More news, more skepticism online


Information consumers who go online to get news are doing so with greater frequency than ever, but more of them view what they find with skepticism, according to a new report on the state of American journalism.

The study, which is being released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, examined at length how the media - television, newspapers, radio and online venues, including blogs - cover the news and are used by consumers.

The conventional news media last year began moving significant resources and staff to online journalism and "may even be innovating more than the online-only companies," said the study, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Yet the shift may owe more to need than bold entrepreneurship," the study said. "Old media platforms continued to lose audience and in 2005 saw even more pressure than before on finances."

In the newspaper industry, most growth in revenue was generated either by online ventures or publications targeting niche audiences such as the young.

However, though newspapers lost about 1,500 jobs last year and more than 1.5 million in circulation, those declines represent only about 3 percent of staff and circulation totals. The industry still will post profit margins of about 20 percent.

And if one combines print and online ventures, the study said, the readership of many newspapers is higher than ever.

The growth in the audience for news online seemed last year to plateau, the study said. But those who do go online appeared to be using the medium more often.

"Consumers can now find some of the richest news content online - much of it from the Web sites of traditional news outlets."

However, Internet users are less trusting of information found online. "For the third year in a row, the number of Americans who say it is reliable and accurate declined," said the study. "In fact, fewer than half now say that most or all of the information on the Web is reliable and accurate. This was perhaps most illustrative when we looked at trust in blogs."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in a summary that the variety of news sources now available "makes relying on a single outlet seem like an outdated idea."

"But consumers need to be careful about where they go and even when," said Rosenstiel. "Stories come and go fast, and getting a comprehensive picture of the news can be difficult."

Another finding was the paradox that more news outlets are covering fewer stories. "The big question is how long will it take online to get to an economic model that rivals the old media in revenues - or will it get there at all?" the study asked. "Using the current model, if online revenues at newspapers continued to grow at their current rate - an improbable 33 percent - and newspapers grew only at a modest 3 percent, it would take 12 years for that to happen. ... In the meantime, American newsrooms, already shrinking, may no longer be able to cover the waterfront."

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