Why should newspapers matter? In the Internet age, when virtually anything you want to know is available 24/7, should people not already in the habit of reading newspapers care if they survive?
Think of it this way: newspapers are to the brain what exercise is to the body. Television, which delivers limited amounts of news with an eye on demographics and advertisers, is more like junk food - immediately satisfying, but not good for you if consumed in large quantities.
The purchase of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain by McClatchy Company provides the industry another opportunity for self-assessment. So does "The State of the News Media 2006," a new report by the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research group affiliated with Columbia University.
Newspapers have been losing readers and advertisers in recent years and too many have folded. As recently as 1980, there were 1,745 daily newspapers in the United States. By 2002 there were 1,457, a 17 percent drop, according to PIJ. The big three TV networks have been losing market share and are mostly targeting younger audiences favored by advertisers.
While many explanations - some of them partially valid - have been offered for the drop in journalism consumers, the most important one is ignored. PIJ's survey concludes that the public believes most of the news they get is "slanted" with 72 percent saying journalists favor one side or the other. "Republicans and conservatives are even more prone to feel this way than Democrats," the survey says.
The New York Times, the so-called "paper of record," which shapes much of what appears on broadcast television, had a pathetic 38 percent favorability rating among the public (the Times criticizes President Bush for having approval numbers just slightly under its own). Forty-seven percent believe press criticism of the military weakens the country. That figure is the highest in 20 years. A solid majority (60 percent) believes the press should watch over politicians, but only 43 percent find journalists "moral."
What especially stands out is the gap between journalists and the public. Five hundred and 47 print and broadcast journalists were questioned. Researchers found their values differ markedly from non-journalists. Some examples: the survey found that only 6 percent of journalists believe that faith in God is necessary to be moral, while 58 percent of the general public believe that; a whopping 88 percent of journalists believe society should accept homosexuality, but just 51 percent of the public agree; while 20 percent of the public describe themselves as "liberal," 34 percent of journalists are self-described liberals; 33 percent of the public say they are conservative, but a paltry 7 percent of journalists claim to be conservative.
"Most liberals don't see a liberal point of view," the researchers said. It is revealing how out of touch journalists are with the people they are supposed to be serving when less than a quarter of the liberal journalists could name a news organization that is "especially" liberal, but 79 percent could name a conservative outlet. The 7 percent of conservative journalists had an easier time naming conservative and liberal outlets (68 percent for both).
This survey, as has been the case with so many others, reveals that the problem in journalism isn't solely the popularity of the Internet. It is a loss of credibility in the profession that has caused people to lose the habit (or never acquire it) of consuming news, as presented to them by the big news outlets, which are considered out of touch with their views. Those who force-feed junk to the public are deliberately blind to the damage they have done. The survey says, "Most liberals don't see a liberal point of view." That is to their shame and damages the profession.
There is much talk of "diversity" in newsrooms, but it is all about race and gender, not ideology. Maybe journalism should conduct an "affirmative action" program to aggressively seek out more conservative reporters and editors who will report more stories that reflect something other than a consistently liberal point of view. Journalists will, if they want to save their jobs and help their profession. They won't, if they keep their eyes, ears and minds closed to surveys like this.