THE BLOG
03/22/2013 09:50 am ET Updated May 22, 2013

Pew Takes Overly Pessimistic Shot at the News Industry

A new report on the state of American journalism found "a continued erosion of news reporting resources" and " a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands."

Those were among the many disturbing conclusions from the latest annual report on American journalism by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report was released earlier this week.

I wasn't inclined to make too much of the report, because it seemed a bit irrelevant to the news industry that I write about. In my opinion, there has never been as much science writing, or as much good science writing, as there is now. And I think that's true of the media generally, not just science journalism. I haven't been this excited about the news business since I was trying to claw my way in and got my first job at  the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, and that was quite a few years ago.

I was happy to see that Matthew Yglesias, the economics columnist at Slate, agreed with me. "American news media has never been in better shape," he writes. "That’s just common sense. Almost anything you’d want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips."

Pew takes a blinkered view of the news industry. It worries about 2012 newspaper newsroom cutbacks, which, it says, put newsroom employment at 30 percent less than it was at its peak in 2000. Local TV and CNN are running fewer produced stories and have shortened those they do run.  The report's overview continues with statistics such as these that deal only with newspapers and television news. That's the basis of its claim that the news industry is "undermanned and unprepared" to cover the news. (Incidentally, I don't like the gender implications of "undermanned." As a copy editor might write, "Better word?") Pew also worries that newsmakers are more adept at putting their message out without reliance on "any filter by the traditional media."

I'm not sure the "filter" of the traditional media is a good thing. Or if it is, the burden is on Pew to show how and why. As we observe the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, we might make the case that the traditional media's "filter" helped propel us into that war.

Pew cherry-picks a few examples of improvements in online reporting, such as Kaiser Health NewsInside Science, and the Food and Environment Reporting Network. It's interesting, and a little odd, that its examples all come from science, medical, and environmental reporting. Was there nothing new in political reporting, business reporting, sports, or entertainment? This is one of the few places where Pew departs from its leaden pessimism.

Yglesias's views couldn't be more different. As an example, he mentions his recent reporting on the financial troubles of Cyprus, which are upsetting European and global markets. He, and his readers, he writes, have access to a vast number of reports, articles, analyses, and interviews, with which they can question what Yglesias wrote and form their own opinions. "Yet essentially none of this bounty is reflected in the deeply pessimistic latest edition" of the Pew report, he writes. He continues:

Any individual journalist working today can produce much more than our predecessors could in 1978. And the audience can essentially read all of our output. Not just today’s output either. Yesterday’s and last week’s and last month’s and last year’s and so forth. To the extent that the industry is suffering, it’s suffering from a crisis of productivity.

Yglesias is right, of course. In an "essay" on digital media, Pew acknowledges that "online news consumption rose sharply the last two years," but otherwise is pessimistic about the difficulties in selling ads and the dominance of Google. Why didn't Pew trumpet the finding that online news consumption is growing? That's a good thing, and it's important. In 2012, 39 percent of survey respondents said they got news from a mobile device within the previous day. How can that not be a wonderful development for the news industry? The public is leaning on our every word, unwilling to wait until getting home to check the news. CNN might be producing fewer and shorter stories than it once did, but news consumers have far more alternatives to CNN than they could possibly read, listen to, or watch. 

Many journalists are struggling to make a living, a point we should acknowledge. But wasn't that always so? Many news organizations are struggling to find advertising and to make their businesses viable, but let's not compare that with the decades in which many newspapers were monopolies and reaped fortunes from car dealers and department stores.

That era was better than this for those who happened to own a printing press. But for the rest of us, this is the golden age.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.