|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute
How did May 11 look in print?
The challenge and opportunity for newspapers is time. With ink on paper, the news is delivered the following day. The only way newspapers can bring new information is by concentrating on “exclusives” or by taking advantage of the extra time to make more calls, gather more information and weigh more arguments to add new dimensions to their reporting.
So what did consumers get by waiting until the morning of May 12 to learn about May 11 that they could not have found on radio or TV or online earlier — beyond the tactile pleasure some claim from holding the paper in their hands over morning coffee?
Based on a close examination of this day:
This close look also revealed some differences among the papers. In a local metro daily rather than a big national paper, government was less important and crime much more important, as were issues not tied to government. And if their newspaper was suburban, government and community issues dominated, but crime, foreign affairs and national defense were not much of a concern. Yet despite the predictable distinctions, big national papers like the New York Times and smaller metropolitan papers like the Bend Bulletin in Oregon shared far more with each other than they did with other media, and perhaps more than many people might expect .
In previous years, our content studies of newspapers, conducted over 28 randomly selected days, gave a general picture of print: Readers of newspapers get a more traditional mix of hard and soft news than in other media as well as coverage more focused on powerful institutions. Newspaper stories generally are more deeply and clearly sourced, though they also rely more on anonymous sources.
By the numbers, May 11 held true to that form.
In addition to more and deeper sourcing on major stories, newspaper stories also scored higher on our index that measured how many contextual elements stories explored to make them more relevant and useful to readers. And here print actually scored higher than online.
On May 12, newspapers, again, also tended to rely more on anonymous sourcing than other media, except national Web sites.
Depth of News Coverage Across All Media
Yet beyond the numbers, what did the coverage of a day in the news feel like in print? What could one learn? What was missing? If newspapers are shrinking, or if the big metro papers are suffering most, what would their erosion cost us?
We examined three national papers, as well as the local papers in three cities: the New York Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times at the national level, and the Houston Chronicle, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Bend Bulletin in Oregon . We also examined two suburban dailies, the Baytown Sun outside of Houston and the Waukesha Freeman outside of Milwaukee, and discuss them separately below. We analyzed every story that day in the front section, and the front pages of the local and business sections.
Local News in Print versus on TV
Newspapers, even at the local level, simply define news differently from local television or even national network and cable news. In local metro dailies, citizens were far more likely to learn about things like taxes, education, zoning commissions and the activities of government than they would in most other media. In the metro papers in Houston , Milwaukee and Bend , a third of the space was taken up by matters relating to government or domestic issues such as education. On local TV in those cities on the same day, by comparison, only 23% of the space was filled with those topics, and often they commanded only brief anchor reads read from wire stories — some of them from the local newspaper.
In the Houston Chronicle, for instance, readers of the front and local sections would have learned about:
Not one of those stories earned a package on any of the city’s three main TV stations’ morning, evening or late newscasts. The state tax bill and high school reform plan were mentioned in brief tell stories in some newscasts. The others were completely absent.
Topics of News Coverage in Select Media
In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a reader could learn about a former Nazi prison guard who lives in the area losing his U.S. citizenship, the state lottery losing nearly a quarter-million dollars on a failed Super Bowl promotion, or a local Presbyterian college that argued that unionization and federal labor laws impinged on its religious freedom. Only one of those showed up on local TV — the Nazi prison guard story — and then only as a brief anchor read.
On local TV, instead, hometown news tended to mean mostly crime, accidents, traffic and weather. Crime and accidents alone made up half of all the newshole. In the local newspapers in the same cities, crime and accidents still made up a sizable share, but it was roughly half as much (28%). Local radio’s treatment of crime and accidents on this day was more on par with the local papers — 27%.
National and International News in print versus TV
The differences were even greater when it came to national news. The local metro dailies studied were notable in how comprehensive they tried to be. It is clear that those publications imagine themselves as institutions of record from which readers can get as full an account of the events of the world as space permits. As of 2005, they had not ceded to other papers or Web sites the task of the news beyond their town.
Federal Highway Bill Coverage, by Media
All three of the smaller papers, for instance, (as well as the New York Times and the L.A. Times) carried a story on the inside pages of their front sections about a bill in Congress to increase funds for federal highways. That story appeared nowhere on local television. Nor did it appear on national television news, either network or cable.
The other big news out of Congress this day, a bill to crack down on gangs, was a story in the Bend Bulletin and the Milwaukee Journal, but the Houston Chronicle passed. Yet TV viewers were far less likely to see it. The only word of it on TV in the three cities was a brief tell story on WITI in Milwaukee at 10 p.m. and another on KTRK’s 6 a.m. news in Houston .
The differences were equally striking when we compared what local residents got in the way of international news. On May 12, the local metro papers contained nearly as much coverage of foreign affairs topics as the three major national papers (8% of all space versus 11% in national papers) and twice as much as local TV.
Certain international stories, in particular, were virtually absent from TV yet were major news in the local papers. Often the stories that newspapers carried and television did not seemed somewhat complicated. Every metro paper studied devoted significant space to the news that North Korea had taken nuclear rods from power plants with the intent to use them in making nuclear weapons. In Houston and Bend , that was a Page 1 story. It never appeared on any of the local TV programs studied , and was mentioned on only one network evening newscast.
North Korean Nuclear Rods, Coverage
The quality of the national and foreign coverage also was not as different as some might guess between the local metro dailies and the national papers. The reason was simple. What appeared in the local papers was usually coverage from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. On major stories getting significant treatment, those major papers were more often the source of wire copy than the Associated Press. The AP showed up far more as the source for shorter stories and briefs.
For the North Korea story, all of the local papers monitored relied on the New York Times. On the D.C. plane scare of the previous day, the Bend Bulletin used the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle relied on the Chicago Tribune syndicate and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel used the New York Times.
Still, if we look at the overall geographic focus of the content in these papers, beyond just the topics, the local metro dailies covered more of the news from a local angle. The stories in these papers were more than twice as likely to focus on the metro or regional area as were the national papers (47% versus 24%). In other words, even if the topics themselves were national or international, these papers were more likely to try to put it in a local context, to bring the story home.
Geographic Focus of Stories, by Media
National Newspapers versus Network and Cable TV
The differences between TV and print were not limited to local outlets. They were almost as significant when comparing network and cable TV news and the three national newspapers studied.
In the national papers, a third of space (32%) was devoted to government and other domestic issues, (a little less, actually, than the 49% we found in 2003 and 2004 studies). On network morning news, that number was 20%, on cable 18%. Only network evening news was close at 29%.
National Newspapers: Front Page Coverage May 12, 2005
And stories that highlighted emotion were much more important to TV than they were to print. On network news and even on cable, for instance, the discovery of an unexploded grenade near where President Bush had spoken on a trip to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia was a major story. It led the network morning news, was the second item on the evening news, and was covered prominently on cable throughout the day. Given that it was not known at the time whether the grenade was operational, a dummy or even a training device, it was a minor item in newspapers, a couple of paragraphs, and those mostly appeared the day before.
Newspapers versus Online
If newspapers offer something audiences could not get from television, what about online? How much of what was in the paper the next morning was on Web sites the day before, or even the night before?
The answer varies. The national news Web sites appear to be moving faster than the local. And some local are moving faster than others.
In Milwaukee, for instance the bulk of the stories on the Journal Sentinel’s Web site as of 9 p.m. May 11 were the stories from that morning’s papers — not what would be in the next day’s papers or what had happened during the day.
The paper did have a feature at the top of the page, called DayWatch, in which reporters file brief accounts of stories they are working on for tomorrow’s paper. Those filings give a crisp sense of what had happened on some major stories of the day, particularly breaking news. But readers the next morning got a much fuller account of the news.
On May 11, for instance, the top DayWatch item as of 9 p.m. , which had been posted at 4:29 , reported that Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin and leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature were working on a deal for minimum-wage legislation. In the paper the next morning, readers learned that the deal was done and that workers would see the bump in their paychecks starting June 1, with significant details put together by three reporters, working in both Madison and Milwaukee .
But in Houston , the Chronicle posted online nearly full accounts of stories that would appear in the next day’s paper as they became available, with time stamps of when they were posted. Online readers get more — though not all — of the newspaper the evening before, and many of the evolving elements even earlier.
Local TV station Web sites in Houston, incidentally, do the same, with rough text accounts of breaking news, plus video and audio, and time stamps of not just when stories were posted but when they were updated.
Are All Stories the Same?
What people learned about some stories differed depending on what paper they read, and in some cases on where that paper got its account. Because the national papers’ accounts are carried by so many outlets, their stories have added weight. Consider the case of the story about North Korea ’s announcing it had harvested a nuclear power reactor as a step to making weapons. Readers of the New York Times account were told that this was “a lot of symbolism and taunting” but that U.S. officials “had seen no evidence” to prove the claim and that there were reasons to doubt how serious North Korea was.
But readers of the Los Angeles Times story got a different sense. The development was “a key step toward preparing to harvest plutonium for bombs,” it said. South Korea , which had reacted calmly to other recent provocations, this time had “expressed alarm.” And the chief outside expert quoted in the story (also quoted by the New York Times but emphasizing far less dire points) said the North Koreans probably weren’t blustering. “Everything the North Koreans said they’re doing, it turns out they have in fact done.”
The Times story, datelined Tokyo but clearly reported in at least two capitals, was emphasizing U.S. efforts not to sound intimidated. The Los Angeles Times story, datelined Seoul , South Korea , was not as heavy on official American diplomatic reaction.
Yet more Americans this day probably got the more skeptical New York Times version. Its story ran in Milwaukee and Houston and on Page 1 in Bend , Ore. , as well as in the New York Times.
Other stories also had differences as well, though the differences about how to interpret the news seemed larger than differences about questions of fact. On the violence in Iraq , for instance, the New York Times had “at least 79 dead.” The Los Angeles Times and USA Today put the number at “more than 60.” The Houston Chronicle, using a story from the Washington Post, reported “72 killed.” Yet all four accounts agreed on what was going on in Iraq over the last two weeks that offered background for the violence, and the reasons behind the escalation.
Differences among Major Papers
The national papers also did not have the same news agenda. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, was more local, and less tied to the news of the day. It featured three local stories on its Page 1, plus another specific to California . It also carried two trend stories. That left two non-local news stories on its front, both international in nature.
The New York Times, by contrast, was more about breaking news of the day —violence in Iraq , the plane scare in Washington , the North Korean announcement, and the protests in Afghanistan . It carried just one feature, about trash in Japan .
USA Today, meanwhile, carried no breaking news stories on its front page. It led rather with two trend features — about farming and about smoking on the job. And the lead story was an enterprise piece about how the USA Today had discovered that an adviser on a federal study of laser guns was a paid consultant to the manufacturer of the product. None of the three national papers agreed on the top story this day. None of the local papers did, either.
The sense from looking at the media generally this day was that the national newspapers in the country are on close examination more different from each other than are rival national network television news programs.
The Top Four Stories of May 11
Finally, it is hard to generalize about how papers handled what emerged in our study as the top four stories of May 11 — the plane scare in Washington, the murder in Zion, Ill., the Michael Jackson trial and violence in Iraq.
The double murder in Illinois, a staple of network morning news, local TV, and cable, for instance, was a minor print story in the national papers, and no story at all in the local ones, except in Houston; the confessed killer had been a prisoner in the Texas system. In a similar vein, the Michael Jackson trial, the third most covered story over all and a staple on cable and network morning TV, was a minor inside story in print save for the Los Angeles Times, where the trial was local.
Treatment of Top Stories on May 11th
The other two top stories of the day were more likely to be covered by the newspapers. Those were terrorism in Iraq and the plane scare in Washington , but coverage varied by newspaper. The Iraq story was passed over largely by local TV, cable and morning news. Yet in the larger newspapers studied, it tended to be treated as significant. It led the New York Times, and was an inside story in the other national and metro dailies.
The only story to get a fair amount of coverage across print and broadcast was the day’s top story — the plane scare in Washington . It was the lead of the network evening news, and a dominant story on cable. And, as with the coverage of Iraq , it was a front-page story in the New York Times and an inside story in all the others.
As metro papers struggle, smaller suburban papers are suffering far less and in many cases thriving. What do they offer readers?
We monitored two suburban dailies, the Baytown Sun, the largest of the suburban papers around Houston, and the Waukesha Freeman, circulation 15,000, outside Milwaukee .
What we found was a different kind of journalism than readers would expect from either the national papers or the metro dailies.
Here, local news does not compete with national and international on an equal footing. These papers are above all local. And the workings of civic institutions are news even if they are not necessarily controversial.
In the Baytown Sun stories like “Festival to feature plenty of children’s activities” and “Public Hearing on annexation today at Council” are Page 1 news. So is “Select educators to be honored with banquet, cash,” and “ Decker Drive hospital campus to be sold.”
If anything, the smaller Waukesha Freeman front page was more about conflict and wrongdoing, but it was no less hyper-local. The questionable hiring of a fire chief’s son was Page 1 news, for instance: “Family ties prompts hiring policy questions.” So was “ New Berlin man dies after tree limb falls on him.”
It was in these papers that readers would get things such as the local school briefs, a “crime stoppers” column with mug shots of six people for whom the local police had warrants out for burglaries and such, and news that the local school district would be “Testing this summer for (the) gifted student program,” all from this day’s Baytown Sun.
It was in the Waukesha paper that one could read about a class art project, a local town pondering changing its laws on BB guns, or the local “I have a Gripe” column, which on May 11 focused on residents complaining about local road repairs.
Little is too local for these papers. The Baytown Sun would give a staff byline and nine paragraphs to “Garage sale, car wash to benefit church choir.”
Such papers are unlikely to mount an investigation of corruption in the governor’s office, perhaps. Yet the big city daily is equally unlikely to run a staff-written story about a local hospital headlined, “ St. Joseph to host health fair.”