Papers give life in news food chain

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Nature’s food chain features a lot of living things playing different roles: Predators like lions eat smaller game like deer. The deer eat grass. When animals die, their bodies decompose, nourishing the soil.

The grass, as the primary producer of energy, is the largest entity and plays the most important role. If the lion is wiped out, there are other predators eager to take its place. Same for the many herbivores out there. Yet if the earth fails to produce greenery, everything will shortly die.

Extend this analogy to our current news environment: The soil is what’s happening in the our world — the news. Newspapers are the grass because they are working the ground, doing the primary work of producing stories by having reporters on the streets and editors checking facts. Other news media like TV and digital outlets are the deer, who get their nourishment (ideas about what to report on) from reading the people who actually originate the news at the newspapers. Readers are the predators, who devour their information from the middle layer and often don’t realize that it’s really the newspapers producing what they consume on other media.

I’m not making this up: Duke University published a study in August that confirms my point. The research, conducted by five academics from Duke and other universities throughout the country, set out to determine how different types of local news outlets are serving the informational needs of their communities.

The study took 100 randomly selected communities and identified all of the local news outlets in them, coming up with 663 outlets in four categories: radio, TV, newspaper and online only. It then measured the quantity and quality of their local news output by measuring stories that were original, local and addressed a critical information need.

The findings included:

  • Local newspapers account for roughly 25 percent of the outlets, but nearly 50 percent of the original news stories and nearly 60 percent of the local news stories. That means newspapers far outpunched their weight in how many stories they produce.
  • Local newspapers account for nearly 60 percent of the stories that meet all three criteria (original, local, addresses a critical information need), outweighing all of the other categories combined. That means newspapers dominated on quality as well.

Keep in mind that these are the 2019 version of newspapers, which are still producing far more than their competitors despite two decades of agonizing cuts. That’s a huge point of pride to my colleagues and me in the trenches who are out there working long hours, usually for little pay, because we really care about our communities. Those of us who do this work already knew newspapers were far superior in their news quality to other media options, but I hope this study will open the eyes of the public some to the importance of the press.

Here’s the conclusion the Duke researchers came to: “Overall, these findings suggest that newspapers are the most important producers of local news in terms of the volume of journalistic output being produced for local communities. The relative paucity of online-only local media outlets, and the relatively limited (compared with newspapers) journalistic output of these outlets suggest that online-only outlets have yet to come close to matching local newspapers as significant sources of reporting that is original, local, and addresses critical information needs.

“These findings support the continued importance of public policy and philanthropic efforts to support the viability of local newspapers. These findings also suggest that commercial and philanthropic efforts to establish online-only outlets as comparable alternatives to local newspapers remain far from this goal.”

So, in honor of National Newspaper Week, why not become a news vegetarian, feeding on nutrient-rich newspapers rather than the regurgitated junk food found on TV and online. n

Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at (601) 736-2611 or csmith@columbianprogress.com.

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