There are many different yard sticks to measure the health and quality of a local news ecosystem. We track ad revenue and audience numbers. We count the number of news outlets and look at the number of newsroom job losses. We watch out for journalism innovators and interesting partnerships. But occasionally in all of these examinations we lose sight of the forest for the trees. Sometimes, it is best to examine the quality of the journalism itself.
Earlier this year Clay Shirky did a comprehensive “news biopsy” of his hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. After literally dissecting the paper and weighing its different pieces he found that:
- The content created by Tribune staff made up less than a third of the total; over two-thirds was acquired from other sources, including especially the AP.
- The paper was about one-third news and about two-thirds “Other.”
- News reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper.
A week ago, I decided to do my own autopsy, dissecting the Providence Sunday Journal. Since the Sunday paper is often considered the flagship paper, I thought it would be a good specimen to investigate the health of the newsroom. The Providence Journal is the oldest, continuously-published daily newspaper in the U.S. Its owner, A.H. Belo, owns four daily newspapers and a number of related Web properties.
Here is what I found:
The Sunday Providence Journal, $3 at the newsstand, included eight sections plus a section of comics. In total there were 84 pages (42 pages, back and front) and two pages of comics. Of these pages, there were:
- 26 pages of display ads and 3 pages of classified ads
- 7 pages of listings, including: arts events, TV schedule, lifestyle tips, local workshops, upcoming sports events and game scores.
- 1.75 pages of wedding announcements and obituaries
- Three quarters of a page dedicated to games and horoscopes (in addition to the 2 pages of comics)
- And half a page of weather
That means that out of 84 total pages, a full 39 pages contained no articles at all. Of the 45 that did contain stories, many of those were not news or reporting, including book reviews, fashion advice, recipes and other entertainment focused content. While that content is certainly useful, it should be considered separately from an analysis of a community’s information needs.
There were a total of 130 articles in the paper, including everything from local investigative journalism and wire stories to sports coverage, entertainment and lifestyle reporting. Less than a third of the stories in the paper were locally produced, and only 41 were attributed to the newspaper’s staff, freelancers or community members. Wire services, other papers, and a range of other sources produced the other 89 stories in the paper. In total, the newspaper published articles from 23 sources across the country. Stories came from wire services and other papers such as: The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, McClatchy-Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Newsday, Tribune Media Services, Creators Syndicate, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Capital News Service, The Record, San Jose Mercury News, Detroit Free Press and Bloomberg News.
Almost every article in the main section and the “Rhode Island” section was locally produced. Most the stories covered by local journalists included: environment, health, government and a lot of community profiles (historical pieces, local business profiles, coverage of a local event). In addition there were some local sports coverage along with music and book reviews. There was a surprising amount of environmental coverage about wildlife, ocean conservation and recycling, and there were a significant amount of historical pieces – bios of former politicians, state history, etc.
The majority of the rest of the newspaper was outsourced, save a few sports stories and book reviews. Like most papers, the Providence Journal has partnered with some other company for classified ads related to jobs and cars, in this case Monster.com and Cars.com. In some cases, this was a case of smart decisions by the editor to focus on what they do best and let others cover the rest. More troubling, however, were articles that appeared with no author in the byline expect a website which seemed poised to benefit financially from being featured in the paper. Most often these were advice columns aimed at shoppers, including WeddingChannel.com, Deals.com, and CouponsEven.com.
While my methods were not as comprehensive as Shirky’s, the results were not wildly different, and in the end, the paper felt a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together from disparate pieces. That was perhaps the most lasting impression the Providence Journal left on me – it seemed to lack a “wholeness,” something that held it together. While there was a great local reporting, the paper seemed to embody the questions so many newspaper editors and journalists are asking right now: What’s our role in this new digital age? As people become news-grazers, seeking out information from a range of sources on and offline, how can newspapers best serve a local community and remain vital civic institutions? From what I saw in the Providence Journal last week, they have a long way to go towards answering those questions.
*This post refers to the Nov. 28, 2010, edition of the Providence Journal.