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The state of the news

The Baltimore Sun

In the increasingly competitive race for audiences, most television news organizations are building their identities around personalities, brands or franchises, a new study says.

"Everyone is becoming a niche player," says the study, released yesterday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with the Pew Research Center in Washington. As examples, it cites the advocacy, personal involvement and opinions of cable news hosts like Lou Dobbs, Anderson Cooper and Keith Olbermann.

"A growing pattern has news outlets, programs and journalists offering up solutions, crusades, certainty and the impression of putting all the blur of information in clear order for people," the study says.

"This is something that was once confined to talk radio, but it is spreading as it draws an audience elsewhere."

Among the traditional news media, only print organizations that target ethnic audiences attracted new readers in the past year, the study says. Even the Web audience for conventional news outlets may be shrinking. The number of people who go online for news has stopped growing, the study says.

"We sense the news business entering a new phase heading into 2007 - a phase of more limited ambition," says the study, overseen by the institute's director, Tom Rosenstiel. In addition, the increased competition means that some media outlets are joining ranks with businesses they once considered upstarts.

"Newspapers have begun to partner, for instance, with classified-job-listing Web sites they once denounced, brought together by mutual fear of free sites such as Craigslist," says the study, which is titled "The State of the News Media 2007."

In its fourth annual edition, the report points out that traditional journalism is not, as some suggest, becoming irrelevant.

"There is more evidence now that new technology companies have had either limited success in news gathering (Yahoo, AOL), or have avoided it altogether (Google)," says the report. (Coincidentally, MySpace, one of the Internet's most successful ventures, recently announced that it is getting into the news business later this year by aggregating real-time news and blogs.)

"Whoever owns them, old newsrooms now seem more likely than a few years ago to be the foundations for the newsrooms of the future," the study says. "But practicing journalism has become far more difficult and demands new vision. Journalism is becoming a smaller part of people's information mix. The press is no longer gatekeeper over what the public knows."

The media itself are at least partly to blame, the study suggests: "Journalists have reacted relatively slowly. They are only now beginning to re-imagine their role. Their companies failed to see 'search' as a kind of journalism. Their industry has spent comparatively little on R&D.; They have been tentative about pressing for new economic models, and that has left them fearful and defensive."

But at least some news organizations are building more specific identities and franchises, the study says.

"The most popular show in cable has shifted from the questions of Larry King to the answers of Bill O'Reilly," it says. "On CNN, his rival Anderson Cooper becomes personally involved in stories. Lou Dobbs, also on CNN, rails against job exportation. Dateline goes after child predators. Even less controversial figures have causes: ABC weatherman Sam Champion champions green consumerism."

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