Time after time again, people who want to save newspapers claim that newspapers are the primary source of news. But is their claim actually founded on anything other than self-importance?
I love newspapers. I want them to survive, in some form, but it’s important to investigate where the truth in one of the linchpins of the “newspapers need to survive argument” comes from.
Tom Rosenstiel explained this before the Joint Economic Committee hearing on “The Future of Newspapers: The Impact on the Economy and Democracy,” on September 24, 2009:
In every community in America I have studied in 26 years as a press critic, the newspaper in town has more boots on the ground–more reporters and editors–than anyone else–usually than all others combined. A good deal of what is carried on radio, television, cable and wire services comes from newspaper newsrooms. These media then disseminate it to broader audiences.
When we imagine the news ecosystem in the 21st century, the newspaper is still the largest originating, gathering source.
Rosenstiel’s not the only one to make the claim. It’s a common one. John Carroll used to say that 80 percent of news came from newspapers. Len Downie and Robert Kaiser similarly claimed that newspapers were the originators of most content for most broadcast and cable news. And many studies of online blogs show that much of the linking originates from mainstream media, often newspapers.
But are newspapers where it all begins? In an online world, that’s only sort of true.
A study coming out of USC Annenberg of 250 news websites looks at where these sites are bringing information from – whether they are citing the AP or citing their own journalists. Though the analysis isn’t complete yet, initial results seem to suggest that wire services are providing the bulk of news online.
The study, as explained by Annenberg doctoral candidate and researcher Matthew Weber, takes a systems approach. This means that the researchers were taking a look at who was providing information for the network of news organizations, who was doing the filtering for the news organizations, who was collecting the information and from where – and how it was being passed on.
“If you take a systems approach to the news industry, the people who are providing the raw material are predominantly wire services,” he said.
Weber did find that newspapers still are where consumers make their first stop. And while they add their own content, newspapers are also acting as filters – were also bringing in articles from the AP, Reuters, AFP and the like.
“The ‘system’ start with the wires, and ends with the aggregators. Newspapers are jammed in the middle, competing for air,” Weber explained via e-mail.
But when it comes down to who is creating the content for news sites, the organizations providing information were “almost exclusively wire services,” according to Weber.
So wires, in this case, seem to be increasing importance in the news architecture of the online world – and newspapers aren’t the first stop that they used to be, though they do help sort information.
But in some sense, wires have always played an important role that has often been ignored by those who like to say that newspapers have set the news agenda and uncovered the most important stories.
When I was an intern covering cops at the Chicago Tribune in 2003, often my assignment came not from the scanners but from the now-defunct City News Service, a wire service owned by Tribune Co. that sold breaking news to the highest bidder in the local market. The City News Service in Los Angeles, not owned by Tribune, still serves a similar purpose.
Even if we disregard these pre-Internet wires that only operated in a handful of cities, it’s still unfair to say that newspapers set the agenda for the rest of the media in a city. Certainly newspapers often did the rigorous work of providing a detailed account which was then recycled on local news, but television news has never aspired to be anything but a recycling of newspaper headlines even in its golden era.
Cronkite saw his viewers still reading a paper, and today, local news also doesn’t kid itself about being entertainment. The two mediums work more complementary than as leader and follower than we might hope to suggest in our case for news survival.
But there’s a whole other element to where news comes from that has also been ignored in an online context – the world of blogs and online communities – and how this then sets an agenda for newspapers to follow.
Chris W. Anderson, a Nieman blogger and assistant professor at the College of Staten Island – CUNY, has research that suggests that it’s important to look not just at newspapers but at the whole news ecosystem- which includes everything from news to activist communities.
Anderson doesn’t question the macro-level assumption that journalists report and bloggers comment. But he notes that it’s a little more complicated when you look more closely at specific news instances.
Calling them news “blips,” Anderson said, “You’ll have an early period that most journalists wouldn’t call reporting where information will be released in niche spheres of the blogosphere.”
One example he gave was of reports of activists arrests. But it wasn’t that reporters were reading these activist blogs that this news happened to make it into the mainstream newspaper or news media. Instead, journalists got their tips from “being good reporters,” taking cues in the traditional way, perhaps from police or press releases or shoe-leather reporting.
From his observations at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, Anderson said, “It’s a misnomer to think journalists are just sitting around reading blogs.”
But once journalists did report on these news blips, these blips were then circulated into the larger blogosphere. But the blips required a certain level of bubbling up to the surface from the niche level of social media, something that happened in traditional ways.
Twitter might make a good case of how newspapers aren’t the first and only source of news, especially on a hyperlocal level. Newspapers may be hoping to compete on the hyperlocal, but this strategy may be questionable especially in cities with actively wired bloggers and tweeters who may have the first claim on news.
My old neighborhood in LA is a Twitter neighborhood. Local stores and restaurants were on Twitter, as are many residents and more active bloggers. We all routinely kept the neighborhood hashtag #DTLA in our posts when commenting about our home. Sure, the bars marketed drink specials to us, but the #DTLA hashtag was the first source of news when the 2009 Lakers celebration got out of hand, then followed by TV and the LA Times. Twitter users provided great on-sight reportage of the Michael Jackson funeral at the Staples Center, often going beyond what mainstream media had to offer.
Did these events wind up back in the newspapers? Sure. But the most active concentration of rumors and new bits of information were coming from a niche community – in this case, the #DTLA one, and in Anderson’s case, the activist community.
Perhaps, instead of staking the claim for newspaper survival on the fact that newspapers provide the first stop of news and set our agenda for what it is we care to talk about, those making the case might start to make a more nuanced argument.
Maybe it’s not as compelling to say that newspapers are the great facilitators of democratic dialogue and discourse instead of the source of all that is news, but it seems to reflect the burgeoning reality of our digital era.