How news happens in Baltimore

Clark Johnson as newspaper editor Gus Haynes in The Wire. Source: HBO.

We’ve all seen the fifth season of The Wire, right? The gripping televisual novel explores the ins and outs of Baltimore’s news media, and how it feeds into the networked decay of this American Babylon.

Well, now we have the empirical data to back up David Simon’s claims about the vital importance  of news-gathering media organisations – partricularly local newspapers – to the media ecology.

In an excellent and timely study by the Pew Research Centre’s project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew researchers have tracked the origin and later re-reporting of six major stories in the mediascape of the US city of Baltimore – famously, the city depicted in The Wire.

They find that te bulk of major news continues to be reported by old-style print news reporters. Almost no new news is broken by blogs or new media outlets. As the study concludes:

  • Among the six major news threads studied in depth—which included stories about budgets, crime, a plan involving transit buses, and the sale of a local theater—fully 83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information. Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.
  • General interest newspapers like the Baltimore Sun produced half of these stories—48%—and another print medium, specialty newspapers focused on business and law, produced another 13%.
  • Local television stations and their websites accounted for about a third (28%) of the enterprise reporting on the major stories of the week; radio accounted for 7%, all from material posted on radio station websites. The remaining nine new media outlets accounted for just 4% of the enterprise reporting we encountered.
  • Traditional media made wide use of new platforms. Newspapers, TV and radio produced nearly a third of their stories on new platforms (31%), though that number varied by sector. Almost half of the newspapers stories studied were online rather than in print.
  • There were two cases of new media breaking information about stories. One came from the police Twitter feed in Baltimore, an example of a news maker breaking news directly to the public rather than through the press. Another was a story noticed by a local blog, that the mainstream press nearly missed entirely, involving a plan by the state to put listening devices on buses to deter crime. A newspaper reporter noticed the blog and then reported on the story, which led the state to rescind the plan.
  • As the press scales back on original reporting and dissemination, reproducing other people’s work becomes a bigger part of the news media system. Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news. In the detailed examination of six major storylines, 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, led first of all by the police. Another 14% came from the press. Interest group figures made up most of the rest.

You can see the situation graphically in the figure below. Bottom line: new media is still reproducing, not reporting. And that has serious consequences for our democracy.

The Pew Research Centre's data for which media outlet reported news on six major stories. Newspapers and local TV stations are overwhelmingly the major sources of news, especially compared to blogs and new media. Source: Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism


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