Earlier this month, the media chattering class made much of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2011 report, which found that — for the first time ever — more Americans got their news online than from newspapers (TV still ranked first for news consumption). This was trumpeted as a turning point for web news. Except that it wasn’t.
A closer look at the report shows that *where* we consumer news is undergoing a sea change, and the move is clearly toward digital. But the news we’re consuming isn’t changing radically. When readers go online, they are — quite often — reading work that was produced by what we used to call “traditional” media outlets. The report includes a comScore chart of the top news properties, and — of the top 10 sites — four newspapers made the cut, along with two cable networks and one broadcast television network (and the others relied heavily on content syndicated from other so-called traditional sources). That’s hardly a sign that the content creation business has been radically reshaped.
To be sure, the old economic models are under tremendous pressure. Despite my personal commitment to having news printed on dead trees and delivered each morning to my doorstep, the Pew report makes it clear that the glory days of printed papers is quickly receding. But it is dangerous to conflate the economic problems in the industry with the continued, strong demand for professional news.
Go into any newspaper newsroom today and very little has changed in the past decade. There may be more empty desks, more multimedia and hugely increased deadline pressure, but the techniques, the quality and the products are very much the same. The audience, too, is as healthy as ever: add traditional circulation to web hits and there’s no doubt that more people are getting news that originates in a traditional newsroom than they did a decade or two ago. Distribution may have been re-invented, but journalism has not.
I don’t wish to argue that new information flows created by everyone from citizen journalists to Wikileaks hasn’t enriched the way that we receive information, only that the the gatekeepers of influence have changed less than a chart showing the sharp rise of digital news consumption might suggest. The Pew report, viewed from that lens, tells an encouraging story: news is still news.