Many observers of today’s news business twists and turns start their historical overviews of the development of new online news publications in the late 15th century. That’s when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, ushering in an era of print innovation that prefigured the changes wrought on our society by the advent of social media. Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in a widely published opinion piece, advanced succinctly the comparison between the rise of social media and the advent of print:
Before Gutenberg, the monks copied illustrated manuscripts and were the keepers of information. Long after Gutenberg, during the Renaissance, society more or less figured out how to handle information. Today we are again living in those uncertain in-between years, when Gutenberg’s technology broke the old rules and allowed something new called literacy.1
The economic trauma our major news outlets are experiencing—such as the bankruptcy of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times—masks some of the real trends affecting local news. These trends suggest online news publications are likely to supplement, not replace these news outlets. However, a lack of local news is a real concern online news publications may help alleviate.
Is there less local news?
What constitutes local news may be hard to define, but we know it when we see it. However blurry the definition, newspaper audiences say it’s what they value most highly and would miss most if their daily paper disappeared. In one recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 43 percent of respondents said it would hurt civic life “a lot” if their local newspaper closed; and 30 percent of those who felt it would hurt civic life a lot pointed to their reliance on their paper’s local news as what they would miss.2
Journalists themselves increasingly point out that their ability to provide local news is their competitive advantage. A 2007 study by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, Is Local Journalism the Answer? noted local news may be the key to giving hometown readers “reasons to go to their local newspaper, in print or online”.3
While detailed content analysis was beyond the scope of our investigation, we attempted to get a rough sense of the quantity of local news coverage in our leading newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. To do so, we selected some key terms we deemed likely to appear in coverage that exemplifies local news. These terms were drawn from our experience in community development, health and education, among other areas, and focused on issues and challenges that have long faced Chicago and the region. We also selected as keywords several of Chicago’s cultural institutions, which we reasoned would be likely to appear in stories about arts and culture and/or reviews of performances and other creative work. Keyword searches performed in March and April 2009 used the Newsbank archive and allowed us to examine how often the keywords appeared within a specific time frame. Searches included editorial, news, and feature stories in the two newspapers. We carried out the following keyword searches:
Early Childhood Education
Health and Uninsured
Homeless and Chicago
Infrastructure and Chicago
Locally Grown Food
Most of the results followed the same trend demonstrated for the six indicators in this chart:
We were unable to determine with the resources available to us what might have caused the apparent spike in local news coverage indicated by the keyword searches around 1994.
We also noted some exceptions to the steadily fewer appearances of most of our keyword terms thereafter. The exceptions included corruption and bribery, which showed significant increases in the number of stories containing these words.
Are stories about corruption and bribery, which are staples of Chicago and Illinois politics, driving other local news stories such as the ones we searched for out of the news? It’s possible. Another interpretation is that as the newspapers have dropped some local news coverage, they have nonetheless kept the focus on their key government watchdog functions.
One important caveat on the keyword searches: they largely ignore context and make no adjustment for prominence within the newspaper (for example, a front page story received equal weight from the keyword search as one buried deep within one of the paper’s sections). We attempted to control for this with searches for several of these keywords within the first paragraph of a news story, or lead.
These reflected a similar trend as seen in the following chart (note the public housing line and high school graduation rates lines closely overlap).
While the measure itself was rough, the similar pattern across many different keyword searches appears to indicate that these topics have received generally less coverage as the years have gone by. It seems clear that there is less local news in our two leading newspapers today than there was 20 years ago.
Economic and audience trends
The Internet had been threatening the news business for years before the recent spate of economic challenges. As Ken Davis noted at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall meeting on February 22, news has joined other industries transformed by the Internet:
One by one, online has been either annihilating or completely rewriting the script for just about every kind of entity, organization, company that there is. And for the longest time the same thing was about to happen to the collection writing editing and dissemination of news. How we get it, how we distribute it to the public is changing almost by the hour.4
As Davis pointed out, the changes have sped up in the past 12 months, exemplified most dramatically by layoffs of some 100 journalists at the Tribune alone, and many more at other news outlets. The economic crisis is exacerbating what many say are larger problems in the news business.
Those changes include sharp declines in advertising revenue and paid circulation. Advertising revenue is in freefall, according to the Newspaper Association of America:
- In 2008, for the first time since the association began tracking advertising in 1950, print ad revenue declined for an unprecedented third consecutive year. The 17.7 percent 2007-to-2008 decline was the steepest ever recorded.5
- Online advertising revenue, which had been growing by double digits in the years since the Association began to measure it, slipped 1.8 percent in 2008 to $3.109 billion.6
- Newspaper ad sales declined at an accelerating pace in each quarter of 2008, tumbling nearly 20 percent in the last three months of the worst year in the history of the industry.7
Paid circulation is also down. The Audit Bureau of Circulation reported recently that average daily circulation at 395 U.S. newspapers fell 7.09 percent in the first quarter of 2009, with daily average circulation in the three months ending on March 31, 2009, declining to 34.4 million from 37.1 million a year earlier.8
At the same time, audiences for news online are growing. The Newspaper Association reported recent numbers that show visits to online newspaper sites have never been higher—a 10.5 percent increase at the end of the first quarter of 2009 over the same period the previous year.9 There is some debate, however, as to the significance of increased traffic at newspaper Web sites. Newspaper boosters contend it shows more engaged audiences for traditional news, while others suggest the numbers fail to compensate for a historic lack of engagement between readers and reporters and editors. It may be too soon to tell.
Certainly, print journalists are learning fast how to engage audiences online but it’s equally clear that they have a long way to go. In the Digital Media Cookbook, Rich Gordon of Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University succinctly frames the problem online poses to traditional news:
Visitors to newspaper Web sites use those sites less frequently, and for much less time, than readers of print editions—or visitors to online community sites. While newspapers have gradually managed to increase the time spent with their sites, nothing they have done has produced results nearly as compelling as the astonishing growth of MySpace and Facebook in the past couple of years.10
Gordon’s report offers insight into the problems newspapers face and suggests that they are working hard to solve them.
Chicago’s new online news
There’s no reason to assume that online news publications will do a better job of local news coverage than their counterparts in print and broadcast. An example involving international news helps illustrate this. The head of Public Radio International delivered a speech in 2008 about the lack of good international news, in which she noted that while local television news programs provided relatively little such news, online news did not perform better:
Last year, Pew and the Colombia J-School analyzed the 14,000 stories that appeared on Google News’ front page. And they, in fact, covered the same 24 news events. Similarly, a study in e-content showed that much of global news from U.S. news creators is recycled stories from the AP wire services and Reuters, and don’t put things into a context that people can understand their connection to it.
In fact, by many measures traditional newspaper sites appear to be outperforming online news publications, according to the 2009 annual The State of The News Media by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism.11 One component of the study contrasts “legacy media,” i.e. newspapers, with online news publications such as blogs and “citizen media” sites. Some examples:
- Legacy sites (from traditional newspapers) offered almost double the percent of news (89 percent) in comparison with citizen news sites (56 percent) and three times that of blogs (27 percent).12
- Citizen sites used legacy sites as news sources, with citizen sites linking to legacy news sites twice as often as legacy sites linked to citizen sites.13
- The topic coverage on blogs and citizen news sites is generally narrow and the sourcing is light.14
As the survey also notes, online news publications not produced by traditional newspapers are an emerging phenomenon. They may be rare, but rapid growth of existing online news publications and expanding numbers of such publications is another key trend. Much has been and continues to be written on this topic. We found a useful source for monitoring the development of such sites and for how-to and related information to be the Knight Citizen News Network, a portal that guides both ordinary citizens and traditional journalists in launching and responsibly operating community news and information sites, which also assembles news innovations and research on citizen media projects.15 The site is maintained by J-Lab, a news innovation hub.
Finally, it’s notable that in reporting about of these new online news publications, Chicago is routinely cited as a national leader. One of Chicago’s leading online news publications, Chi-Town Daily News, was featured in the Washington Post on April 1, 2009; the article focused on how the site is filling gaps in local news coverage, quoting Chi-Town’s Geoff Dougherty: “When you look at a situation where a number of metro papers are going out of business, the thing that really gets shut down is local coverage. We can fill the gap.”16 A couple of weeks later, The New York Times cited online news publication EveryBlock.com, and quoted Adrian Holovaty: “We have a very liberal definition of what is news. We think it’s something that happens in your neighborhood.”17 The same day as the Times story, the Sun-Times reported that “the reinvention of the news gathering industry is being engineered—at least in part—in Chicago.”18
1 Ibarguen, Alberto, “The future of getting news to Americans,” Holland (MI) Sentinel, May 24, 2009
2 The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Many Would Shrug if Their Local Newspaper Closed,” News Interest Index, March 12, 2009, people-press.org/report/497/many-would-shrug-if-local-newspaper-closed, Accessed May 25, 2009
3 Ludtke, Melissa, ed., “Is Local News the Answer,” Nieman Reports, Winter 2007, www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=100107, accessed May 26, 2009
4 See chijournalismtownhall.com/ and full audio at www.chicagopublicradio.org/Content.aspx?audioID=32307
5 “Advertising Expenditures-Annual” Newspaper Association of America Web site, www.naa.org/TrendsandNumbers/Advertising-Expenditures.aspx, accessed May 24, 2009
7 “Advertising Expenditures-Quarterly,” Newspaper Association of America Web site, www.naa.org/TrendsandNumbers/Advertising-Expenditures.aspx#spotlight-Quarterly accessed May 24, 2009
8 “Average daily circulation at 395 U.S. newspapers down 7.09%, audit bureau says,” by Agence France Press, April 28, 2009 at www.nationalpost.com/related/links/story.html?id=1539914 accessed May 24, 2009
9 “Newspaper Web Site Audience Increases More Than Ten Percent In First Quarter To 73.3 Million Visitors,” www.naa.org/PressCenter/SearchPressReleases/2009/Newspaper-Web-Site-Audience-Increases-More-Than-Ten-Percent.aspx , accessed May 24, 2009
10 Gordon, Rich The Online Community Cookbook: Recipes for building audience interaction at newspaper Web sites, Newspaper Association of America, 2008 www.naa.org/docs/Digital-Media/Cookbook/Cookbook08final.pdf accessed May 24, 2009
11 Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, The State of the News Media: An Annual Report On American Journalism, spring 2009, www.stateofthemedia.org/2009/index.htm, accessed May 24, 2009
12 ibid., “Special Reports: Citizen Based Media,” www.stateofthemedia.org/2009/narrative_special_citzenbasedmedia.php?cat=0&media=12, accessed May 24, 2009. The special report derived from a two-year survey by researchers at three universities, “Tracking and Analyzing Community News Models,” funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation. The first phase, conducted in late 2007, was released in the 2008 State of the Media report.
15 www.kcnn.org. Accessed May 24, 2009
16 Kurtz, Howard, “Chicago’s Frisky Web Sites Gain Ground On the Bankrupt Newspapers,” The Washington Post (Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service), April 1, 2009
17 Miller, Claire Cain and Brad Stone, “News Without Newspapers,” The New York Times, April 13, 2009, p. B1, Late Edition-Final
18 Spirrison, Brad “Future of news being delivered in Chicago -—EveryBlock, Printed Blog, Newser leading charge to reinvent industry,” The Chicago Sun-Times, April 13, 2009, Final, p. 35