I have a confession to make: I am dependent on the news media. I need the media because they tell me what is going on in the world beyond my own personal experiences. If you are reading this, you probably do too. So do many other Americans each day.
But the news media we depend on are in trouble. One problem is declining audiences. Young people today are less likely than their parents to read newspapers. That isn't just a trait of youth. Fifty years ago, newspaper readership levels were about equal for older people and younger ones. Young people are turning away from television as well. In 2006, half of people under the age of 30 watched television news daily. By 2012, that had dropped to one-third!
Audience loss isn't the only problem. Advertising revenue for traditional news media has plummeted. Over the past decade, ad revenue for newspapers halved. Local television news advertising revenue is down $3 billion dollars over the past eight years.
As a result, news organizations are shrinking. Over the past six years, an estimated 17,000 newsroom jobs have disappeared. There are now as many journalists as there were in 1978, despite the growth in population over the past 35 years.
Not surprisingly, these cutbacks affect coverage. The broadcast news channels abandoned breaking news a long time ago. But cable channels also are cutting back on their news operations as well. Coverage of live events by CNN, Fox and MSNBC fell 30 percent over the past five years. One content analysis of news content found that journalists covering the 2012 presidential campaign allowed the partisans on each side to set the news media's narrative for the campaign rather than providing independent analysis.
These developments are disturbing because the news media play critical roles in a democratic society. One of those roles is to organize information for the average citizen. Many claim that role is no longer necessary at a time when anybody can publish anything on the Internet. Who needs journalism, so the argument goes, when so much information is available from blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media?
Actually, journalists are even more necessary in an information-rich environment. Citizens are inundated with so much information we can easily miss what is most important for us to know. A recent survey found that 54 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that journalists are more important today because they "help make sense of all the information that is available." The news media were designed to inform their news audiences quickly and efficiently. That task is no less necessary today.
Another role a democratic society cannot do without is a watchdog. The news media offer a watchdog role over government that other institutions do not perform. News media have played a role in uncovering the major scandals of the past half century — Watergate, Iran-contra, Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and illegal wiretapping by the Bush administration, for example. Fortunately, Americans realize that. The Pew Research Center recently reported that two-thirds of Americans said journalists "keep leaders from doing things that shouldn't be done."
However, just because the news media are important in the functioning of a democracy doesn't mean they will necessarily be there to fulfill those roles. Newspapers, newsmagazines, television and radio are attempting to adapt to the digital world by following audiences online. News organizations are struggling to find economic models that work in a rapidly changing news environment. For the sake of all of us who rely on the news media, let's hope they succeed.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.
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