In 2004, the Project for Excellence in Journalism quietly launched a new annual investigation: an in-depth look at what was happening to the news.
From the first, the authors of the report understood that they were witnessing something important: "journalism is in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television," they wrote in 2004.
Americans' changing news habits have a tremendous impact on how and to what extent our country functions within an informed society. So too does the state of the organizations producing the news and making it available to citizens day in and day out.
Now, 12 "State of the News Media" annual reports are available at the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project website. The result is a ringside seat at a transformative moment in history.
You can almost hear the gasp, for instance, when the 2005 report notes the rise of a major computer-edited news service: Google News. And there's an excited, "the-sci-fi-future-is-already-here" feel when the 2004 report predicts news consumers will become "pro-sumers," citizens who "simultaneously function as consumers, editors, and producers of a new kind of news in which journalistic accounts are but one element."
But it's the cumulative effect that's especially informative. Together, the reports provide a narrative about the revolution in journalism.
The storyline sometimes yo-yos between optimism and despair at the radical changes the industry is undergoing. The 2005 overview attempts an upbeat approach:
Today, technology is transforming citizens from passive consumers of news produced by professionals into active participants who can assemble their own journalism from disparate elements. As people "Google" for information, graze across an infinite array of outlets, read blogs or write them, they are becoming their own editors, researchers, and even correspondents. What was called journalism is only one part of the mix, and its role as intermediary and verifier, like the roles of other civic institutions, is weakening. We are witnessing the rise of a new and more active kind of American citizenship—with new responsibilities that are only beginning to be considered.
Scan the headlines of 2005 and one question seemes inevitable: Will we recall this as the year when journalism in print began to die?
This was the period when the major city dailies were laying off large numbers of employees, magazines were beginning to suffer and network nightly news programs were starting to decline. Still, the report predicted, "For now, the evidence does not support the notion that newspapers have begun a sudden death spiral."
In the next few reports, the suspense over the fate of the news industry intensifies. The overviews can sound like a conversation about an approaching apocalypse—an asteroid, say, that may or may not hit the news media.
By 2009, the report starts with, "Some of the numbers are chilling"—and the report's effect itself is chilling. The next few paragraphs detail those numbers in each sector, beginning with print:
Newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23% in the last two years. Some papers are in bankruptcy, and others have lost three-quarters of their value. By our calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet.
The 2010 overview begins simply, "What now?"—as if the researchers have thrown up their arms in despair.
In many ways, 2013 and early 2014 brought a level of energy to the news industry not seen for a long time. Even as challenges of the past several years continue and new ones emerge, the activities this year have crated a new sense of optimism—or perhaps hope—for the future of American journalism.
Overall, the reports provide a particular narrative, as Slate's Matthew Yglesias pointed out in a critique of the 2013 report—one that emphasizes the points of view of news producers and traditional journalists, as opposed to users who now have more access to more news than ever before. But the depth and thoughtful discussion about trends across the news media—based on a combination of original staff research, commissioned surveys, and analysis by multiple experts—isn't available anywhere else.
The amount of data and analysis is a dream for news geeks, but it can still be daunting: The 2004 report ran 500 pages, and the next year's report added another 100 pages. But the site has become easier and easier to use. This year's report presents 13 fact sheets that serve as handy briefs on subjects ranging from podcastingto network news to digital news revenue.
While the reports have always been created by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the project itself has been moved and renamed: For the first few years of the reports, it was associated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Since then, the project has been rechristened the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project, and is conducted by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank. The project's director is Amy Mitchell.