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On Monday the Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual State of the News Media report. It’s worthwhile reading for anyone who’s interested in the major trends affecting not just the news industry but the culture of information dissemination in this country.

I’ve been reading the report since last night and find myself agreeing with just about all its major observations. Here are some especially noteworthy snippets. From the Introduction:

The state of the American news media in 2008 is more troubled than a year ago.

And the problems, increasingly, appear to be different than many experts have predicted.

Critics have tended to see technology democratizing the media and traditional journalism in decline. Audiences, they say, are fragmenting across new information sources, breaking the grip of media elites. Some people even advocate the notion of “The Long Tail,” the idea that, with the Web’s infinite potential for depth, millions of niche markets could be bigger than the old mass market dominated by large companies and producers.

The reality, increasingly, appears more complex. Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media. The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists …

From the Major Trends section:

• News is shifting from being a product — today’s newspaper, Web site or newscast — to becoming a service — how can you help me, even empower me? There is no single or finished news product anymore. As news consumption becomes continual, more new effort is put into producing incremental updates, as brief as 40-character e-mails sent from reporters directly to consumers without editing. (The afternoon newspaper is also being reborn online.) Service also broadens the definition of what journalists must supply. Story telling and agenda setting — still important — are now insufficient. Journalism also must help citizens find what they are looking for, react to it, sort it, shape news coverage, and — probably most important and least developed — give them tools to make sense of and use the information for themselves. …

• A news organization and a news Web site are no longer final destinations. Now they must move toward also being stops along the way, gateways to other places, and a means to drill deeper, all ideas that connect to service rather than product. “The walled garden is over,” the editor of one of the most popular news sites in the country told us. A site restricted to its own content takes on the character of a cul de sac street with yellow “No Outlet” sign, reducing its value to the user. “Search has become the predominant … paradigm,” an influential market research report circulating throughout the industry reads. That means every page of a Web site — even one containing a single story — is its own front page. And each piece of content competes on its own with all other information on that topic linked to by blogs, “digged” by user news sites, sent in e-mails, or appearing in searches. As much as half of every Web page, designers advise, should be devoted to helping people find what they want on the rest of the site or the Web.

The report goes on like that, in delicious depth and with calm, insightful reasoning.

The only quibble I have is with the report’s suggestion that “The prospects for user-created content, once thought possibly central to the next era of journalism, for now appear more limited, even among ‘citizen’ sites and blogs.” I would have preferred to see a deeper discussion of the prospects for citizen media in the near term, given the meltdown in metropolitan newspapers’ circulations and revenue streams.

Having said that, anyone who’s interested in the pursuit of journalism and who believes in the importance of knowledge-sharing as a fundamental pillar of our democratic institutions will come away, after reading the report, with a clearer understanding of the precarious state of today’s news media.