Thursday, February 15, 2007

Spending on News Quality is Good for Newspapers

Investing money to improve the quality of news coverage actually makes newspapers more profitable, a study by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia has found.

Murali Montrala and Esther Thorson led a team of researchers to examine profitability at newspapers. They analyzed financial data for small to medium-sized newspapers and found that the quality of news coverage strongly influenced the bottom line.

It should be no surprise that producing a better product leads to better profits. But it must be for the corporations that own newspapers — and the Wall Street firms that are flogging newspaper management to lay off reporters and editors to slash newsroom expenses in what now looks like a self-defeating effort to uphold large profit margins. "If you lower the amount of money spent in the newsroom, then pretty soon the news product becomes so bad that you begin to lose money," Thorson was quoted in a news release as saying. She is a professor of advertising and associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Journalism at Mizzou.

The study by Thorson and her colleagues shows that readers are deserting newspapers not just because of competition from the Web but also because newspapers are offering their readers less content and lower quality. Interviewed this morning on American Public Media's Marketplace program, Thorson said, "You know, I'm worried about the newspapers in all the little cities across the United States. They are our one depth instrument for allowing citizens to understand what's going on in their own communities. We're losing those just as fast as we're losing content and quality in any of our news sources."

-- T.Y.


HL said...

At the paper I work, as with several others, we've seen recent evidence of the state of news quality. You may have noticed the controversy over a bill that would have modified the state's Labor Peace Act, which Gov. Ritter vetoed. Almost every paper in Colorado mischaracterized the bill as creating "closed shops" requiring all workers to join the union, and almost every paper editorialized against it at least partially on those grounds. Of course "closed shops" are banned in this country by federal labor law and have been for sixty years. The bill the state legislature passed did not have anything to do with creating "closed shops."

I don't think this is some kind of conspiracy. I think, though, that editors have agendas in many cases and they are not easily distracted by technical or legal niceties.

That dynamic is evident in the global climate change situation, too. We have papers in this state, notably the Pueblo Chieftain, that report global climate change may not be happening because Colorado is having a tough winter. That's the result both of an editorial agenda and a failure, for time and economic reasons, to commit the resources to really check out the facts.

No doubt, deadline pressure does make it hard to check everything. But that's what editors are for, to catch a reporter's oversight. If editors let it go, for whatever reason, quality suffers.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced the public knows or cares whether a newspaper gets the details about a labor union bill or global climate change right.

At any rate, study or no study, I'm not holding my breath for local papers in this country to start spending more money on improving it. They do the best they can, at least some of the time, with the budget they have. But times are tough in the industry and they're going to get tougher.

ixmatch said...

Washington, DC -- The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) has announced an innovative three-year program, the African Development Journalism Fellowships, to improve news coverage of critical development issues such as agriculture, microfinance, sanitation and employment in sub-Saharan Africa. This journalism fellowship program is funded by a $2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The program addresses the need for increased information about rural regions, which are affected by policy decisions made in capital cities. Many news organizations in sub-Saharan Africa lack the resources and training to adequately cover rural issues that can determine whether their countries' poorest citizens begin to prosper or remain trapped in poverty.

ICFJ will place media development professionals from its Knight International Journalism Fellowships program into key African countries to help influential media increase coverage of development issues, especially beyond the capitals. The program will create networks of professional and citizen journalists in rural areas, using mobile technology to connect them to media in large cities.

The program builds on the success of ICFJ's Knight Health Journalism Fellowships, also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Health Fellows work in Africa for a year to improve coverage of complicated health and research issues.

In this new initiative, media organizations will work with fellows to mentor reporters as they work on in-depth development stories in rural areas. The fellows will also develop a corps of African journalists with the skills to train colleagues to cover poverty and development issues. Additionally, fellows will help establish development reporting training programs at local journalism associations that will continue long after the program is over.

"Our Knight Health Fellows are mentoring African journalists to produce hard-hitting stories that are forcing governments to invest more in health care," said ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan. "We believe these new fellows, using the latest mobile technology, will have similar impact in reducing poverty."