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Why consumers are fleeing the media

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
March 18, 2013 -- Updated 0420 GMT (1220 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New report says media is driving away its best customers, says Howard Kurtz
  • Nearly a third of people gave up on a news outlet because it offers less than before
  • Kurtz: As media organizations cut expenses, they dilute quality of their product
  • In era of social media and commodity news, original reporting is vital, he says

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- The slow-motion shrinkage of the news business is driving away part of the public.

A Pew Research Center survey says that 31% of those questioned have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the kind of news and information they had come to expect. And they have noticed this despite the fact that six in 10 overall have heard little or nothing about the industry's financial woes.

Talk about cutting our own throats. This is the most depressing news we've heard about the news business in quite some time.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Who are these customers who are slipping away?

According to an annual report by Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, they are the wealthier, older, better-educated folks, more of them men, who are most likely to pay for news.

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Welcome to the vicious cycle. As advertising declines, digital competition and other pressures have forced media executives to water down the soup, and now many patrons are noticing that it doesn't taste as good.

With so many media choices these days and with news becoming a commodity, it is hard to persuade the owners to invest in in-depth journalism. When a reporter digs up a scoop, it is aggregated and repackaged and diluted and snarked upon by a thousand websites that didn't pay a penny to produce it but can sell advertising off it.

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Opinion sells, and doesn't require a costly chain of national and international bureaus. You just need some lights, cameras and microphones.

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What's happening in cable news is a case in point.

MSNBC, the project says, is the most opinionated network by far. Some 85% of its daily programming is people offering opinions, which is cheaper to produce than reporting. On Fox News, by contrast, 55% of the air time is filled by opinion.

CNN is the only one to produce more reporting than commentary, 54% to 46%, says the report. But even at CNN, the report says, the number of packaged news reports in prime time dropped from 50% to 24% from 2007 to 2012, with more time devoted to interviews.

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As for local TV newscasts, sports, weather and traffic soaked up 40% of airtime last year, up from 32% in 2005. And news reports are practically becoming blips: only 20% of stories lasted longer than a minute, while half took less than 30 seconds.

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Not that everyone is sitting passively in front of a TV set these days; instead, people are walking the streets squinting at their phones. In the survey, 39% said they got news from a mobile device yesterday. The iPad era has fully arrived.

Another 19% say they got news from social media (along with 16% from e-mail and 8% from podcasts). It's not just that Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest are vibrant delivery systems. The sea change here is that folks are devouring information steered their way by family, friends and those they choose to follow.

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As that balance of power shifts, media organizations are scrambling to adapt. They can no longer simply deliver the headlines from on high. They need ordinary folks to serve as their ambassadors, spreading the word about their journalism like the town criers of old.

The top news site by Facebook interactions is the Huffington Post, the study says, followed by London's Daily Mail, Yahoo and the BBC, before you get to the New York Times, the Guardian and CNN.com. Engagement matters. (And Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn Facebook's own newsfeed into a "personalized newspaper.")

Hanging out in the social media playground, of course, means enduring the taunts and jeers of the crowd. That's the price of admission.

But the key to getting talked about and texted and retweeted is having original content. And continuing to water down the product in this age of austerity could amount to slow suicide.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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