Each year the Pew Research Center offers up its annual report on the state of the news media.
It's generally a grim document, packed with depressing statistics about plummeting ad revenue and shrinking rosters of reporters at legacy news outlets.
But the latest version released early Wednesday has a radically different tone. While hardly declaring the embattled field has turned the corner and found the elusive formula for surviving and thriving in the digital age, it sees lots of reasons for hope.
It's not quite the irrational exuberance of Internet pioneer Marc Andreesen, who thinks we may be entering a golden age of journalism. But it's not gloom and doom.
"In many ways, 2013 and early 2014 brought a level of energy to the news industry not seen for a long time," the report states. "Even as challenges of the past several years continue and new ones emerge, the activities this year have created a new sense of optimism – or perhaps hope – for the future of American journalism."
Why the happy face? For one thing, Pew is excited about the digital players who are plunging deeply into the serious side of the news business. BuzzFeed, identified with such fare as "Which Rock Star Should You Hook Up With?" has a news staff of 170 and has plunged into investigative reporting, foreign news and longform journalism. Vice Media has 35 foreign bureaus. Vox Media is launching a website for explanatory journalism under the leadership of highly regarded policy wonk Ezra Klein, formerly of The Washington Post. Tech site Mashable has 70 news staffers in the lineup.
For the first time, the project tried to quantify the number of journalism positions at digital-only news organizations. It found about 5,000 working for 30 major digital news outlets and 438 smaller ones.
The study's authors also are encouraged by the fact that very wealthy new players, some form the trendy world of tech, are entering the news game. Amazon.com founder and CE! O Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. Boston Red Sox owner John Henry purchased The Boston Globe. And eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is creating a brand new player from scratch, First Look Media, to the tune of $250 million.
Philanthropists and venture capitalists are also getting into the mix.
The report makes clear that problems persist at traditional news outlets. Newspaper newsroom jobs declined by 6.4% in 2012 and there were doubtless more losses in 2013, it says, adding that despite all the cool new kids in the game, "the vast majority of bodies producing original reporting still lie within the newspaper industry."
The document reminds us that "a year ago, the State of the News Media report struck a somber note, citing evidence of continued declines in the mainstream media that were impacting both content and audience satisfaction." And many of those problems persist.
"Still," it continues, "the level of new activity this past year is creating a perception that something important, perhaps even game-changing, is going on. If the developments in 2013 are at this point only a drop in the bucket, it feels like a heavier drop than most."
I share the authors' enthusiasm about the promising green shoots. The fact that so many new players see a value in powerful journalism is good news indeed. Particularly heartening is the substantial investment in investigative reporting and foreign coverage.
But there's one serious area of concern: Who is going to pay for local reporting? Many local outfits continue to decline. Many digital start-ups are doing fine work at the local level, but they are largely complementary to the big dog in town rather than large enough to fully cover an entire region.
And first-rate local journalism is critical in a democracy.
I look forward to one year reading in Pew's annual report that we've got that one covered as well.