Consumers abandon newspapers, local TV as quality of coverage sinks

Nearly one-third of American adults have stopped using a news source because its quality of coverage has declined amid cutbacks, a survey by Pew Research Center finds.

Cutbacks at newspapers and local television stations have left the news industry undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories or dig deep into public issues, according to the Pew Research Center’s annual report on American journalism.

That conclusion might be expected to matter most to journalists struggling to keep their jobs. But members of the general public have noticed the cutbacks in quality, which have caused them to turn away from news outlets, reports Pew, a respected nonpartisan organization.

Nearly one-third of US adults have stopped using a news source because it no longer provided them with the quality of coverage they were accustomed to getting. “With reporting resources cut to the bone and fewer specialized beats, journalists’ level of expertise in any one area and the ability to go deep into a story are compromised,” the report said.

The woes of the newspaper industry are well known. A more recent development is that “local TV finds itself newly vulnerable,” Pew said. Or, as The New York Times put it, “local TV news is following print’s path.” 

Local TV audiences were down in every time slot and across all networks in 2013. While advertising purchases during the 2012 election provided a temporary boost to revenues, average revenue for news-producing TV stations fell 36 percent from 2006 to 2011.

When Pew surveyed local TV news content, it found sports, weather, and traffic account for 40 percent of the average local news broadcast. The length of reported stories is shrinking. News providers face a vicious cycle.  As customers leave, news organizations can afford fewer reporters. That hurts quality and can lead to a further reduction in audience size.

“The relationship between the declining fortunes of news outlets and the shrinking of their audiences is a difficult one to untangle, a chicken-and-egg problem," notes Forbes blogger Jeff Bercovici. “If it wasn’t a lack of quality that caused consumers to start turning away from their local papers and TV stations in the first place, there’s evidence that it’s now contributing to the trend in a real way.”

The public’s increased use of mobile devices to access news is a positive development in some ways. Thirty-one percent of tablet users “spend more time with news since getting their mobile devices and 43 percent said that the device is adding to the amount of news they consume,” notes PBS's Mediashift blog.

But traditional news providers such as newspapers and local TV stations are having a hard time getting their share of mobile ad sales. Jim Romenesko’s media blog highlights the fact that 72 percent of the mobile ad market goes to just six companies, including Facebook. Pew found that improved geo-targeting lets national advertisers turn to Google and Facebook rather than buy ads from local media outlets.

In search of a viable business model, the newspaper industry “may have reached a tipping point in 2012” in using a pay wall model in which subscribers pay for their access to news, Pew found. Some 450 of the nation’s 1,380 daily papers now have a pay wall or plan to implement one.

“Increasingly, it’s not just a question of what people want,” former ABC News President David Westin told The Associated Press. "It’s what people are willing to pay for.”

Amy Mitchell, acting director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, will offer more details on the report’s findings in a webinar on Wednesday.

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