Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pew Study Examines Baltimore Media “Ecosystem”

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has released a new study examining the relationship of new and old media in Baltimore. Their findings: new and old media are extremely interdependent, but the old media’s role remains critical to original reporting in the city.

Pew looked at all media - including newspapers, radio, TV, blogs and more - producing news content in the Baltimore area in the week of July 19-25, 2009. They then studied six stories in depth, tracing their origins, spread and development – in some cases, as they moved across the nation. Pew’s basic conclusions include:

1. Nearly 95% of the stories that contained original information came from old media, mostly from newspapers. Those stories “tended to set the narrative agenda for most other media outlets.”

2. But the old media are producing less than they used to:

For all of 2009, for instance, the Sun produced 32% fewer stories on any subject than it did in 1999, and 73% fewer stories than in 1991, when the company still published an evening and morning paper with competing newsrooms. And a comparison of one major story during the week studied—about state budget cuts—found newspapers in the area produced only one-third as many stories in 2009 as they did the last time the state made a similar round of budget cuts in 1991, and the Baltimore Sun one seventh as many.
3. New media are not compensating for the decline of the old media. Pew describes most new media, including blogs and Twitter, as “mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places.” They are not filling the gap of creating the original content that was once provided by the old media in greater volume years ago.

4. Rapid cyber-spread of stories has a cost:

As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such. In the growing echo chamber online, formal procedures for citing and crediting can get lost. We found numerous examples of websites carrying sections of other people’s work without attribution and often suggesting original reporting was added when none was. We found elements of this in several major stories we traced. And sometimes old stories that were already obsolete were posted or linked to after events had changed and the original news site had updated them.
Of the six stories Pew studied in depth, only two were broken by new media. One was a police shooting originally reported by a Twitter feed. The other was MPW contributor Paul Gordon’s scoop on a spying proposal by the Maryland Transit Administration. Sun reporter Mike Dresser followed up with MTA right away, causing them to drop the plan. Pew tracks that story across the U.S., noting the failure of other media outlets to credit either MPW or Dresser.

We have criticized the mainstream media (MSM) plenty on this blog, but we do it for a reason: true democracy cannot exist without an informed citizenry, and the latter is dependent on paid, professional and objective journalism. Amateur bloggers as a group have not yet shown the ability to produce enough original reporting to compensate for the cutbacks at major outlets like the Post and the Sun. Unless the old media finds a way to make a profit again, the information sphere of the future will likely consist of a relative handful of stories amplified by innumerable outlets that add few if any new facts or follow-up other than spin. We deserve better than that.