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Each year since 2004 the Project for Excellence in Journalism has dropped the bomb of knowledge on the media world in the form of the State of the News Media report. The report is breathtaking in scope, with quantitative research on newspapers, online, TV, magazines, radio and ethnic media. What are the trends? What’s working and what’s failing? PEJ looks at the quality of the journalism done along with the business models and the way audiences are becoming fragmented.

Yesterday, PEJ dropped the bomb again with its massive 160,000-word 2007 report, and not surprisingly a major takeaway was that “the news industry must become more aggressive about developing a new economic model” with the shift to online audiences. For the first time, PEJ turned its unblinking eye on major news websites ranging from NYTimes.com and BBC News to Digg, Google News and CBS TV 11 in Dallas.

Sites were judged in the following five categories: user customization, user participation, use of multimedia, site depth, and editorial branding. PEJ scored the sites for CBS News, the Washington Post, BBC News and Global Voices in the highest tier in three of the five categories judged. Here’s part of PEJ’s conclusion about why these four sites did best:

All of them scored highly for the originality of their content. All of them also scored highly for the extent to which they allowed users to customize the content, to make the sites their own or make the content mobile. None of them, interestingly, scored particularly well at allowing users to participate. Only two, CBS News and the Washington Post, involved a lot of multimedia components.

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PEJ’s Testing Ground

PEJ also includes a Flash-based Testing Ground online that lets you look at how the various sites compare in different categories, and you can do side-by-side comparisons of specific sites.

Last month I had a chance to chat by phone with PEJ’s director Tom Rosenstiel, who has been there since the Project launched 10 years ago. When I asked him how he chose the 38 sites to analyze for the online section, he said it wasn’t about the particular sites as much as it was about identifying the attributes of such a wide variety of sites.

“What sites you include is less important than what you are analyzing,” he said. “It’s not a critique of the individual sites but a more systematic look at different personalities of the sites…And those styles don’t necessarily have to do with their root media. The New York Times for example, is in a different website grouping than the Washington Post…The Washington Post is trying to create a new environment [online] that is not the newspaper, and The New York Times is really trying to sell you the New York Times online — it’s not as drastically a different environment.”

Rosenstiel gave me an overview of the PEJ, and how its mission has changed from running the Committee for Concerned Journalists, which helped train journalists, to beefing up the PEJ staff to do its own real-time analysis of journalism each week with the News Index online. And PEJ is planning to start doing a Blogger Index in the spring, which will survey several hundred blogs each week for quality of content and topic areas.

The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Tell me how the Project has changed over the years.

Tom Rosenstiel: When we started we were looking at a different media landscape. The Internet hadn’t really been developed; the tabloidization — the O.J.-ification — of the news was front and center. Primetime news magazines were very big on television, newspaper circulation had not begun the decline we see now. So the problems were different. It was a time when the big reform movement in journalism was the civic journalism or public journalism, which really didn’t engage the elite in the press corps at all.

Our goal was to get the elite people in journalism — both the owners and journalists — to think about their future. We came up with two approaches to do that. One was doing really systematic research that was quantitative in nature, which became a signature of our work. The other thing was to engage journalists at the highest levels of the profession who might have been put off by earlier reform efforts. The way we did that was to engage in a serious conversation about first principles. That was the basis for another group we formed, the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

In our seventh year, we launched an annual report on the state of the news media, which was not only a quantitative analysis but also included serious analysis of economic data, demographic data, all kinds of data, and wove that into a very systematic attempt to analyze where the press really is, using social science and academic techniques but writing it in a way to appeal to journalists and consumers could understand. It wasn’t aimed at an academic audience.

A lot of things changed just six months ago. When Pew funds a project like this, they normally say, “We’ll give you 10 years and then you’re on your own.” That’s typical for Pew Trusts. But they came to me and said, “We want to make this a more long-term commitment.” We went from having eight people working for PEJ to 20, and a large part of that was creating our own content analysis operation inside PEJ.

The spine of that is doing real-time content analysis. We’re analyzing 48 news outlets, 35 or 36 each day, with some rotation. We release every Monday something we call the News Coverage Index, which analyzes what the news outlets are covering and not covering and what is the arc of the coverage and what was the nature of the coverage. That real-time content analysis operation, the significance for us is that we have an inventory, a catalogue of what the media did last week, and we can go back and do other studies of that media much easier than we used to do.

With your State of the News Media report, how is it received usually online?

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Tom Rosenstiel

Rosenstiel: The annual report gets a huge amount of traffic every month. After the first few months, the traffic to the annual report is stable for the rest of the year and doesn’t drop off and is pretty high. Fifty percent of [our site’s traffic] goes to the annual report even long after the report came out.

Last year’s report was 180,000 words and I’ve written books half that length. We design the report to be online, and we don’t print it and bind it in a print form. It was designed to go on the web and we thought people would use it through the course of the year and it turned out to be right. You put something in an online setting and it’s much more accessible than if you print it up and put it on a bookshelf. Because it’s much easier to look something up instantaneously online. How many people watch network news? I’m already on my computer and can go to the website and get that answer.

I’m noticing that all the media foundations, especially Knight, are putting an emphasis on the way digital technologies are changing the traditional advertising business models and newsgathering methods. Are you going to look more into that?

Rosenstiel: In 2003, we started to work on the first annual report, which came out in 2004. What became clear in 2003 was that the audience was going online. You just looked at the age breakdown and saw that journalism of the future would be online because that’s where all the young people got their news.

Now, three and a half years later, instead of our writing ‘the audience is moving online but the resources are not, the traditional media sites are basically shovelware, they’re posting the material from root or old media,’ that’s no longer the case. It’s not to say that the traditional media websites are spectacular, but they have clearly shifted their emphasis, and it’s not unusual to see pronouncements like the one from the L.A. Times that their website would be their primary medium and that the newspaper would be viewed as a secondary product. Which of course isn’t the case financially or intellectually or in practice. The fact that the company announced that it was their intention is not unheard of, and is a signal that there’s been a dramatic shift in perception in the last three years, if not in reality.

We argue that the term “platform neutrality” is a mistake — that you should consider the Internet to be your primary medium and not be agnostic or neutral about it. If you are [agnostic], you’ll do what you’ve always done and say ‘I’m just as happy to do that online,’ and you’ll be left in the dust by Google or somebody who thinks of the Internet as a different and superior technology.

[Online is] increasingly the focus of the research we do. On election night, we analyzed coverage on the websites. We did the old media and their websites, and a lot of websites that were online-only. In our annual report this year, we have a taxonomy of news websites, where we look at 38 different news sites in nauseating detail — almost proctologically. We analyze what are the capacities and categories for getting news online. There is Digg and Global Voices and a lot of citizen media in that mix.

How do you gauge who’s influential among all the online news sites compared to just the traditional media outlets?

Rosenstiel: What sites you include is less important than what you are analyzing. It’s not a critique of the individual sites but a more systematic look at different personalities of the sites. It’s not a systematic look at CBS vs. NBC news websites, it’s more ‘here are the different styles of sites that exist.’ And those styles don’t necessarily have to do with their root media. And The New York Times for example, is in a different website grouping than the Washington Post.

The weekly study is a very shallow analysis of topics, what was covered and what wasn’t. This website study was done by a different group of people. It was kind of like a colonoscopy of the websites. You’re going down deep.

How do you think that weekly analysis will change if you look at the influence of blogs such as Daily Kos and Instapundit…

Rosenstiel: We will be launching a Blogger Index later in the spring. Right now, that weekly index is traditional media and we’ll introduce a second component, a Blogger Index. We were going to start with the Top 10 blogs based on traffic, but we decided to have a more multi-tier thing where we’ll look at top blogs based on traffic and may have several hundred blogs that will self-report what topics they are posting on. We’ll have a wide range of blogs and separately top blogs.

While it’s interesting to get top blogs, there’s such a diversity out there, that we thought it would be better to cover a wider range of blogs. We’re working with the Media Bloggers Association to put that together. We haven’t resolved how we’re going to do that but blogging will be a component of this. Of the weekly index, we have a certain number of talk shows and the blogger index will be different than the mainstream media index and will be there for comparative purposes.

Sounds like quite an undertaking, because there’s a real expansion now of who’s considered a journalist. There’s bloggers, there are podcasters, there are Apple gossip sites, there are all these citizen journalism sites. It would be difficult to get a handle on all of them.

Rosenstiel: Well we started with the traditional media mix and figured out how to do that after many months of rehearsing. Our expectation is that in a couple years, what’s in that might be different or bigger, because the landscape is changing so rapidly. It was in 2005 that we began to see blogs in a significant way coming out of the 2004 election. I don’t even know what we will call them in a couple years. The term “blog” might be obsolete and we may have another term to call these things. It’s almost hard to predict.

The issues we’ve studied have changed. In ’96 it was tabloidization and Princess Diana’s death. And in 2000 it was conglomeration like AOL and Time Warner, and Viacom and CBS. Now six years later those companies are breaking up. Clear Channel is splitting itself up and going private. There are trends and fads that are cyclical, and there are other things driven by technology. The notion of private ownership groups becoming a major factor [in the media business] was not on the horizon two or three years ago, and now is a major trend in media ownership.

How do you gauge the quality of journalism now? A lot of people say the golden age of journalism was in the ’70s and everything has suffered with corporate cutbacks. And if you do look at all the new forms of journalism, it’s hard to say if it’s better now that it was then.

Rosenstiel: I totally agree with you. You have to be more supple than that. Clearly citizens have access to a wider range of information than they ever have and that’s a positive thing — I don’t see how you can dispute that. On the other hand, most news outlets have a smaller audience and they’ve cut back on their resources. So CBS News has fewer people working for it, and has fewer bureaus and that’s not a good thing.

I think it’s probably impossible to weigh those out and say things are 7% worse or better. But you can say, “This part is clearly an improvement for the citizen and this part is not.” One net effect we found last year is that you have more reporters in the field but they’re covering less stories. Why? These reporters are dispersed across more news outlets but they all feel the obligation to cover the top two or three stories of the day.

So you have more people covering the top stories and fewer people covering the stories that are now going uncovered. They would have been covered a few years ago, because you had an oligarchal media system, three big networks with 90% of the audience and they had a lot of excess capacities, more bureaus and extra reporters who had more time to work on stories.

Things are getting better and worse at the same time in different ways. Almost every part of this is a double-edged sword. The big shift is that more responsibility is in the hands of consumers. They have more choices and can make better and worse choices. They can delve into more source documents, see the entire interview or they can watch the entertainment channel all day. The media is no longer controlling the gate.

And they can create their own media too.

Rosenstiel: Absolutely. And that’s both good and it’s bad. It’s like, ‘Is big ownership good or bad?’ It’s both. The job of people trying to understand the press is not simply to make value judgments and declarations of doom, but to really understand what the changes are bringing. There’s plenty of value judgments to go around but there aren’t enough clear-eyed perceptions about what change is really occuring.

You look at ratings and business as part of your analysis as well as the quality of journalism. How do you decide on the mix of what you look at and how to weigh it all?

Rosenstiel: You can’t ignore the end product and quality — ultimately that’s what matters to citizens, and journalism is only important in how it informs and helps citizens. The First Amendment is a citizen right, it doesn’t belong to the news business. I also think you can’t understand what’s occuring inside the newsroom unless you understand what’s going on in the business side. Our approach is to start with content analysis and try to give an actual empirical judgment about what the media is doing. And then we walk back from that and say “why?” and look at the revenues and profit, and look at the number of reporters in the field and look at audience.

Sounds like a challenge covering all the new outlets along with the older outlets. And when the older ones start blogs there is a lot of blurring as to who’s doing what.

Rosenstiel: There is. It will be difficult to say in 10 years that NBC is a television operation or that the L.A. Times is a newspaper. More and more, we’re going to see that the soul of the operation will be the newsroom and that there are various distribution points out of that. It may be that the so-called root media will be less and less important to them. Online, MSNBC.com is not really a TV operation. CBSNews.com is not necessarily a TV operation. You can still see the vestiges of that. The networks tend to be better at multimedia than other places.

As time goes on those distinctions will become blurrier, certainly at the newspaper sites. The Washington Post is trying to create a new environment [online] that is not the newspaper. The New York Times is really trying to sell you the New York Times online; it’s not as drastically a different environment. They’re branding the newspaper and it looks more like the newspaper than what the Post does. So there are already different philosophies floating around. I don’t see the New York Times putting a lot of blogs on their home page, but some newspapers are already going that way.

*****

What do you think about the work of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the State of the News Media report? Do you think it’s possible to empirically judge the work of so many news outlets online and off? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also, I’m asking for people to share any info-nuggets they’ve found in the report in the comments on Your Take. Becase it’s such a long report, I’m hoping we can work together to unearth all the juicy morsels of data.

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