You don’t have to be over 50 years old to be concerned about where the world might be heading when it comes to the generation of news stories and how they are vetted. As newspapers and other publishers have cut the size of their reporting and editorial staffs, the quality and consistency of news reporting has suffered in the eyes of many.
Recently, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism decided to take a look at this issue to see how it’s playing out on the ground by studying the “news ecosystem” of a single geographic region. The market chosen for the study – Baltimore, Maryland – just happens to be in my backyard, so I’ve been able to review the results with a good understanding of the dynamics of the region in question.
Pew’s Baltimore study evaluated the news environment during the summer of 2009 and came to some interesting conclusions. While the regional media landscape – print, web, radio and TV – has broadened considerably to include 53 separate outlets that regularly produce and broadcast some form of news content, much of what is truly “new news” came from the traditional news outlets and not from other media resources.
Six major local/regional news threads were studied, ranging from the Maryland state budget situation to crime trends, issues affecting the metro transit system, and the sale of the Senator Theater, a local historical landmark. An analysis of those news threads found that:
More than 80% of the news stories were repetitive – just rehashes of someone else’s original news content that contained no new information.
Of the ~20% of the news stories that did include new information, nearly all of the content came from traditional media, published either in conventional format (e.g., print) or in digital.
General-audience newspapers like the Baltimore Sun produced roughly half of the news stories, followed by local TV stations such as WBAL-TV contributing ~30% of the reporting.
Specialty business or legal newspaper outlets such as the Baltimore Business Journal and the Daily Record contributed just under of 15% of the news items, with the remaining news reporting coming primarily from local radio stations such as WYPR-FM.
Interestingly, about one-third of the news coverage generated by newspaper publishers appeared on the Internet rather than in their print editions.
Thus, the Pew study demonstrates that “new news” is coming from the same sources as before, led by the local papers. But another clear picture to emerge from the Baltimore profile is that the scaling back of editorial staffs has resulted in less original reporting, with much heavier reliance on simply republishing stories that have appeared elsewhere.
At the same time, new interactive capabilities are giving “we the people” an unparalleled broadcast platform via the ability to post feedback and commentary, not to mention utilizing Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms as a megaphone.
In today’s “everyone’s an editor because they can write” environment, no one can stop us from broadcasting our own opinions and analysis to the world. But that’s not the same thing as a properly sourced, properly vetted news story. And that’s what Pew sees falling away.