U.S. News Mix Varies Between Online and Print Outlets

January 21, 2013 • Specialist Journalism • by

A new study by journalism researchers Scott Maier and Staci Tucker shows that online and print readers in two large American cities receive a strikingly different news mix from their regional papers. According to the researchers, the results “give further evidence that local newspapers, at least in Seattle and Minneapolis, have largely gone beyond ‘shovelware’ of newspaper stories repositioned from print.” The research analysis, which compared online and print content from three metropolitan newspapers in Seattle and Minneapolis, found that online papers offered more up-to-the-minute reporting while print supplied more in-depth coverage. The study’s authors, both from the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, examined 725 news stories from the Minneapolis Star Tribune (online and print), the Seattle Times (online and print) and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (online only) in May 2010.

In contrast to recent research showing that news websites and newspapers follow similar paths when dictating coverage and assigning story prominence, the study’s comparison of local newspapers and news sites revealed substantial differences in coverage. For example the Seattle Times and the online only Seattle Post-Intelligencer published overlapping topics in front page coverage only 10 percent of the time. Even within its own news organization, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and its online news counterpart shared the same front page or top stories less than 8 percent of the time. While many stories published in the print editions of the newspapers included in the study also appeared on the Web, the stories given prominence and their placement within the website varied. This is a boon for print according to the authors, who see regional reporting as a niche market currently untouched by large outlets who offer immediate reporting on a wide variety of national and world issues (such as CNN, or the New York Times). All three of the newspapers included in the study focused largely on local news when designing their front-page layouts. Of the 725 stories included in the content analysis, only 25 covered foreign news topics. While coverage of the U.S. appeared more frequently, the majority of stories dealt with regional and state issues, with the online-only Seattle Post Intelligencer publishing 83 percent of their top news stories on regional and state news during the time period studied. Researchers not only found that the breadth of coverage had narrowed, but also the type and depth of topics covered by online and print shifted, with online coverage turning to more immediate and regional reporting. According to the study, 28 percent of top online news stories included in the analysis covered crime and law-enforcement topics.

In contrast, print newspaper coverage was more in-depth, offering longer articles on topics dealing with local politics, economics, health, and education. Authors also noted that stories typically broke first in the online editions, with subsequent and more in-depth coverage featured later in the print edition. Furthermore, while the online editions included in the study featured a greater number of wire reports than the print outlets, much of the content was produced from staff reports and traditional outlets. Online editions also tended to downplay bloggers or commentators, a move which according to the study’s authors, “suggest[s] that digital newspapers remain fairly traditional in their approach top news, relegating citizen-based reporting and other pioneering formats to lower-page placement.” While warning of the limited scope of their study in terms of both time and region, Maier and Tucker urge local news outlets to expand their niche coverage by offering unique online and print content to attract local readers and supply stories not found in larger national outlets. Maier and Tucker also tout the value of the ‘digital age’ and suggest local outlets “evaluate multi-media’s potential by assessing how video, photos, interactive information, […] contribute to the quality of local news coverage.”

Maier, S., Tucker, S. (2012). Online news readers get different news mix than print. Newspaper Research Journal, 33, 48-62.

Photo credits: afagen / Flickr CC

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