abuse of arrest powers, and the theft and illegal sale of county-owned firearms -- all during the newspaper's first year of operation.
The ASNE convention will last a little more than two days. Newspapers as we have known them may or may not last out the decade. But as the nation's Founders anticipated more than 220 years ago, all signs continue to show how much we need news and information from an independent, vigorous press.
And the good news this day is we still have that.
Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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