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From bad to worse: The state of the media in 2009

We knew it was grim. But according to the sixth annual report on the US. media by The Project for Excellence in Journalism, it's even worse than that

You can reduce the conclusions from the sixth annual report on the state of the U.S. news media to a couple of words: Infinitely bleak.

And that's taking the optimistic view.

The 180,000-word report by he Project for Excellence in Journalism comes against a backdrop of newspaper closings and staff reductions around the country. It just so happens that this week also marks the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's farewell as a print publication. After that, the newspaper will be offered solely in digital form. But as the report makes clear, the transition from dead trees to the Web may not be enough to reverse the decline in U.S. newspapers.

Here are the highlights:

•  Newspaper ad revenues fell 23 percent in the last two years.
•  Nearly one of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone from that line of work.
•  2009 may be the worst year yet for newspapers.
•  Local television news revenue fell by 7 percent (even in an election year).

The only bright spot on the news horizon was in cable , though the report finds that some of the ratings gains evaporated after the election.

All the while, the accelerating migration to the Internet continued apace. In the last year, Web traffic at the top 50 Internet news sites rose 27 percent. The irony is that this stunning shift in reading preference isn't likely to work to the benefit of the newspaper establishment. To wit:

"Yet it is now all but settled that advertising revenue--the model that financed journalism for the last century--will be inadequate to do so in this one. Growing by a third annually just two years ago, online ad revenue to news websites now appears to be flattening; in newspapers it is declining."

The recession came at a particularly bad time for an industry struggling to remain afloat. But even if the economy had not gone south, the report makes clear that the industry would still be facing a fight for survival.

"Imagine someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke, suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness. Journalism, deluded by its profitability and fearful of technology, let others outside the industry steal chance after chance online. By 2008, the industry had finally begun to get serious. Now the global recession has made that harder."

The one piece of good news in the report is that "audience gains at sites offering legacy news were far larger than those for new media." In other words, readers still find value in what the report terms "the old norms of traditional journalism." But there's a bigger challenge facing the profession.

"The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem. It is a revenue problem--the decoupling, as we have described it before, of advertising from news. That makes the situation better than it might have been. But audiences now consume news in new ways. They hunt and gather what they want when they want it, use search to comb among destinations and share what they find through a growing network of social media."

And the report is blunt about the news industry's often feckless efforts to monetize an increasingly active online audience. It notes, for instance, that about half of all classified advertising revenue has disappeared--"a good deal of that to operations that newspapers could have developed for themselves." But wait. It gets worse.

"Insiders now expect that classified revenue could be zero in five years--or sooner. When newspaper executives met this winter to talk about how to create a way for consumers to design their own ads, the discussion focused on doing so for print editions, not online. 'They still don't get it,' one irritated executive told us on background."

At this rate, you have to wonder whether the kicker to next year's edition will be "Last one out the door, turn out the lights."