Thursday, January 22, 2009

Project for Excellence in Journalism: Tom Rosenstiel

Technology is revolutionizing the way people get their news, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told students Wednesday.

PEJ, a part of the Pew Research Center, studies the performance of the news media. With PEJ, Rosenstiel sought a different approach to media criticism, transferring the focus from the thoughts of older members of the industry to an empirical approach. PEJ issues reports based on content analyses weekly as well as topical and a year end “state of the industry” report.

The weekly reports synthesize studies of 48 different media outlets across mediums. This year, PEJ has upped the number of online outlets from five to 12, making a total of 55.

The reason for upping the number of online outlets has to do with the way technology has changed how people consume the news, Rosenstiel said. Evidence for this can be seen in the shift from all of America turning to a network news figure like Walter Cronkite on CBS Evening News and trusting him to deliver their news at dinnertime to a fragmented viewership shrinking the network news’ share of the audience from about 75 percent to 30 percent, he said.

This revolution reflects a shift in power. Consumers have moved from “passive consumers” to “proactive hunter-gatherers.” The audience is increasingly its own editor, assembling its own diet of news and taking over the journalist’s role as a gate-keeper, Rosenstiel said.

Despite the changes in media consumption, traditional media still has an audience, and that audience is actually growing, particularly online, Rosenstiel said. Of the top 20 news destinations online, all but one are traditional brands.

“The challenge is not the loss of audience – the problem is a revenue problem,” Rosenstiel said. “The Internet is decoupling news from its revenue source.”

News outlets, especially newspapers, are funded by advertising. Advertising as a revenue source has insulated the news from political influence as news organizations with many advertisers can afford to lose some if they question news judgment, Rosenstiel said. This is more difficult with only a few underwriters, he said. The problem is that the Internet has currently been a bad outlet for reaching consumers as they interact differently with advertising online – seeing it as a nuisance rather than part of the content, Rosenstiel said. News outlets will have to come up with a new revenue model if they are to survive, he said.

This technology also presents challenges online in the type of coverage. As outlets can find out what coverage is most popular, some will abandon other coverage and in turn alienate some of their audience as network news did, Rosenstiel said.

However, new mediums and technologies present opportunities for richer journalism, Rosenstiel said. Where newspapers have five or six elements that could be used to tell a story, the Internet has 56 elements, he said.

“The medium has the potential to make a much better journalism if we as journalists learn how to use it well,” Rosenstiel said. “It’s like we used to be able to build houses with basically a saw, hammer and screw drivers. Now we’ve got this whole litany of power tools you can use. You can make a better house, but if you use the power tools the wrong way, all you’ve done is use power tools poorly.”

- Derek Casanovas and Jasmine Linabary

Want to hear more from Rosenstiel? Check out the video below:

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