May 2005 – It was only a generation ago that Walter Cronkite ended his CBS news broadcasts by telling American viewers, “And that’s the way it was.”
Today, however, other media voices are competing for the ear of American news consumers – in effect creating a growing number of sources from which people can obtain a version of “the way it was.”
In fact, a new report issued in March reveals that trends over the last decade are producing serious challenges for traditional news media, creating opportunities for alternative media sources to boost their influence in the culture.
The report, titled The State of the News Media, was produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. As it did in its first account last year, the new report indicated that journalism was “in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous as the invention of the telegraph or television.”
A hunger for options
On the most basic level, the “old media” – network television news, daily newspapers and, to some extent, magazines like Time – are simply losing customers. According to the report, for example, the percentage of people who said they had watched television news (the day before) dropped from 72% to 60% between 1994 and 2004. The drop for newspaper readers, while not as precipitous, was still significant – declining from 49% to 42% over the same 10-year period.
Certainly part of the explanation for this trend is the fact that the mainstream media has, to some extent, lost the trust of the American people. “Americans remain skeptical about the [traditional] news media,” the report said.
In fact, over the last 17 years covered by the study, the Project said confidence in the truthfulness, accuracy and integrity of the news media has dropped dramatically.
While dissatisfaction with the old media was growing, many people – especially Christians – developed a hunger for options when it came to getting news. Into that void flowed alternative outlets such as talk radio, cable news and the Internet.
“Part of the success of American Family Radio (AFR) News has resulted from the failure of the mainstream media to give Christians what they wanted,” said AFR News director Fred Jackson. “There has been a hunger, among conservatives in particular, for some other way to get their news that doesn’t have all that liberal bias in it.”
Jody Brown, editor of AFA’s Internet news outlet, AgapePress, agreed. “A lot of people are not seeing the Christian perspective in their local newspapers,” he said. “They ask themselves, ‘Why isn’t my paper talking about these issues?’ So they go looking for the Christian and ethical content they aren’t getting from the traditional media.”
Old media dominance is ending, then, not only because it is often distrusted, but simply because it is no longer the only available news source.
Rise of new technology
However, it would be a mistake, in Jackson’s opinion, to ignore another factor which helped spur the success of alternative media. “It was more than just a desire for options. It was that the technology arrived at the right time,” he said. “So it was a convergence of factors.”
Jackson noted that the explosive spread of cable television helped inaugurate this technological shift, delivering the first blow against broadcast news dominance. “In terms of the media, cable brought us Fox News, which brought us greater variety in television news,” he said. “And then the evolution of the Internet, which has opened the door for even small groups to create their own news base – or even a news agency – which can put stories out there from a Christian perspective.”
The advance and spread of new cheap technology broadens the media playing field, Jackson said, and allows these small groups to become “real competitors with the mainstream media.”
AgapePress is a prime example of the Internet’s potential to allow a smaller journalist staff to reach a limitless number of people. While relying on some stories from AFR as well as the AFA Journal, Brown and associate Jenni Parker still write plenty as the only two journalists at AgapePress.
That small staff has not limited the potential of the AFA Internet news outlet, which has seen impressive growth since it first began in June 2000. With a distinctly Christian perspective, AgapePress began with an Internet mailing list of 1,100 for its free daily news summary, according to Brown. But over the last five years that has grown to 36,000, with almost 70 Christian newspapers and 30 Web sites subscribing to the full service.
An additional 3,000 to 4,000 other Web sites are using AgapePress’s free headlines, Brown said, while the AgapePress Web site has 10 million page-views per month and 100,000 unique visitors per month.
Current trends indicate that the Internet will only continue to grow as an alternative news source. The State of the News Media report stated that, between 1995 and 2004, the percentage of people who said they had gone online the day before skyrocketed from 4% to 47% of respondents. While accessing news online was virtually unknown in 1994, in 2004 29% of Americans said they had used the Internet to obtain news information.
As a result, online news sources that find a niche amidst the flourishing garden which is the Internet are bound to prosper. Last year, the Project noted, Google News “emerged as a major new player in online news ….”
The rise of new technologies, however, seems to have caught the old media flat-footed. According to the report, for example, the networks seem to be cutting back their investments in Internet news formats.
New journalistic forms
One of the other results of the explosion of the alternative media is that the proliferation of news sources has turned many Americans into true news “consumers,” much like shoppers at the local mall.
That means, said The State of the News Media, that the new technologies are “transforming citizens from passive consumers of news produced by professionals into active participants who can assemble their own journalism from disparate elements.”
The report applauded these trends as evidence of what it saw as “the rise of a new and more active kind of American citizenship.” But it also cited some cautionary notes, because the compounding of news sources has resulted in a mutation of sorts – i.e., new journalistic forms.
In the traditional model of the press, journalists were supposedly engaged in an effort to merely validate the facts of a particular event. However, the newer, more participatory mentality among media consumers has created a tendency to gravitate to outlets that spoon-feed news from a predigested point of view.
The report said that in this “journalism of affirmation,” the news is “gathered with a point of view, whether acknowledged or not, and audiences come to have their preconceptions reinforced.”
That development has, in turn, yielded yet another journalistic model in which statements are made, and only then – often through radio and television talk shows and Internet sites – does the process of verification begin. In other words, the “journalism of verification” is giving way to the “journalism of assertion.”
Like Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?”, the answer, in terms of journalism, is becoming trickier. The report said, “[J]ournalism is not becoming irrelevant. The need to know what is true is all the greater, but discerning and communicating it is more difficult.”
Some among old media journalists complain about this journalism of assertion, which they claim is prevalent on talk radio, cable news programs and the Internet.
However, this leads others, like Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, to answer that, well, the old media started the trend. Lichter told USA Today that in the cultural furor over Vietnam and Watergate, journalists “decided they had a larger role to play in politics and society. They weren’t just telling people what was going on. They were refereeing among the various contenders for influence by telling us who is telling the truth, who is lying and what the truth is. Once you start doing that, you have created journalism of assertion.”
The mainstream media could make their assertions, Lichter said, because “they had no competition. The politicians could yell and scream, but journalists could say, ‘We’re the public tribunes. We have the constitutional right to tell the public that you are lying.’ Now the ‘right’ that professional journalists asserted in the ’60s is being claimed by Internet writers. Journalistic arrogance is coming back to roost.”
There may not have been competition back in Walter Cronkite’s day, but according to the trends noted by The State of the News Media, there’s competition now. There is currently a whole new media world in existence that Cronkite undoubtedly didn’t see coming. But it has come. And that’s the way it is in 2005.