They were our heroes. Woodward and Bernstein brought down a president. The New York Times published "The Pentagon Papers" in the face of government resistance to revealing damaging truths. "Uncle" Walter Cronkite spoke for many Americans when he concluded that the Vietnam War was not winnable. Many in our generation saw the news media as a positive force in society, driving out secrecy and corruption with the "disinfecting" light of information.
Today, as a recent AARP poll shows, journalists have joined members of Congress and used-car salesmen in the category of folks that few people trust. And a new report from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism dives deeply into some of the reasons that this is so, while it examines the demographics and economics of the news business today.
One key finding: consumers of news are becoming fed up with reductions in coverage, especially in the quality of that coverage. And that's true whether or not they are aware of the financial problems plaguing the news media, as it loses advertising and circulation dollars.
As many as a third of U.S. adults, according to the study, have abandoned a news outlet "because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to receiving ... Fully 61 percent said they noticed that stories were less complete compared with 24 percent who said they noticed fewer stories overall." Interestingly, older readers are more likely to have abandoned their newspaper, magazine or TV broadcast (see chart at right).
As newspapers struggle, digital delivery of news and information is growing fast. According to the report, "about 43 percent of those aged 50 to 64 get some form of digital news ... compared with 60 percent of the younger age groups. What stands out more, when it comes to age, is the degree those under 30 are moving away from traditional delivery systems altogether."
You probably know why the network evening news seems inundated with commercials that solve real and imagined ills of old age. "The network evening news audience skews older than Americans overall," the report confirms. "The average age of a regular network evening news viewer is 53, while the median age of the U.S. population in 2010 was 37, according to the U.S. Census." These broadcasts have lost more than half their audience since 1980 - from more than 50 million to around 22 million. The good news is that these broadcasts still feature stories that present news gathered and curated by journalists, rather than the less expensive and less balanced presentation often found on cable networks, where opinion may replace fact.
As audiences abandon traditional outlets and flock to new ones, older men and women aren't substituting digital sources for traditional ones, they're adding to their news consumption via mobile devices. "It is traditionally the case that older adults are more avid news consumers than younger adults," the report explains. "So the older adults who have invested in a tablet or smartphone are even more likely to be news junkies who appreciate getting news on multiple platforms." And these older adults, at least in the short term, may be the prime audience who could support a rejuvenated news industry, if it can create innovative revenue models.
The report is full of insights and information impossible to summarize in a short blog post. If you're interested in the subject, dive in.
For lessons learned from the 2012 Presidential campaign, including the insight that most information voters received was spun by partisan voices, rather than written by journalists, watch the Pew video below.