This stubborn fact faces the growing movement to save local journalism: The majority of grants and other aid may need to flow to newspapers, rather than other news media, because they deliver the majority of the news in local information ecosystems.
For a 2018 report, Duke University researchers set out to document how local original news is generated and were startled to discover that while newspapers were just 25% of local news outlets, they produced more original local civic content than radio, TV and online newsrooms combined.
“We expected there might be some differences, (that) newspapers might produce more,” says Jessica Mahone, a researcher at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. “I don’t think we thought it would be near the gap that it is.”
Mahone and her team tallied all the news available in 100 randomly selected U.S. communities on random days. In all, they analyzed 16,000 stories provided by 663 local media outlets, focusing especially on original and local information that fulfills critical information needs, such as health, disaster or education news.
Though outnumbered three to one, newspapers cranked out 60% of all those useful stories in circulation, with none of the other newsrooms producing more than 15%.
“I think there was a little surprise regarding the online-only outlets,” Mahone said. “The whole reason a lot of these came to be was the idea they were going to be replacement for newspapers and that’s not happening.” Mahone is eager to get back in the field and dig deeper into the disparity. For now, she speculates, the business model for online-only news hasn’t matured enough to build bigger news staffs, and newspapers’ longevity may still attract more news tips than the newcomers.
The Duke findings come 80 years after newspapers had the news field to themselves, with radio, TV and web outlets each carving into the news market. And the study was conducted after years of cost-cutting at newspaper chains. In all, newspaper newsrooms employ less than half as many reporters now as they did in 2004. Yet, newspapers remain the prime generators of original local news.
Several coalitions of U.S. senators and House members have declared local journalism is essential to democracy and are developing plans to set aside payroll protection and small business loans specifically to keep newsrooms afloat during this public-health crisis and the recession that is sure to follow.
TV, radio and web outlets are all hurting. But if Congress’ goal is to ensure communities have essential civic information, keeping newspaper reporters on the job may be the most efficient use of those stimulus funds. One quarter of the news outlets producing almost two-thirds of original local news is a hard statistic to ignore.