By Executive Editor David Lieberman 

If you care about news, then the Pew Research Center’s latest annual State Of The News Media report will make you want to cry. Providers across all platforms became “more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into [their] hands,” Pew’s Project for Excellence In Journalism finds. The shortcomings stood out during the election when “campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans.”

Even in a year with an exciting presidential election the collective audience for ABC, CBS and NBC’s evening newscasts fell 2% to 22.1M “resuming the downward trajectory of nearly three decades” after an uptick in 2011. Total audience for local TV newscasts — the nation’s #1 news source – shrank last year in all key time slots except for early morning and across stations aligned with all the networks, resuming a downward trend that seemed to have ended in 2011. Viewing of the evening newscasts that aired between 5:00 and 7:00 PM at the major network affiliates fell 7% last year. One reason: young people are tuning out. About 28% of adults under 30 regularly watched local news last year, down from 42% in 2006. Local news devoted 40% of air time to sports, weather, and traffic, up from 32% in 2005. And just 20% of the stories last year ran at least a minute, down from 31% a decade ago.

NBC still had the No. 1 evening newscast although with fewer viewers. The network had no reason to cheer, though, as The Today Show fell behind ABC’s Good Morning AmericaMeet The Press lost to CBS’ Face The Nation, the prime time show Rock Center lost viewers, and Dateline Friday “saw its audience crater.” CBS’ third place evening newscast was the only one that gained viewers. Its “continuing focus on harder news seemed to pay dividends with the evening audience, but not with the morning,” Pew says. The evening newscasts still matter, the researchers note: The CBS Evening Newsattracted about 6.14M viewers, which was more than twice the 2.96M who tuned in to the top-rated cable news show, Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor.

And the audience for cable news seems to have hit a ceiling. Despite the presidential election, the total median viewership for Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN rose just 1% last year with prime time +3% — a big contrast with the 2008 election when the collective prime time audience was up 35%. It’s mostly a CNN problem: It lost viewers in all day parts while MSNBC and Fox News grew for the most part. (Fox’s prime time audience was flat.) As a result, CNN’s cash flow is believed to have dropped about 5% while Fox News was up 11% and MSNBC was +4%. Despite the differences in their performance, and points of view, Pew says that the formats of the news networks have become remarkably similar — which it says is a “major change from 2007.” Five years ago CNN was “distinguished by its emphasis on edited packages” while MSNBC led in interviews. But now MSNBC has increased the number of packaged segments it runs in prime time. Meanwhile, CNN and Fox News have cut back on the amount of time during the day that they devote to “breaking news and non-ideological coverage.” Collectively, during the morning and afternoon dayparts “Live breaking news was cut in half, from 10% in 2007 to 5% in 2012, and live staff reports dropped from 23% of the newshole to 18%,” Pew says. “Combined,that means a 10 percentage-point drop in the amount of live-oriented daytime coverage that did not take the form of interviews with guests.”

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