Research - Journalism Interactive

Embargoed for Release
Thursday, July 26, 2001, 1 p.m.

Journalism Interactive

New Attitudes, Tools and Techniques
Change Journalism's Landscape

A Study Conducted for:
Associated Press Managing Editors
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
National Conference of Editorial Writers

Conducted by:
Campaign Study Group
Springfield, Virginia

Highlights

A sharply increased appetite for dialogue between newspapers and their readers is dramatically altering the level of interactivity between news suppliers and news consumers, an unprecedented survey of U.S. newspapers reveals.

Substantial changes in the form and substance of news, the nature of news gathering and the very mission of newspapers were reported by senior editors of 70 percent of the nation's 512 newspapers with daily circulations of 20,000 or more.

The survey reveals that nine out of 10 editors believe that the future health of the newspaper industry depends on more interactions with readers - not less. Changes in the technology and the geography of journalism and in what editors perceive as topics of interest to their readers are fueling these trends.

A majority of newspaper editors report that they are covering more school districts and towns or townships than they were a decade ago. They indicate that their reporters are devoting more time to covering education and less to covering government meetings.

In looking for ways to foster greater interaction:

  • Eight out of 10 newspapers represented in the study provide readers with one or more options for obtaining the e-mail addresses of reporters.

  • Nearly eight out of 10 have established e-mail, voice-mail or Web site tip lines.

  • More than seven out of 10 newspapers offer readers one or more avenues other than letters to the editor for publishing their own ideas.

  • More than four out of 10 publish the telephone numbers of the reporters with every story, and more than one-quarter post some or all of their reporters' telephone numbers on a Web site.

  • Fifty-six percent have convened conversations about a key community issue outside of the newsroom.

Nevertheless, more than seven out of 10 editors feel dissatisfied with the current level of newsroom-reader interaction.

Editors who say they practice civic journalism, by seeking actively to engage readers in key issues, are more likely than professed non-civic journalists to have adopted these outreach mechanisms. Forty-five percent of all editors surveyed say that their newsrooms use the tools and techniques of civic journalism. Sixty-six percent say they either embrace the label or like the philosophy and tools, suggesting that there are even more practitioners.

The appetite for more interaction with readers has also prompted a reassessment of the newspaper's role in community life. Few of those in charge of the nation's newsrooms view their role as simply disseminators of facts.

  • Eighty-seven percent of the editors surveyed agreed that newspapers should have a broader community role beyond just printing the news.

  • When asked about six specific roles that a newspaper might play in its community, editors ranked the role of "news explainer" above all others. Following, in order, were the roles of "news breaker," "investigative watchdog," "catalyst for community conversation," "community steward," and "disseminator of just the facts." When combined, the percentage of editors who prize the non-traditional roles of conversation catalyst and community steward actually topped the number who place their highest value on the investigative role.

  • That more proactive approach to journalism was underscored when editors were given an open-ended opportunity to define the broader community role they envision. Unprompted, answers that could be grouped under the rubric of "opinion leader and agenda setter" topped the list along with those grouped under the general category of "community leader or good corporate citizen." The next two categories of answers fall under the general headings of "initiator or facilitator of issue discussions" and "catalyst for change or solution seeker."

Perhaps as a way of encouraging reporters to leave their desks and get out into the communities they cover, 80 percent of the editors say their papers permit "roaming" or "beat development" days on which at least some of their reporters can develop sources and learn about the community without having to file a story.

Undoubtedly these beat development days also are designed to help ensure that reporters have a keen sense of what is on their readers' minds. Ninety-nine percent of the editors responded that they view such information as important, and 98 percent said they currently utilize such information in shaping their news coverage.

One area where reporting has gradually changed over the years is the growth in news-gathering partnerships. Nearly two-thirds of the newsrooms represented in the study have partnered with another local organization during the development of stories. In many cases, editors report having partnered with multiple organizations on various projects.

The desire for more reader interaction has prompted considerable changes in the ways stories are written. More than half of the editors indicated that their newspapers have made a conscious effort to move away from framing their stories around conflict. Roughly one-third indicated that they prefer to frame their stories around the potential impact of a news event on people or the community. Sixteen percent said they frame stories around problem identification and solutions.

There is broad consensus that a conscious effort should be made to include the views of all potential stakeholders in any given story. While slightly less than half of those queried said they always make the effort to ensure that all stakeholders are represented in their stories, another 43 percent indicated that they make the effort most of the time. The effort is made primarily through a combination of reporter-editor brainstorming, the insistence that reporters actively solicit the information, reader feedback, and team input.

Nevertheless, only 58 percent of the editors indicated that their newspapers were diversifying sources or "voices" in their stories. Among the 207 editors who said their papers were doing so, 78 percent pointed to their development of new source lists, 15 percent indicated that their efforts included "civic mapping"-or systematically expanding their community Rolodexes-and 14 percent noted the use of citizen reporters. Nearly three out of 10 editors who cited such efforts indicated that their newspapers were trying more than one approach.

Significant numbers of newspapers are making a deliberate effort to report trade-offs that their community might be forced to make in addressing problems. Fifty-seven percent of the editors responding to the survey indicated that their papers do so most of the time, including 20 percent who said they always do so. While there is less appetite among editors for stories that offer solutions to community problems, 81 percent of those responding said they publish stories with solutions at least some of the time.

Cutting across many of the results in the survey are differences between those who say they practice the basic concepts of civic journalism and those who say they do not. Among the key differences are those that relate to either the perception that newspapers have a broader role to play in the community or the utilization of various reader outreach techniques.

 

Use Civic Journalism

Do Not Use Civic Journalism

Publish e-mail addresses of reporters with every story

63%

51%

Publish phone numbers of reporters with every story

51%

38%

Use polls to help spot trends important to news coverage

63%

52%

Think engaging the public on hot topics is a proper role for the newspaper

98%

79%

Convene conversations about a key community issue outside of newsroom

71%

39%

Think a newspaper should have a broader community role beyond printing the news

97%

76%

Post reporter queries on the paper’s Web site as a part of reporting process

44%

26%

Require reporters and editors to include possible solutions to problems in stories at least most of the time

40%

23%

The need to connect more with readers has prompted considerable shifts in the topics covered by many daily newspapers.

  • One-quarter of all editors say their papers are covering education issues more than they did five years ago.

  • Twenty-four percent said their papers are covering health care, medical and personal fitness issues more than they did five years ago.

  • More than one out of five editors (22%) indicated an increase in the coverage of business and personal finance news.

  • Twenty-one percent reported heightened coverage of issues related to development and growth.

  • Other issues mentioned as drawing more coverage by at least 10 percent of the editors included the environment (19%), lifestyle and family issues (14%), technology and the Internet (14%), regional and community news (12%) and demographics and issues relating to diversity (11%).
With newspapers trying to cover a greater number of topics at the same time many are reporting cutbacks in staff, there are inevitable choices to be made. By far, the biggest loser in this equation is the coverage of government, particularly governmental process.

  • Three-quarters of those responding to the survey said that their papers are covering fewer routine local government and school board meetings.

  • Twenty-five percent mentioned that their papers are covering fewer politics and governmental process stories.

  • Twenty-one percent cited reduced coverage of crime and the courts.

Fifty-five percent of the editors who indicated that their papers had cut back on coverage blamed the decrease on staff reassignments and the fact that they had fewer staff overall. More than one-quarter (28%) said the cutbacks in coverage were the result of conscious editorial decisions to cover other areas. Echoing this general theme, one editor noted that fewer governmental meetings were being covered "to free reporters up for more enterprise" reporting.

Explaining his newspaper's decision to scale back coverage of more routine governmental meetings, one editor put it very bluntly, "political pissing contests and personality conflicts-these things, unless they actually affect real people, are pointless."

Another editor described his reasons for reducing crime coverage by noting that "traditional court coverage is less useful to readers. We prefer to have reporters not cover cases gavel to gavel, but rather look for criminal justice themes that apply more to life."

In other words, while process stories have taken a major hit at many newspapers across the country, editors at those papers frequently note that the emphasis has been shifted to stories that deal with broader issues, outcomes and ramifications.

Report continued in Detailed Findings Part One...

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