Washington, DC, July 26, 2001 -- U.S. newspapers report dramatic changes in the way they define and cover news and even how they view their mission, a new survey of the nation's top editors reveals.
Key among the findings is that editors report a sharply increased appetite for more two-way connections with readers. Nine of 10 editors surveyed also say the future of the industry depends on even more interactivity with readers.
"This represents a sea change in the relationship between newsrooms and the public for a whole generation of journalists who joined the profession after Watergate," says Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. The Pew Center sponsored the survey, along with the Associated Press Managing Editors association and the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
The unprecedented survey of all daily newspapers with circulation of 20,000 and more shows many papers are covering more topics than ever before. More than a third are covering more territory than ever before. Seventy percent of the newspapers responded.
"This survey tracks a hopeful and overdue trend in newsrooms," says
Chris Peck, APME President and Editor of The Spokesman-Review,
in Spokane, WA. "Journalists are realizing their role is to connect with
readers and interact with communities, not be disconnected and aloof."
Peck will release details of the survey on July 26 at a National Press
Club luncheon in Washington, DC. Terence Smith, Media Correspondent and
Senior Producer of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, will help lead
"The poll reflects that newspapers finally have gotten the message that
a press that too often emphasizes conflict and controversy to the exclusion
of explanatory and public service journalism alienates readers," said
Jack Nelson, chairman of the Pew Center's Advisory Board and Chief Washington
Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. "It's a healthy development
for the press and the public that there is an increasing emphasis on articles
that better connect with readers and report on solutions as well as problems."
The study shows that the new communication technologies and the new geography of journalism "are forcing news organizations to pay attention. They are reassessing what they do - and how they do it," says Schaffer. "There is a higher comfort level for relinquishing traditional control and building journalism that is less of a one-way pipeline for information and more of a two-way conversation."
Few editors in the survey describe their newspaper's role in the community as simply a disseminator of facts. Eighty-seven percent say newspapers should have a broader role in the community beyond just printing news.
The editors rank "news explainer" first among six specific roles that newspapers can play. "News breaker" comes in second; "investigative watchdog," third; "catalyst for community conversation" and "community steward" follow. The role of "disseminator of just the facts" finishes last.
"The report challenges us," says Fred Fiske, NCEW president and senior editor of the Syracuse Newspapers. "Editors are not satisfied with efforts to date to increase reader engagement. Editorial page staffs across the country are equal to the challenge. They already are exploring new and creative ways to amplify that community conversation."
Large majorities of editors say they now offer many entry points for readers to interact with reporters and editors. Interactive avenues include widespread use of e-mail addresses and phone numbers for reporters; tips lines for reader ideas; venues, aside from editorial pages, for readers' own stories; and Web postings of news-gathering queries. More than half the respondents say they have convened conversations about a key community issue outside the newsroom.
"So much of current newsroom focus in journalism is on the 'C' word
- convergence, " Schaffer says. "But this survey suggests the focus
should be on a different 'C' word - citizens. The kinds of interactions
with readers will then dictate the appropriate news platform."
Editors who say they practice civic journalism, by seeking actively to engage readers in key issues, are more likely than professed non-civic journalists to have adopted a variety of outreach mechanisms. Forty-five percent of the editors surveyed say their newsrooms use both the tools and techniques of civic journalism.
Still, the survey found editors to be less comfortable with the label,
civic journalism, although the philosophy and tools are enjoying broad
acceptance. While 19 percent of the editors say they "embrace the label
civic journalism," a much larger group - 47 percent - say they "like the
philosophy/dislike the label." Just 10 percent say they "recoil" from
the label; 9 percent say they dislike both the philosophy and the label.
Nearly two-thirds of the editors say their newsrooms have formed partnerships with another local organization during the development of stories.
The survey also shows considerable changes in the way stories are written. More than half the editors say they have made a conscious effort to move away from building their stories around a conventional frame of conflict. Among the new approaches:
- Roughly one-third indicate they prefer to frame their stories around the potential impact of a news event on people or the community.
- Eight in 10 say they offer stories about potential solutions to community problems at least some of the time.
- Forty-three percent say they make an effort, most of the time, to include the views of all potential stakeholders.
- Fifty-seven percent say, most of the time, they try to report trade-offs their community might be forced to make in addressing problems.
The need to connect more with readers has prompted considerable shifts in the topics covered by many daily newspapers. One-quarter of the editors say their papers are covering education issues more than they did five years ago; nearly that many say they've increased coverage of health, medicine and personal fitness over the last five years. In addition, 22 percent report increased coverage of business and personal finance; 21 percent report more coverage of regional growth and development.
To accommodate the new emphasis on these coverage areas, at a time when editors are also reporting cutbacks in staff, newspapers have made some tough choices. By far, the biggest loser in this equation is the coverage of government. Three-quarters of the editors say their papers are covering fewer routine government and school board meetings.
One editor explains his newspaper's decision to scale back coverage of routine governmental meetings by volunteering: "Political pissing contests and personality conflicts -- these things, unless they actually affect real people, are pointless."
Surveyed were 512 U.S. dailies with circulations of 20,000 or more. Responses were collected via mail, e-mail and telephone and analyzed by the Campaign Study Group of Springfield, VA. Seventy percent, some 360 editors, responded.
The "Journalism Interactive" survey was funded by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
the survey: Journalism