Commentary: Local newspapers are suffering, but still produce the most significant journalism

Commentary: Local newspapers are suffering, but still produce the most significant journalism
October 10
05:45 2019

By Phillip Napoli and Jessica Mahone, North Carolina Press Association

Local newspapers have always been the epicenter of local news ecosystems. While communities may have other sources of journalism, such as TV and radio stations and online-only outlets, the bulk of the reporting serving local communities has traditionally been provided by local newspapers.

Local newspapers have also been hit particularly hard by the economic challenges confronting local journalism, which raises questions about whether these papers still serve as the lynchpins of local reporting in their communities, and whether other types of outlets are stepping up to take their place.

With these questions in mind, we conducted a study that explores which types of outlets are the most significant producers of journalism in 100 randomly sampled communities across the U.S. This study is a continuation of previous research in which we produced an inventory of all media outlets located within these 100 communities, and gathered a week’s worth of news stories found on these outlets’ home pages (over 16,000 stories in total). We then analyzed these stories to determine whether they met each of the following three criteria: 1) was the story original; 2) was the story local; and 3) did the story address a critical information need. More methodological detail can be found in our full report.

Local newspapers provided nearly 50% of original news stories

The results show, fairly convincingly, that despite the economic hardships that local newspapers have endured, they remain, by far, the most significant providers of journalism in their communities. And while there is great hope and expectation that newer, online journalism sources will emerge to compensate for the cutbacks and closures affecting local newspapers, our study has shown that this has yet to take place.

We found, for instance, that while local newspapers accounted for roughly 25% of the local media outlets in our sample, they accounted for nearly 50% of the original news stories in our database. Local newspapers also accounted for nearly 60% of the local news stories in our database (again, while accounting for only 25% of the outlet in our sample). Essentially, local newspapers produced more of the local reporting in the communities we studied than television, radio, and online-only outlets combined.

Local newspapers also produced just over 38% of the stories that addressed a critical information need. And, when we focused exclusively on stories that met all three of these criteria, local newspapers accounted for almost 60% of those stories. In sum, by all of the criteria we employed to assess local journalism output, local newspapers over-performed relative to their prominence amongst local media outlets.

Online-only news outlets versus print newspaper 

When we compare these results with what we found when we focused on online-only news sources, the differences are striking. Online-only news outlets accounted for 10% of the local media outlets in the 100 communities that we studied. In terms of the story output we analyzed, these outlets accounted for just under 10% of the original stories, about 13% of the local stories, about 11% of the stories that addressed critical information needs, and 10% of the stories meeting all three of these criteria. Unlike local newspapers, online-only outlets tend to produce journalism roughly in proportion with their prominence amongst local media outlets. This, it would seem, represents an important point of distinction between local newspapers and the local online news sources that many of us hope/expect will replace them.

It’s worth noting that when we compare the journalistic output of local newspapers with that of online-only news sources, without taking quantity into consideration, they compare quite favorably. For instance, 53% of the stories produced by local newspapers were original, compared with 48% for online-only outlets. Twenty-six percent of local newspaper stories were local, compared with 25% for online-only outlets. Sixty-three percent of local newspaper stories addressed a critical information need, compared with 82% for online-only outlets. The issue, then, is one of quantity. Online-only outlets continue to produce a fraction of the journalistic output of their print counterparts.

Newspapers still vital producers of local journalism

In sum, while legacy newspapers have declined, they certainly have yet to be displaced as vital producers of local journalism. And the long hoped for emergence of online-only outlets as comparable providers of local journalism still appears to be a long way off. As policymakers and philanthropic organizations concerned about local journalism consider their next steps, and where to invest their efforts and resources, it may be worth keeping these numbers in mind.

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