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Pittsburgh Media Adapts to Shifting News Landscape

April 18, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is preparing for the demands of covering the presidential primary campaign by focusing mainly on online reporting and adapting to a changing media landscape. Jeffrey Brown reports on the Post-Gazette's strategy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the launch of our special coverage of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary, as seen through the eyes of people who live in our designated spotlight city, Pittsburgh.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown has a Media Unit report on how people there are getting their news about the election campaign and how local news organizations are responding to a world of change.

ALLAN WALTON, Assistant Managing Editor Multimedia, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: I don’t think we need a lot of video, a minute, maybe 90 seconds of…

JEFFREY BROWN: When journalists at Pittsburgh’s leading newspaper head out to cover a story about the presidential primary these days, a camera is part of the standard equipment.

STEVE MELLON, Photographer/Videographer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: And right now, we’re in the final processes of cleaning up the edit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Down the hall on a recent day at the Post-Gazette, Steve Mellon, a staff photographer for 25 years, was honing a new skill: editing video.

STEVE MELLON: Well, the point of this is to get our readers’ voices on the Web and to have them voice their concerns and the questions, the things they’re thinking about, and hopefully to have the political candidates or their campaigns view this, and hear these concerns, and respond in some way.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, for campaign coverage and for everything else, says executive editor David Shribman, it’s a whole new ballgame. Shribman came to the Post-Gazette five years ago after an award-winning career with the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times.

Internet rapidly overtaking papers

DAVID SHRIBMAN, Executive Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: I told our political staff when we got together, I said, "Listen, this is the first time I'm going to say this to you, but the Web is more important in this presidential campaign and the Pennsylvania primary than the newspaper."

JEFFREY BROWN: The Web is more important than the newspaper for you?

DAVID SHRIBMAN: Think Web first. That's right. Think Web first. And then think newspaper, because you're going to do something different for the newspaper.

Now, I'm not saying the newspaper's not important, but first think Web, because if you don't think Web first, it's going to be too late to think Web.

JEFFREY BROWN: What we saw in Pittsburgh recently in the midst of an exciting political race reflects a nationwide upheaval in how news organizations are adjusting to changing consumer patterns, largely driven by new technology and to a loss in ad revenues.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, when people were asked where they regularly get information about the presidential campaign, 31 percent answered from daily newspapers, but that's down from 40 percent in 2000.

CITIZEN: It's in one place. I don't usually like to read a lot of detail online using the screen. So the fact that it is on paper, and I can sit there and relax and have a cup of coffee or tea, and at my own pace go through the newspaper, to me, is a lot more appealing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Forty percent said they learn something regularly from local TV news, down from 48 percent in 2000; 32 percent cited nightly network news, down from 45 percent in 2000.

CITIZEN: I like the local news. And then I watch Channel 11, "World News Tonight" for national stuff, what's going on in Iraq, the presidential campaign.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cable news networks actually saw a small gain, from 34 percent in 2000 to 38 percent now. Not surprisingly, the Internet saw the biggest gain, from 9 percent to 24 percent today.

According to the study, the Internet is now the leading source of campaign news for young people, with 42 percent of those ages 18 to 29 saying they regularly learn about the campaign on the Internet.

Pittsburgh, with a slightly older demographic than most major American cities, still supports two daily newspapers, the Tribune Review, as well as the Post-Gazette.

But circulation here, as elsewhere, has dropped. The 222-year-old Post-Gazette is the 44th largest paper in the country, with a daily circulation of about 244,000, down some 30,000 over the past nine years.

DAVID SHRIBMAN: Every cultural, economic and demographic trend is against us. Kids don't read the newspaper. The Internet is so beguiling and so free. And people don't have time in busy, busy lives to read the newspaper.

That doesn't mean we don't think we play a vital role. That doesn't mean that we don't think that we're trying to adjust to their schedules and their rhythms. And we're becoming more intertwined with their rhythms.

Post-Gazette's site huge success

JOURNALIST: Pete did a really good job this morning. He had the new poll up on the site before 7:00 a.m.

JEFFREY BROWN: In their daily meetings, the paper's top editors discuss online content side-by-side with the plans for the print version. The Web site has offered podcasts, studio roundtables, and a five-minute newscast.

It's now the 25th most visited among all American news sites and is promoted on the paper's front page.

DAVID SHRIBMAN: We're doing our job in different ways, but it's the same job. It's being the people's representatives at meetings, on the streets, and stories, and all sorts of stories. It's setting the conversation of Pittsburgh.

JEFFREY BROWN: Allan Walton is assistant managing editor for multimedia.

ALLAN WALTON: We're in a stage of infancy with regard to multimedia and newspapers, but I think we could recognize about a year ago that this was more than a trend. It was a kind of explosion across the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: An explosion?

ALLAN WALTON: Absolute explosion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Walton says his team is learning as it goes, but the primary race has given them a high-profile opportunity to try new things and reach more people.

ALLAN WALTON: We were fortunate enough to get one of our videographers on the campaign bus with Senator Obama. And in the span of about five days, we produced 19 videos, including our first foray into high-definition video, which was interesting. But we were amazed at how much traffic that generated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, no one pays to read the Post-Gazette online, so whether the new Internet traffic translates into print readers and increased revenue is still unknown.

DAVID SHRIBMAN: We are reaching more people than we ever did before. And if you got in this business to reach and touch people and to shape their conversations and to reflect that community, then we are succeeding now better than we ever did. Maybe it's an artistic success and a financial disaster. I don't know.

TV still holding its own locally

JEFFREY BROWN: Across town that same day, Jon Delano was reporting on the primary for KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh's CBS affiliate. Delano is the only full-time political TV reporter in town.

On this day, he was getting responses to new polls just out on the Democratic race, at the local headquarters for Barack Obama...

INTERVIEWEE: The polls really don't matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and from a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton.

INTERVIEWEE: A lot of folks that are down on their luck...

JEFFREY BROWN: Surveying the changing world of news consumption, Delano knows he has at least one advantage.

JON DELANO, Money and Politics Editor, KDKA-TV: Western Pennsylvania -- Pittsburgh, in particular -- has an older voting audience, as well as an older audience in general. Most people don't realize that half the voters who never miss an election are 60 years of age and over. Those folks are watching television. Television is the prime medium for delivering information.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, as candidates well know -- witness the huge amounts of money spent on TV ads -- television is still the place that most people get their information.

According to a recent University of Pennsylvania Annenberg survey, 89 percent of adults get information about the political race from the combination of broadcast and cable TV.

And when it comes to a big primary, local TV is where much of the action is. Delano, for example, has landed two one-on-one interviews with both of the Democratic candidates.

JON DELANO: With all due respect to CBS, ABC, NBC, the cable networks, and even your show, most people in America get their news through the local news, the news that runs at 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock, 11 o'clock, 10 o'clock at night. They don't get it on the national news.

And so while we only have limited influence within our market, in the aggregate, local news has much more influence on presidential politics than the national news, which is why the smart candidates always give us the time for one-on-one interviews.

Younger crowd heads online for news

JEFFREY BROWN: As Delano well knows, though, local news devotes few minutes overall to national politics, even at a peak time like this. And it, too, faces enormous financial pressures, as the audience for local news continues to fall.

On the very week before our visit, KDKA announced 10 newsroom layoffs.

Again, a major part of the challenge comes more people going online for news, and local TV stations are responding by putting more and more of their material on the Web.

Let me get a show of hands here. Your number-one news source is the Internet? Put your hands up if that's true.

Young people, like these journalism students at Pittsburgh's Point Park University, have grown up with the Internet.

JOURNALISM STUDENT: For me, it's all about convenience. You know, you always -- well, for me, pretty much there's always a computer around, and maybe there isn't always a newspaper lying around where I can pick it up and grab it and read it, or obviously when I'm in class, and I don't have a TV there to watch, so I will go to a computer, jump in the computer lab, and check the headlines.

JOURNALISM STUDENT: Right now, we're in this media revolution of sorts. There's media literally thrown at us all day and whatever is convenient for us to look at, at that time, is where we go.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, students at the Globe, Point Park's newspaper, have added campaign coverage to their regular fare. The Globe is put out as a paper, but also online, including video headlines.

Like their professional elders, these students know about the competition for reaching their targeted audience and how the Internet helps.

KELLY PISCOPO, Editor-in-Chief, The Globe: We are able to send breaking news stories in e-mail, also, and we can get something up immediately if something big happens.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's kind of funny. I mean, you guys, you're saying nobody has time to read a newspaper, and there you are creating a newspaper for them.

JESSICA LADOW, Editor-Elect, The Globe: Well, we're trying. We've actually changed the placement of our racks near the elevators, so hopefully people are going to grab them while they're waiting and they're bored.

KELLY PISCOPO: And it's worked.

JEFFREY BROWN: It works?

That's a strategy that would no doubt warm the heart of Post-Gazette editor David Shribman, who talks up the new technology even as he clings to the feel of the paper in his hands.

DAVID SHRIBMAN: I still want that newspaper, but I don't want to be the last newspaper reader in America, and I don't want this to be a newsroom that's only producing a newspaper.

You know, there are a lot of people who were really good blacksmiths the year the Model T came out. I don't want us to be a bunch of blacksmiths.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Pittsburgh these days, then, journalists are covering the political struggle ahead of next week's primary, even as they, themselves, struggle with an uncertain future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the record, this week the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorsed Senator Obama.

Next week, the NewsHour highlights Pennsylvania politics and Pittsburgh, as we broadcast from the studios of WQED.