Death of reporting: Swapping quality for sensationalism

By Bethany Reinhart

The newspaper business is facing a time of great turmoil. But instead of going back to the basics, the industry has strayed from its roots in an attempt to keep up with the ever-changing times. The recent redesign of the Chicago Tribune is one example of how news organizations are attempting to stay current and draw in more readers. But many of the changes happening throughout the industry are causing more harm than good.

The news industry has reached a pivotal point, and this is the time for papers to redefine themselves. But the redefinition should not come in the form of haphazard reporting or through an increase in sensationalized stories. It’s time for newspapers to bring back their old ways of in-depth, on-target reporting.

Newspaper circulation is down nationwide. According to the Newspaper Association of America, 10 years ago, the approximate daily circulation of newspapers was 56,182. In 2007, that number dropped to 50,742. The advent of Internet-driven news and audience fragmentation are among the reasons why. Many people are now turning to the Internet or 24-hour broadcast news channels to get their fix. Sources like Yahoo! News and MSNBC have stepped in to give consumers an immediate dose of headlines-no newspaper required. The most recent developments in news distribution include social networking sites such as Twitter and Digg. With one click on my Blackberry, I am on Twitter and have the latest headlines in front on me on my commute to work.

The ability to immediately disseminate news has many benefits. However, it also comes with many downfalls. The need for immediacy is driving down newspaper circulation. Due to lagging circulation, papers can no longer charge as much for advertising. Without strong advertising revenue, news organizations have found themselves in a budget crisis, which has led to a huge number of job cuts. Job losses and cutbacks have inevitably led to the lack of in-depth, interpretive and investigative reporting.

It is important that news organizations continue to provide immediate news through means like the Internet and 24-hour broadcast stations. However, the in-depth coverage of important and impactful issues cannot continue to be hampered by the pressure to move on to the next immediate story.

There needs to be stronger follow-up reporting across all media outlets. And although sensationalist, tabloid-esque Hollywood chatter might draw in readers, newspapers need to take the high road by refusing to fill space on their pages with information that is meant for TMZ, US Weekly or “Entertainment Tonight.”

Instead, newspapers need to devote more in-depth coverage to important stories that will impact and educate readers. They need to follow up initial headlines with additional details that will paint a more complete picture. Papers need to take time to tel readers not only what is happening in Pakistan, but what exactly that means. They need to continue publishing stories about what life is like, on any given day, for soldiers who are fighting for our country. They need to tell the stories that readers cannot get in quick headlines that are posted on Twitter or briefed on CNN.

Many news organizations claim the desire to appeal to younger readers has greatly influenced their content. Dumbing down the news to appeal to younger readers is an incredibly irresponsible decision. Younger readers will continue to get their fix of Hollywood divorce stories through sources like RedEye or the New York Post. But where will they get important knowledge of serious issues affecting their community or critical information about what is happening around the world? By taking in-depth reporting out of newspapers, news organizations are taking away content that could be used to teach and inform younger readers. Filling the pages of major newspapers-like the Chicago Tribune-with Hollywood news is a disservice to not only readers, but the community at large.

News organizations have to keep up with the ever-changing media landscape. Falling behind is not an option. But failure to provide readers with in-depth, on-target information about stories that matter-stories that make a difference-should not be an option either. The media needs to find a better way to balance the demand for immediate news with the necessity to provide in-depth reporting.