|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute
Newspapers continue to struggle as an institution when the public is asked to evaluate them. That is especially true for the largest of the country’s newspapers, those with national influence.
Yet large numbers of the public still find newspapers to be a fact-based and comprehensive news source. And survey research also suggests they can still be a very attractive medium for advertisers.
When the public is asked for its favorability rating towards newspapers, the local daily paper has regularly fared much better than national publications. The trend continued in 2005.
Nearly three quarters (72%) of those surveyed in June 2005 gave the daily newspaper they are “most familiar with” either a very favorable or mostly favorable rating, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. That is about the same or slightly higher than ratings for other news sources: local television (73%), network television news (68%), and cable news (67%).
That is not true, however, for the country’s national newspapers. For “large, nationally influential newspapers such as The New York Times” and “The Washington Post,” just 38% of the public gives a favorable rating — nearly half that of the local newspapers. Most analysts explain the gap as one of proximity and connectedness. The closer the staff is to the lives of the readers, the more the readers tend to trust them.1
Large national papers have historically been the least favored news source for Americans. Just 48% gave them a favorable rating in 1985, for example, according to Pew data. But what separates them from other news outlets is how much their favorability rating has dropped since 2001, especially compared to television and local daily newspapers. Since 2001, large national papers have fallen 14 percentage points, from 52% to 38%. While all other media types have experienced declines, those of the big papers, perhaps with the exception of cable television, have been the steepest.2
Another way of evaluating public attitudes toward newspapers is to look at how much confidence Americans have in them compared with other major institutions in American society. In 2005, newspapers ranked in the bottom half in a list of political, business, civic and health organizations, according to a survey by the Gallup Organization. Fewer than 3 in 10 (28%) said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. Similarly, 24%, had “very little” confidence, while the plurality had “some.” Those percentages are about equal to those for TV news, but are less than half the scores for the highest ranked organizations, the military and the police.
According to the survey research, most institutions had experienced some drop since 2002 and newspapers, again, were among those that experienced the most dramatic decline. In 2002, some 35% of Americans were highly confident of newspapers; that number dropped 7 percentage points in 2005. The dip was not the most severe, however. The presidency and the Supreme Court fell 14 and 9 points, respectively during that time.3
Level of Fact
Despite the lower confidence levels, the public does give papers positive ratings for their factualness, especially compared with other news platforms. Here again, local papers get better marks than national.
Overall, a majority of Americans (54%) say local newspapers “mostly report facts about recent news developments” rather than “mostly give their opinions about the news,” according to a Pew Center survey. That is second in perception only to local television (61%). Fewer than half (45%) say national print outlets are more fact-oriented than opinion-based, placing them behind network evening news as well as local television.4
Are there any differences when we look at various demographic groups? At the national level, one demographic in particular stands out. Young Americans 18 to 29 years old, often regarded as the group newspapers have the hardest time reaching, were significantly more likely than older Americans, especially those over 40, to view national newspapers as mostly factual. Indeed, that age group considered newspapers the most fact-oriented news medium of all those included in the survey.
In looking at local papers, having a college degree or being a self-identified Democrat made one more likely than others to say their daily newspapers were mostly fact-oriented.5
One of the major stories for newspaper journalists and press critics in 2005 was the role of anonymous sourcing. Much of the discussion came in the aftermath of Judith Miller’s imprisonment and the controversy that surrounded the way both Miller and her newspaper, The New York Times, acted to preserve the anonymity of her government sources. Earlier, there had been controversy over the paper’s reporting on WMDs in Iraq , much of it, including work by Miller, also based on anonymous sourcing.
And heading into 2006, both the House of Representatives and the Senate were debating federal shield laws that would ensure journalists privilege to keep their sources confidential unless there were threats to the country’s national security. As of early February 2006, the bills were awaiting committee hearings.6
What are the public’s attitudes toward confidential sources? Overall, survey research suggests public support for using them, though perhaps case by case. Despite broad support in general, the public raises concerns about the accuracy of stories that rely on confidential sources.
Nearly 6 in 10 (59%) agree that reporters should keep their sources secret even when ordered by a court to reveal them, according to survey research conducted almost immediately after the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against both Matt Cooper of Time Magazine and Judith Miller.7
Moreover, just 19% say reporters should always reveal their sources, which suggests most of the public understands the societal benefits of confidential sources.8
Still, the public expresses some concern about the potential impact of relying on anonymous sources. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a majority, 52%, believe it is “too risky” for news organizations to use unnamed sources because it can result in faulty or unreliable information. But 44% thought it was “okay” to do so.9 Other research found that 9 in 10 (89%) think it’s wise to question the accuracy of news stories that include anonymous sources.10
Finally, a small majority supports the passage of a federal shield law — 55% —while fully 87% of journalists show support.11
The Engagement Medium
One key issue for newspapers is the argument that advertisements in print publications are more likely to engage the public than those on the Web and on television. That may be one reason why newspapers have generally been able to charge higher rates than online news sites. Survey research shows that newspapers may outperform other media when the level of advertising effectiveness is measured.
In June 2005, the Newspaper National Network, which is owned by the top 23 newspaper companies and the Newspaper Association of America, conducted survey research among those who read three or more issues of a newspaper a week. Consumers reported lower levels of multitasking while reading the newspaper and surfing the Internet than while watching television or listening to the radio. The findings also suggest that consumers believe newspaper advertising is more credible than advertising in other news media. Finally, a plurality of respondents said newspapers were most able to help them choose which products to buy.12
Newspapers and Major News Events
Last year we reported that one of the most significant shifts over the last few years is that newspapers are losing more readers during major news events and are not pulling them back once the events wind down. Survey research on Americans’ media preferences during 2005’s biggest media event, Hurricane Katrina, suggests that the trend may be accelerating.
Television not only captures the drama of events like wars and abandoned people on rooftops but also provides a news anchor whose narration evokes the therapeutic lore of the storytelling that once occurred around the campfire. Television has been America ’s most popular news medium during major national events for generations. Perhaps the most illustrative example was JFK’s funeral in 1963, when 93% of televisions in the country were tuned in to the coverage.
With the increase in television audience comes, logically, a decrease for other news platforms, especially newspapers. For example, immediately before September 11, 45% said newspapers were their main source of news; by mid-September, the number had plummeted to 11%.
The pattern was repeated with Katrina in 2005. Newspapers were the top news source for 44% before Katrina and for 35% during the events, even though single-copy sales and readership surged.13 Moreover, many readers, both local and from around the country, visited NOLA.com, the New Orleans Web site, as the crisis unfolded.
But unlike the pattern in previous years, the post-Katrina newspaper audience failed to make up much ground after the news of the storm had generally fallen off the national radar. On other occasions, the gap between the number of Americans who said newspapers were their main news source before and after the events was around three points. And in 2003, the number actually increased a few points several months after the fall of Saddam’s government. But two months after Katrina, the difference was 8%.14 Whether newspapers can increase their audience share as the primary news source for Americans is something to watch for in 2006.
Public opinion data in 2005 suggested that the industry had done very little to improve its continuing credibility problems, but the more pressing questions heading into 2006 may be about what the public values in newspapers.
As papers try to pave a future for their industry, they need to know what it is that brings people in and what they find lacking. Do citizens still want a daily delivery that gives them in-depth reporting on a pre-selected list of stories? Survey research from the Newspaper National Network shows that newspapers are more likely than radio, television or the Web to deal with the issues readers most care about, and a plurality think newspapers are the most comprehensive source of news.
Perhaps the key challenge for newspapers is to stay relevant in an era when commutes are longer, when people spend more time in the office, and when consumers want their news when they want it, delivered in a less cumbersome format.
Is it that consumers prefer the new commuter tabloid formats? The 20-minute quick read that provides basic facts on a wide range of topics, but little in-depth reporting?
Or maybe the real future for newspapers is to move online — and the industry has clearly taken major steps in that direction in the last several years. The Internet offers an opportunity for newspapers to compete with other media in delivering breaking news, especially at work, where research shows more and more Americans are finding time to go online for news during the day.15
But right now, most surveys ask citizens to evaluate either newspapers or the Internet. With increasing audience numbers for online newspapers, it might be worthwhile to think of them as a combined news operation across two separate platforms.
In 2006, we should expect the conversation on such big questions and challenges to intensify.
So what in the end is the fairest interpretation of the tumult of 2005?
An optimistic reading is that the newspaper industry is in a multi-year transition in which news staff is being reorganized and retrained to produce on new platforms. In 2005 we saw the evidence of this with buyouts of older employees and investment in online and niche operations, while managers tried to stabilize the financial problems on the print side.
A more pessimistic reading is that this may be a repeat of the scenario a decade ago when existing or shrinking staffs were asked to pick up additional production work that had migrated from the composing room to the newsroom.
When more definitive staffing numbers appear, the key question to watch is whether they signal genuine losses that will undermine the industry’s ability to make the transition to journalism’s next era.
If this is an orderly transition to a brave new multiplatform way of dong things at newspapers, it is going to take a lot longer than a year or two. As the discussion of economics and circulation earlier in the report makes clear, the industry has problems with its fundamentals, and investors have soured on newspaper stocks. One likely resolution of the Knight Ridder auction is that the company would go to a bidder who would make much deeper cuts — particularly to the news core — as an avenue to improving profit margins.
So it remains uncertain whether 2005 was the beginning of the future for the medium or a marker of continued decline. It remains the case that if newspapers do lose their edge in reporting the news in a well-organized, aggressive, public-spirited way, there is little evidence to date that blogs, citizen journalism or the big online players will fill the void.
1. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public More Critical of Press, But Goodwill Persists,” June 26, 2005 . Available online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=248.
4. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public More Critical of Press, But Goodwill Persists,” June 26, 2005 . Available online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=248.
5. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, unpublished data.
6. The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site, last accessed February 10, 2006 . Available online at: http://www.rcfp.org/shields_and_subpoenas.html#shield.
7. University of Connecticut , “National Polls of Journalists and the American Public on First Amendment and the Media Released,” May 16, 2005.
8. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public More Critical of Press, But Goodwill Persists,” June 26, 2005 . Available online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=248.
10. University of Connecticut , “National Polls of Journalists and the American Public on First Amendment and the Media Released,” May 16, 2005.
12. Newspaper National Network, “Media Engagement Study,” June 15-21, 2005.
13. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Alito Viewed Positively, But Libby Takes a Toll,” November 8, 2005 . Available online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=262.
14. Ibid. According to survey research conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, even the Internet, which can deliver dramatic information both continuously and immediately, and can be accessed at work more easily than television, declined a bit during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The emergence of online video may reverse that trend in the future, but for now television reduces the audiences for all other news platforms.
15. Pew Research Center for fhe People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004 . Available online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=215.