New York — Consumers can find news in many more places these days, but paradoxically are seeing fewer stories covered with less depth, a study issued on Sunday has concluded.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism found the trend on television, in newspapers and on online. Cable news outlets, for example, repeatedly tell a limited number of stories. On one day, Google News offered computer users a menu of 14,000 stories - covering only 24 separate subjects.
The Washington-based think tank, in its annual state of the industry study, said many news outlets are reacting to declining circulation or viewership by cutting back on journalists. Yet, on a national level, they find it necessary to cover many of the same stories.
"It's the illusion of more information," said Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, "but it's actually a lot of repetition."
The danger of news operations stretched too thin is that it's easier for news subjects to control the flow of information, he said. One reason the Hurricane Katrina story stood out for journalists is that it was an impossible story for anyone to control.
The results of budget cuts are visible throughout journalism, the report said. Big-city newspapers are shrinking; the number of newspaper reporters covering Philadelphia, for example, is down from 500 in 1980 to about 220 today, the report said.
Take out traffic, weather and sports and half of local television news is filled with crime and accident stories - illustrating a lack of depth, the report said. For radio stations that offered news, only 14 percent of airtime was filled with stories by reporters out in the field, according to the think tank.
"The onus is increasingly on the news consumer to seek out what they should be interested in, rather than being passive and saying 'I'll watch CNN and this will tell me what I need to know,'" Rosenstiel said.
The project said the audience growth for news online seemed to reach a plateau in 2005, although people who go online appear to be using it more often.
What's the good news for journalists?
Rosenstiel said it was evident that traditional media outlets were putting more time and energy into new media platforms, instead of simply seeing them as outlets for news already distributed elsewhere.
One place this is most visible is with the television network news divisions. Rather than be an excuse for retrenchment, the end of the Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings era has led to some exciting new experiments, he said. ABC is offering a Webcast preview of "World News Tonight" each afternoon, CBS is being much more aggressive with online news and NBC has turned anchor Brian Williams and its correspondents into part-time bloggers.