Traditional media – mainly newspapers – still generate the bulk of the information that reaches the public, according to a research report by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. A study into the 'news ecology' in Baltimore, US, found that new media platforms and services like Twitter mainly repeat information generated elsewhere.
Where does the news come from in today's changing media?
Who really reports the news that most people get about their communities? What role do new media, blogs and specialty news websites now play?
How, in other words, does the modern news "ecosystem" of a large American city work? And if newspapers were to die — to the extent that we can infer from the current landscape — what would that imply for what citizens would know and not know about where they live?
The questions are becoming increasingly urgent. As the economic model that has subsidized professional journalism collapses, the number of people gathering news in traditional television, print and radio organizations is shrinking markedly. What, if anything, is taking up that slack?
The answers are a moving target; even trying to figure out how to answer them is a challenge. But a new study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which takes a close look at the news ecosystem of one city suggests that while the news landscape has rapidly expanded, most of what the public learns is still overwhelmingly driven by traditional media — particularly newspapers.
The study, which examined all the outlets that produced local news in Baltimore, Md., for one week, surveyed their output and then did a closer examination of six major narratives during the week, finds that much of the "news" people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of 10 stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information.
And of the stories that did contain new information nearly all, 95%, came from traditional media — most of them newspapers. These stories then tended to set the narrative agenda for most other media outlets.
The local papers, however, are also offering less than they once did. For all of 2009, for instance, the Baltimore Sun produced 32% fewer stories on any subject than it did in 1999, and 73% fewer stories than in 1991, when the company still published an evening and morning paper with competing newsrooms.1 And a comparison of one major story during the week studied — about state budget cuts — found newspapers in the area produced only one-third as many stories in 2009 as they did the last time the state made a similar round of budget cuts in 1991, and the Baltimore Sun one-seventh as many. Yet the numbers suggest the addition of new media has not come close to making up the difference.
Indeed the expanding universe of new media, including blogs, Twitter and local websites — at least in Baltimore — played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places.
New technology was more prevalent as a way for media — both traditional and new — to break news more quickly. The Web is now clearly the first place of publication.
And this faster dissemination of news was tied to three other trends. As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.
In the growing echo chamber online, formal procedures for citing and crediting can get lost. We found numerous examples of websites carrying sections of other people's work without attribution and often suggesting original reporting was added when none was. We found elements of this in several major stories we traced.
And sometimes old stories that were already obsolete were posted or linked to after events had changed and the original news site had updated them.
These are some of the results of a close examination of the media covering Baltimore, Md., during the week of July 19-25, 2009.
Among the findings:
The network of news media in Baltimore has already expanded remarkably. We identified 53 different news outlets that regularly produce some kind of local news content, a universe that ranges from blogs to talk radio to news websites created by former journalists. These are multi-platform operations that also make robust use of Twitter as a means of dissemination. Twelve of those outlets did not produce any local content during the days studied.2
Among the six major news threads studied in depth — which included stories about budgets, crime, a plan involving transit buses, and the sale of a local theater — fully 83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information. Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.
General interest newspapers like the Baltimore Sun produced half of these stories (48%) and another print medium, specialty newspapers focused on business and law, produced another 13%.
Local television stations and their websites accounted for about a third (28%) of the enterprise reporting on the major stories of the week; radio accounted for 7%, all from material posted on radio station websites. The remaining nine new media outlets accounted for just 4% of the enterprise reporting we encountered.
Traditional media made wide use of new platforms. Newspapers, TV and radio produced nearly a third of their stories on new platforms (31%), though that number varied by sector. Almost half of the newspapers stories studied were online rather than in print.
There were two cases of new media breaking information about stories. One came from the police Twitter feed in Baltimore, an example of a news maker breaking news directly to the public rather than through the press. Another was a story noticed by a local blog, that the mainstream press nearly missed entirely, involving a plan by the state to put listening devices on buses to deter crime. A newspaper reporter noticed the blog and then reported on the story, which led the state to rescind the plan.
As the press scales back on original reporting and dissemination, reproducing other people's work becomes a bigger part of the news media system. Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news. In the detailed examination of six major storylines, 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, led first of all by the police. Another 14% came from the press. Interest group figures made up most of the rest.