A Silver Lining in the Newspaper Crisis

by: Jeff Bercovici

If you're a regular reader of blogs like this one, you might have concluded there's nothing positive to say about the current state of the newspaper industry.

So it's striking just how much good news there is to be found in a major study released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. PEJ's researchers surveyed editors at hundreds of dailies for the report, "The Changing Newsroom: What Is Being Gained and What Is Being Lost in America's Daily Newspapers?"

To be sure, all the gloom and doom is in there -- the mass buyouts and layoffs, the shrinking newsholes, the plunging ad revenues. But despite all that -- or maybe because of it -- newspapers are getting smarter, more creative and more efficient, both objectively and in the view of the people who run them.

With the overwhelming majority of papers having downsized their newsrooms (85 percent of big papers and 52 percent of papers with circulations under 100,000), some editorial retrenchment is a given -- as is some hand-wringing over that retrenchment. But papers aren't going about it willy-nilly, nor are they sacrificing expensive prestige journalism in favor of the reader- and advertiser-friendly stuff that pays the bills.

Rather, they're very sensibly shifting their resources away from areas where their efforts can easily be duplicated and into the sorts of coverage where they can best distinguish themselves from competitors in all media. For most papers, that means not trying to compete with The New York Times, the Associated Press, et al on national and international news, and instead beefing up the state and local news desks. Why spend thousands of dollars a month to put one more reporter on the Obama press plane in hopes of catching a campaign aide in a gaffe when the same reporter could be digging around at City Hall for something truly exclusive? This is what Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan was talking about when she predicted that the newspapers of the future would survive by eliminating "journalists whose job it is to rewrite an AP story."

Without a doubt, closing foreign bureaus and keeping reporters close to home will take a toll on the depth and sophistication of the portrait of the world newspapers are able to paint for their readers. But it's not as though the areas where they're consolidating their resources -- education, crime, the environment -- are worthless.

It's especially heartening to see how many editors say their papers are doing more investigative work than they were a few years ago -- and doing it better, thanks to the same phenomenon that has rendered their papers' national and foreign reporting increasingly irrelevant: the internet. Data-mining has become an indispensable tool in the enterprise team's kit, allowing them to break stories they never would have attempted a generation ago. No wonder, according to PEJ, editors are describing their staffs as feeling energized and filled with competitive fire.

The web also seems to be having a salutary effect on newspaper writing. Despite the shrinking of newsholes, story counts are actually up as editors impose greater discipline on inch-counts and relegate B-matter to the website, where interested readers can easily find it. Those who prefer shorter stories have more to choose from and less filler to wade through.

Which brings up perhaps the most interesting point. In a recent article for The Nation, Eric Alterman predicted that newspaper subscribers, detecting the drop in editorial quality brought about by shrinking newsrooms, would cancel their subscriptions en masse. In fact, that analysis could hardly be further from the truth. Often, the first offerings to go in the face of cost-cutting are those with the least journalistic value -- TV listings, stock tables, crossword puzzles. And those are the changes that elicit reader complaints and subscription cancellations, concludes PEJ, while the cuts to national and international reporting go all but unnoticed by consumers.

In other words, far from keeping newspapers honest, readers are standing in the way of a necessary and beneficial evolution.