Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Study: Local papers are still the biggest producers of local, original, and important journalism in their communities

Chart by Napoli and Mahone; click on the image to enlarge it.
Newspapers have traditionally provided the majority of local journalism, but local papers have been hit hard by economic challenges, "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," Philip Napoli and Jessica Mahone of Duke University write for Harvard University's Nieman Lab.

With those questions in mind, Napoli and Mahone did a study to see which types of news outlets are the most significant journalism sources in 100 randomly sampled U.S. communities. The research is an extension of a previous study that looked at all media outlets in those same 100 communities and analyzed a week's worth of news stories to see how original, local, and important they were. That study found a surprising shortage of local news in some papers.

In the latest study, "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," Napoli and Mahone write. "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."

The study found that newspapers accounted for about 25 percent local news outlets in the sample, but produced almost 50% of original news stories and nearly 60% of local stories—more than TV, radio, and online-only news outlets combined. "Local newspapers also produced just over 38 percent 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 percent of those stories," Napoli and Mahone report. "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."

They note that online-only news sources do not punch above their weight the way that local newspapers do. Online-only outlets make up 10% of local news outlets in the communities surveyed; they had just under 10% of original stories, 13% of the local stories, about 11% of stories that addressed critical information needs, and 10% of those that met all three criteria. That distinction is food for thought for those who expect online-only sources to replace print, Napoli and Mahone write.

"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," Napoli and Mahone write. "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."

Napoli is a public policy professor and faculty affiliate with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University, and leads the News Measures Research Project. Mahone is a research associate at the DeWitt Center and supports the News Measures Research Project.

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