The shift from traditional to online news publications provides a glimpse into individuals’ views on what they love and hate about the news and, more broadly, their perspectives on their information needs.
We focused on how changes in the news business affect communities, arts and culture, and other aspects of public life. We discussed the topic with leaders of area nonprofit organizations that offer often-untapped expertise on this topic: leaders of nonprofit organizations working on the broadest possible range of issues, of all budget sizes and types, from emerging organizations to agencies whose founding dates to the 19th century.
We wanted to get three kinds of information from the focus groups:
- What is the value of news to you or your organization and your relationship to news as a news user and a source?
- To what extent you feel more or less informed and connected to peers and to the region as a whole?
- What is the state of your own operations relative to producing and disseminating information, whether to inform, advocate or persuade, fundraise, or other goals?
We framed the focus groups with short presentations about the state of the news, following the outline of the previous section of this report. From the four 75-minute conversations that ensued these key topics emerged:
Gravity of news changes
Core News Function 1: Vetting
Core News Function 2: Selection
Core News Function 3: One conversation
Our capacity to respond
We also asked people to discuss in some detail their habits of news consumption, with extra attention paid to what new online news sites they use.
Gravity of situation
“I think the accumulated absence of all that writing and reading is something we haven’t begun to imagine”
Given our invitation process, it’s perhaps no surprise that everyone who attended expressed concern about the state of the news. At the most global level, participants expressed their belief that the existing method of local news coverage is broken. One consequence of this overall breakdown of local news coverage, a social-service agency part-time communications staffer noted, was the need to embrace online and Web 2.0 communication methods:
“You have to get involved with the Internet and blogging if you’re really going to stay alive and keep your organization alive.”
Several participants noted that key reporters with whom they had relationships had been laid off recently. One said a journalist had recently completed reporting for a story on her organization, but was laid off before the story could be published. This loss was reflected on the Tribune editorial page in the form of less space for letters to the editor from nonprofits, a participant noted: “I think we have been trying just as much, but not getting published as often.”
There was agreement among participants that levels of news coverage have been decreasing gradually over time, as opposed to recently and rapidly. For example, arts-organization participants had a spirited discussion about the extent to which reviews and other coverage help drive event attendance. A representative from Kohl Children’s Museum suggested that over the years there’d been a “tectonic shift” since 2005, when the museum moved from Evanston to Glenview:
[Then] an article hit and you could see a huge jump in zip codes of that territory almost immediately.…Since then I don’t remember what a big hit looks like. When you’re in the big papers, the Trib, the Sun-Times, it tends to be a listing about a new exhibit and you get a paragraph or two…instead of a big meaty article. And so what I’m finding is instead of these one big hits every once in a while, it’s trying to get 100 little hits into these little blogs and little smaller local papers.
Conversely, a theater group participant reported that after her group received a review, she was told to expect the phones to ring off the hook, but they never did, she noted: “I have been there for six months, and we have had two shows, and the reviews don’t sell tickets even if they are good.”
Participants also said they had noticed the difference in local news coverage as individual news consumers and users. Responding partly to our own focus on the Sun-Times and Tribune, most reflected experiences as Tribune subscribers. They dismissed recent changes in the print newspaper with strongly unfavorable comments, such as calling it “fluff,” “lightweight” and cartoonish.
Another level of concern stemmed from the ease of handling the physical newspaper and the loss of associations with the experience of consuming news. We did not ask participants for their age, but this appeared to come mostly from participants over the age of 40. For example, participants noted the ease of carrying paper along with them, the ritual of starting the day with breakfast and a newspaper, and even the “smell and feel” of the paper.
Finally, it was instructive to note specific instances of journalists and journalism that mattered to participants in the focus groups. These were worth noting partly because they pointed up nonprofit leaders’ dual role as news users and as sources. In several cases as noted below, nonprofit participants said they had sourced a report for specific stories or journalists, while in other cases participants praised the story or reporter:
- Chicago Tribune current or former reporters Charles Storch, Lisa Black, Barbara Mahany, Steve Franklin
- Sun-Times editorials on schools and about violence in the schools
- Tribune series on domestic violence
- Tribune ongoing reports on health care (specifically, pieces by Judith Graham)
- General support for reports on state corruption and Dantrell Davis
- Investigative stories on social issues by the Chicago Reporter
- ABC-7 series on universal design at Kohl Children’s Museum
- Foreclosure crisis stories in partnership with an advocacy organization
Participants also saw the opportunity in online news publications. For example several cited media relations successes using Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools. A participant who contributes to Gapers Block noted: “I think there’s so many more people writing about the arts who may not have the backing of a major paper that I’m kind of like, well, that’s cool.”
I’m getting a lot more information, but the source is dubious.
Online publications were widely perceived to be less authoritative than traditional news outlets. There was clear consensus that participants missed editing, vetting and fact checking provided by editorial staff at traditional media outlets.
This did not mean that participants felt that traditional print news was less biased. Rather, while they accept that bias is built into any story or report —they are already familiar with and understand the biases of existing news outlets. But these biases remain unknown for online news publications.
Another role of traditional news participants perceived online news publications failing to perform can be summed up by the old New York Times’ tagline, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Most group members appreciated the diversity of information available to them online, but at the same time felt overwhelmed by that diversity. In fact, given the infinite-seeming variation of offerings online, participants esteemed traditional news’ guide function. Specifically they appreciated journalists’ ability to:
- Select what’s most important. This kind of selection was critical and will be presented in greater detail in the next section.
- Select news or stories that surprise or are of interest. For example, several people cited the Tuesday Science Times as an example of traditional journalists selecting and publishing stories our members might not otherwise ever have known about—let alone how to find them online—but that they found interesting.
One participant noted, ”If you read a newspaper, it’s kind of like eating a balanced diet” as opposed to online news.
Also in this context the form of print news came up numerous times when group members noted that they found it easier to “discover” stories of interest to them flipping through a print newspaper. “Truthfully, I find going through the paper like this a lot easier than reading on line,” an individual said, speaking for many in the group.
Who’s pulling it all together and making sense of it, like giving the big picture?
It may be natural to long for someone else to winnow and select the most relevant, interesting, and best news and stories in the face of the diversity available from online news publications. But many focus group members identified another aspect of traditional news, that of referee, arbiter or gatekeeper. That role, “in a sense, to set the agenda for the region as a whole,” as one participant put it, was prized by participants who want to feel that they are part of one conversation across the region.
Among the focus groups, issue advocates in particular highlighted the role of the news in pulling together a swath of topical information and news. The single-issue advocates noted that in their work they focus on just one issue, and the role of the news is to look more broadly across a whole range of topics.
An advocate, who lives in Evanston but works downtown, noted that with the advent some time previously of zoning (the practice of adapting content for one part of a newspaper’s delivery area, to emphasize local news), she perceived that her Evanston-delivered Tribune includes less news about the South Side, identifying this loss of “one conversation” as part of a process that has been going on for a long time.
In this phase of our focus group conversations, participants echoed the concept of the information commons —news of interest to multiple individuals by virtue of sharing the same broad geographic community, for example. They felt greater connection to and better communication “laterally” among themselves and other organizations, e.g. peer groups, national associations, or even international entities. But they viewed these conversations as potentially less reliable because they did not come from “neutral sources,” as one person put it. In other words, as news consumers, participants said they want someone who does not necessarily agree with them or even see the world the same way to provide them with news and information.
Finally, it’s worth noting that from a media relations point of view alone, participants found this very diversity and churn on the Web a challenge, as it makes for more relationships to keep track of and information needs to be constantly updated.
Our capacity to respond
Capacity challenges came up for a number of groups. For example, at least two people specified they had laid off communications and marketing staff recently.
Most had dipped a toe into the online social media pool. Virtually all participants had organizational Web sites. Many had a sense of the metrics of who and how many visitors come to those sites, and a surprising number of all but the largest nonprofits had scaled back or even abandoned print communication vehicles, including newsletters and annual reports.
A number of people expressed the feeling they were “getting the hang of” social media. They also noted that despite decreases in news coverage overall, the economic crisis and advent of the Obama administration with its increased attention to domestic issues seemed to be driving greater attention to their organizations and issues.
In the course of the focus group process, we shared with participants our list-in-formation of online news publications to get a sense of the news diet of nonprofit leaders and gauge their familiarity with these publications. We also aimed to identify those with the broadest reach—those that approximate the greatest “one conversation” nature of traditional news. In the course of the meetings of the four focus groups, participants cited specific news outlets some 156 times. The 10 most-cited outlets among the four focus groups are illustrated in the chart above.
We were surprised at the degree to which individuals were able to identify the core functions of news that they valued most. We also found that individuals appeared relatively prepared to make the jump to online news—if it is able to fulfill the three key roles of vetting, selection, and garnering the kind of broad regional audiences that the Tribune and Sun-Times, for example, already command.