In Baltimore, H. L. Mencken's town, newspapers remain the primary source of new information, but the papers are getting slimmer, and the situation is ominous insofar as informing the public is concerned. These are the main findings of a study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, released yesterday.
The study examined all the outlets that produce local news in Baltimore for an entire week "then did a closer examination of six major narratives during the week." It found that "much of the 'news' people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of 10 stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information."
Just under 50 percent of the public got its information from the print media, while almost 30 percent relied on local TV. Niche media (approaching 15 percent), radio (under 10 percent), and new media (approaching five percent) were the other sources.
This could well be a mere "snapshot" of the print media in a downward spiral, and that's scary. Ninety-five percent of the stories that contained new information came from "traditional media -- most of them newspapers." They tended to set the agenda for the other outlets.
The local papers, even so, offer less than they once did.
"For all of 2009, for instance," the Pew Center advises, "the Sun produced 32 percent fewer stories on any subject that it did in 1999, and 73 percent fewer stories than in 1991, when the company still published an evening and morning paper with competing newsrooms."
Maryland state-budget cuts were one of study week's stories.
"Newspapers in the [Baltimore] 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. Yet the numbers suggest the addition of new media has not come close to making up the difference."
This is a truly ominous trend for the generation of information on public affairs.
Even so, a cheerier side might exist to the Pew study for PR people. In a blog post on the findings, blogger Adam Sherk's attention was caught by this statement: "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."
While enterprising news coverage seems to be waning, the utility of well-written press releases may be increasing.
"So," writes Sherk, "companies can increase the likelihood of their press releases being used by bloggers and local news sources by giving them a more news-like tone and dialing down the marketing hype."