The fact that the news industry faces challenges is no surprise. Which of those challenges people in newsrooms think most critical helps reveal where change may be most rapid.
Our findings suggest that managers place greater emphasis on the economic model of journalism being broken and the need to experiment with new types of revenue. Staff members, on the other hand, are more likely to question whether the news system is able to support quality journalism and the importance of respecting ethical boundaries.
The survey asked respondents to choose from a list of problems facing news, asking which were biggest or most important and allowing people to choose up to three.
Both managers and staff members believe that the biggest challenge is the flood of false information on the internet (54 percent of managers and 53 percent of staff members). They differed, however, in their opinions of other significant challenges.
Managers were somewhat more likely than staff members to say the economic model for news is broken, (52% vs 47%). Managers were also more likely to say that traditional media companies need to adapt faster to new technology (39% vs 30%).
Staff members, on the other hand, seem more critical of news quality. The third-most common answer for staff members was that media owners have focused too much on profits (38%). The fourth-most common answer was that the public doesn’t care about quality journalism (34%), while the fifth-most common answer was that media owners don’t believe quality will sell (31%). In each of these three cases, staff members were more likely to believe it was a greater problem than managers.
When we collected the data for this survey in the summer of 2015, fact checking journalism was gaining prominence. Since then, it became a central story in the 2016 election.
The survey asked news people their opinion about the effectiveness of fact checking journalism.[ref This question was asked to half the sample, which consisted of 755 managers and 1,625 staff members.] Here, managers and staff members held similar views, with about 50 percent saying fact checking was only “somewhat effective,” 10 percent said that it was “neither effective nor ineffective” and about 13 percent said they were not sure or had no opinion. This suggests cautious optimism from both managers and staff towards this increasingly common practice.
(A more detailed breakdown of this topic can be found in our previous report, “Fact-checking and accountability journalism: Popular, effective — but sometimes misunderstood.”)
Of course, a common concern about the news industry is that the quality of journalism may be declining. In August 2016, this fear was even satirized in a popular John Oliver clip. Do those working in the media share this concern?
To answer this question, we first asked journalists to compare the quality of journalism produced today to journalism produced five years ago. We found that managers and staff members hold similar views, with about two-fifths believing that journalism has declined somewhat in quality and another one-fifth believing journalism has declined greatly in quality. Overall then, journalists expressed ample concerns over the quality of journalism declining.
But that did not extend to their own work. When asked how the quality of the work that they produce compares to five years ago, both managers and staff members are much more optimistic. About 33 percent said it had improved somewhat in quality while another 30 percent said their work had improved greatly in quality.
What might explain the paradox that most journalists believe the quality of journalism is declining while the quality of their work is improving?
One explanation, of course, is that people would never see their own work as getting weaker. But there are more nuanced possibilities. A journalist could believe that the quality of their own work has improved but think journalism in general is declining because fewer journalists are employed in the news industry overall compared to five years ago. Alternatively, journalists may feel that the work produced by their news organization is strong while quality elsewhere has declined.
Of course, in the past five years, technology has changed journalism in important ways. People are able to consume the news on their phones and organizations are able to disseminate information through digital interactives, podcasts, and video. The relationship between news organizations and the audience has changed, as some readers regularly write comments and post on the social media feeds of organizations.
Given these changes, we asked journalists what the biggest benefits of technology have been. About 65 percent of managers and staff members said that people can access news from anywhere, the most common response. Managers were slightly more likely to say that technology lets you report stories in new ways (63% vs 58%) and that distribution is faster and easier (57% vs 53%).
Notably, only one-fifth said that “news is a two-way conversation.” This may reflect a lack of enthusiasm towards comments on news sites, or other forms of audience interaction, such as through social media. Or perhaps it simply ranks as a lesser benefit in the eyes of media workers, even as news organizations and philanthropic foundations emphasize its importance.
Likewise, news workers may also believe that there is a limit on how involved audiences should be in the production of news. In an in-depth case study of one mid-western news organization, for example, only 14 percent of employees believed that members of the community should be part of the news team. As one reporter summarized, “I think the whole focus on bringing people from the community and assuming they can do journalism is not well regarded among the reporting ranks.”
While technology has brought many benefits to journalism, it has also reshaped how people find news content. Previously, a newspaper could be confident that readers in their circulation area would mainly read their reporting if they bought their newspaper. However, readers may now bypass a newspaper by using a news aggregator or reading an article from another site that summarizes the paper’s article.
Consequently, a common concern with the news ecosystem is that the internet has made it easier to redistribute content from other publishers. When asked how they view this practice, staff members were more likely to adopt a critical view that good journalism costs money to produce and aggregators should pay licensing fees to those who produce original news content (62% vs 58%).[ref This question was asked to half the sample, which consisted of 755 managers and 1,625 staff members.]
Another new trend in digital content is sponsored content or native advertising. While this practice has nuance, with organizations labeling sponsored content differently, it has been controversial with supporters arguing it provides needed revenue and critics arguing that it lowers the credibility of the organization.
When asked to choose between these two views, managers are evenly split – with half saying that it helps bring in new revenue and can be done ethically and half saying it crosses ethical boundaries and damages the organization’s credibility. Staff members are more skeptical – with 58 percent agreeing with the negative view.
Overall, these findings suggest that staff members are more concerned with possible declines in news quality and ethical boundaries. Managers, perhaps demonstrating a different focus, seem more concerned with finding new economic models and adapting faster to technology.
A central question that arises from this data is whether managers and staff members evaluate what “success” at their news organization looks like similarly. Managers seem to be more focused on finding new business models even if they push the boundaries of traditional journalism norms. In response, staff members may be more concerned with producing quality journalism and respecting ethical boundaries.
Sponsored content then, becomes emblematic of the debate. According to a 2016 report, native advertising accounts for 11 percent of ad revenues at news media companies and will rise to 25 percent by 2018. Given this growing source of revenue, it is important that managers and staff members agree on how to best approach this practice.