(Editor’s note: Randall King is a former professional journalist who now teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. This blog is used by permission of the Indianapolis Star, where it appeared earlier this month.)
I don’t know who will win the presidential race this November, but I know who has already lost 2016: the U.S. news media. Not “the media,” as many incorrectly say, as in “the media lies …,” “the media distorts …” or “the media controls…” “Media,” as a collective noun should be plural, yet we speak of it as a monolith — as if all media organizations think and walk and report the same way. They don’t, yet collectively the news media are losing the American public and if it continues, we all lose.
Leading the bash this year is the biggest loudmouth in the room: candidate Donald Trump, who rarely misses a chance to kill the messenger that made him. Trump has made the “lying media” a centerpiece of his campaign strategy, if there is one. He’s mused publicly about “opening up” libel laws to make it easier to go after reporters, and tweeted recently, “It’s not freedom of the press when others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false,” he said.
Uh … it kind of means exactly that, Mr. Trump. But if you still don’t understand, I would like to invite you to sit in on my media law class next spring. I think you will have the time.
This season of media bashing is not confined to one political side, though. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has gone more than 250 days without holding a formal news conference and complained openly of a different “Hillary standard” when it comes to public scrutiny. Bernie Sanders criticized the “corporate media” who, presumably, ignored his candidacy. Still more dismaying are attempts to shut down media coverage on college campuses nationwide — often student protesters denying access to student journalists who could give attention to their grievances.
Media bias is nothing new, of course, but this seems to be on a different level. In my more than 30-year career as a journalist and media educator, I’ve never seen a time when not only the conduct of journalists is suspect, but the very consensus of their role in a free society is misunderstood or dismissed.
No doubt, many of these wounds are self-inflicted. Cable television has redefined “news channel” to mean talking opinionheads more than actual reporting. Yes, on some issues reporters betray a source or omission bias — who they talk to and what they leave out are more illustrative of bias than how they cover it. National surveys do show a predominance of Democratic voting and left-leaning views among elite national journalists. But the causal linkage between those personal views and their actual reporting is more difficult to discern.
Here’s the crux. Every single day, in communities across this country, journalists hit the streets with one purpose: to tell their audience what is going on. And, in spite of huge resource limitations and barriers to getting information, they still largely succeed at that task. In fact, their daily work is the grist for the opinion-writing/talking head/blabber radio/social-sharing/media-bashing mill that drives some of us crazy. Someone had to find the “truth” that everyone else is arguing about. Reporters do that, but they’re losing the battle.
Job losses and economic failings of media companies have been well documented for two decades. As an educator, I see the effects of this each fall as fewer students declare journalism as a major. It has always been difficult to get 18-year-olds to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions and report “truth” through professional journalistic methods. Now, those students’ families, friends and pocketbooks tell them there is no value in that pursuit, so they are better off taking their communication skills elsewhere.
I worry about these declines most in the small communities I’ve been privileged to serve. Some form of national media will survive the digital onslaught, but what happens to local reporting in towns and cities where there is less money and less public trust to keep media in business? Who will tell us what’s going on in local government? Schools? Streets? How will we know the good, bad and ugly of our world without someone holding up the mirror? I don’t always want to see what’s reflected, but I need to see it, as a citizen and a human being.
So please support the local and national journalists who try — imperfectly — to get it right every day. If we keep losing journalists, and everyday, just-the-facts journalism in our media, we will lose a part of our American soul so important to the Founders it led the Bill of Rights: Free press, right in there with speech, religion and assembly, unencumbered by government.
When reporters mess it up, let them know about it, but don’t stop reading and watching. We don’t want to live in an America where “the media” are silent and “truth” is only what our politicians say it is.
During our daily research for The Rural Blog, our daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, we came across a press release from the Texas teachers’ union, headlined “One-third of teachers moonlight to support families.”
My blogger wrote an item that began, “Thirty-one percent of Texas teachers have to work a second job during the school year—49 percent work during the summer—to make ends meet, says a survey by the Texas State Teachers Association.”
My B.S. detector went off. Did that many teachers really say they had to work a second job to make ends meet, or to give their family the support it needed, as the release implied?
I asked TSTA for the questionnaire used in the survey of 837 Texas teachers by a professor at Sam Houston State University. You can see the pertinent part of it here. It asked teachers if they had an extra job during the summer or the school year, how many hours it took, whether their quality of teaching would improve if their teaching salary allowed them to give up moonlighting during the school year, and how big a raise would allow them to quit moonlighting.
None of the questions said anything about teachers’ need to have a second job – whether to support their family to make ends meet, to maintain the lifestyle they thought their family deserved, or whatever. While the headline on the press release was accurate – a second job presumably supports the family – its implication led my blogger to make an unjustified leap, saying the moonlighters had to make a second job to make ends meet.
That’s what many press-release writers hope reporters will do: make a stronger point that helps the cause of the entity issuing the release. This is a lesson to avoid that – and to ask for the questionnaire on which a survey is based. It’s just good reporting. In this case, we saw that the teachers were asked whether they taught in an urban, suburban or rural district, so we asked TSTA to break down the results by those categories.
It’s especially important to get the questionnaires of election polls, which can be skewed by the sequence and phrasing of questions. You deserve to see every syllable spoken to the poll respondents, up to and including the last result for which a result is provided. And the pollster should personally certify to the accuracy of the poll and be available to answer questions about its methodology.
Reporters on deadline often forget two essential truths of journalism:
1. We’re not just writing to pass along our information – we’re writing to be read. So we need to package our story for maximum readability. In other words, think about the reader.
2. Readers don’t have much time, and often they don’t have a commitment to read the story. If you write about the city library, the librarians and regular library patrons will read it. Will anyone else?
So what can we do to make our newswriting more reader-friendly? One of the key strategies is to begin sentences with a subject.
Huh? Don’t all sentences begin with a subject? Actually, no. They have a subject, but they don’t necessarily begin with it. We call this problem “backing in” – beginning with long phrases or dependent clauses that readers have to wade through before they get to the point of the sentence.
We don’t talk that way. Let’s say you’re in an unfamiliar building and ask someone where the parking garage is. His answer:
“Having worked here many years myself and having given many people directions because they did not see the sign posted next to the elevator, I can tell you that you need to turn to the left at the next hall and take the stairs down to the first floor.”
You’d probably laugh out loud. Nobody talks that way.
But reporters write that way, even in The New York Times. Look at this lead on today’s front page of the Times:
Punctuating a string of Obama-era moves to shore up labor rights and expand protections for workers, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have a federally backed right to unionize.
The subject of that sentence, the National Labor Relations Board, is 19 words in.
When you write, begin by asking what the story is about. What happened that caused you to write the story? Then start there.
Why was this written? Because the NLRB ruled that grad students can unionize.
The Washington Post started with the “actor,” the NLRB, as the subject:
The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, clearing the way for them to join or form unions that administrators must recognize.
Writing is more readable when you introduce the subject as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible. But then you can ask, is the subject something readers can relate to? What kind of mental picture does the National Labor Relations Board conjure up? Unless you a Beltway bureaucrat, probably nothing.
But there is a word picture in this story – the graduate students. So why not start there, like the Los Angeles Times did:
Graduate students who assist in teaching and research at private universities are employees and have a right to union representation, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.
Just this week, veteran AP journalist John Lumpkin sent us a blogpost by Pulitzer journalist-turned-novelist Bruce DeSilva that addresses this issue.
Consider the first sentence of the King James Version of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.”
Nice sentence. It’s simple, clear, and tells a big story in very few words. But if the typical journalist had written it, it would have come out something like this:
“In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.”
If a journalist had written the Bible, I doubt anyone would have read it.
What’s the difference between the prose of Moses and that of the journalist? Moses summarized creation in 10 words. The subject, God, is four words in, followed by a strong verb – created.
The subject of the fictional journalist’s lead is 29 words in. And it’s preceded by: two prepositional phrases, a participle phrase, then three more prepositional phrases, then a noun clause used as the object of a preposition, then an adverb clause. Then: the subject.
So are you backing in to your sentences, and especially your leads? You find out by doing something you probably haven’t done since the ninth grade. Read your story and underline the subjects and verbs. Then look at these writing issues:
1. Are your subjects reasonably close to the beginning of the sentence?
2. Do your verbs come quickly after the subject, so that readers aren’t likely to forget what the subject is by the time they get to the verb?
3. Have you chosen strong action verbs?
4. Are your leads relatively short? Readership begins dropping off past 30 words, and you should almost never write one that’s longer than 35 words. The Times lead above is 43 words; the Washington Post lead is 37; the LA Times lead is 27.
Today’s readers won’t wade through verbiage to find the news. So let’s make it easy for them.
By the way, the blogpost you just read tests out at the sixth grade reading level. It averages 13.10 words per sentence and an average 1.4 syllables per word as calculated by the Readability Test Tool – check it out because it’s a great newsroom resource. (The calculations do not include the long leads from the Times and DeSilva, which would have increased the score. If you’re curious, the NYT lead tested out at a grade level of 24.2 – a post-doctoral level. The DeSilva Genesis lead tested at about the same level)
At many community newspapers, treatment of the presidential election may be limited to online polls of your readers’ opinions, or their letters. But this is a race for president like no other, where facts and issues have taken a far back seat to entertainment, personality and character assassination, and it’s unlikely to get better now that we have the two most unpopular nominees in the history of polling.
Why should smaller newspapers devote more space to the race? If dailies rely on The Associated Press, the coverage won’t be localized. If weeklies just stick to local news, they will ignore a major topic of discussion among their readers, many of whom don’t read a daily. Covering the race can help you build and maintain a brand as the most authoritative local source of news and information.
As the primary campaigns ended, many journalists acknowledged that they had done a poor job of holding the nominees and other candidates accountable for their statements, and vowed to do better. But at last month’s conventions, timely fact-checking was rare. All of us in American journalism need to share the load.
You can do fact-checking on your own, but it might be better to start by using one of the three main, nonpartisan services that do a good job of holding politicians accountable.
FactCheck.org, the oldest of these services, is part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which is run by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, perhaps America’s leading academic authority on deceptive techniques in political campaigns.
FactCheck was started in 2003 by Brooks Jackson, who was an investigative reporter for the AP and The Wall Street Journal before going to CNN, where he was an early leader in ad watches and fact checks. He remains editor emeritus, and has been succeeded by Eugene Kiely, a former editor at USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
FactCheck is the service I like best, partly because you can use it for free, as long as you give credit. I also like it because it usually goes into greater depth than the other services. It reviews TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. It takes donations and reveals contributors of more than $1,000.
Just two letters and a space different is Fact Checker, a service of The Washington Post, overseen by Glenn Kessler, a veteran reporter who is from Cincinnati and has covered a wide range of subjects and been business editor.
The Fact Checker is known in the political community for its Pinocchios, which Kessler awards on a 1-2-3-4 scale for falsehood, except during the political party conventions. We used it to fact-check the conventions on The Rural Blog. Here’s the first example of that. The Post doesn’t mind the reprints as long as you give credit.
The other fact-checking service, PolitiFact, also uses a gimmick to categorize falsehoods: the trademarked Truth-O-Meter, which ranges from True to Pants on Fire. Not every statement fits neatly into a pigeonhole, but entertaining labels can be useful. It also has an “Obameter” that measures the president’s promise-keeping.
PolitiFact is a service of the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by The Poynter Institute, widely respected for its journalism training. The service and the paper make much of their independence, and the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting that the service won for its work in the 2008 presidential election.
PolitiFact offers its service for a modest fee, and has franchised its brand to news outlets in 18 states, including newspapers in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. In those states, you’ll have to check with the papers for their republication policies.
Show where your community fits into the state and national landscape. Do a story with graphics about your county’s voting history. Get the demographics to show how turnouts and age cohorts vary from election to election. Turnout is higher and younger, but still not very young, in presidential years. Do the election results reflect the national trend of greater political division among precincts? Voter registration can also show long-term trends. Is your county becoming more Democratic, more Republican or more independent? Such data are easy to get, and so are comments from local political leaders.
Other easy-to-get data reveal campaign contributors. Look them up by ZIP code at www.fec.gov, where you can get familiar with the reports and www.OpenSecrets.org, which has the best search functions and will do a custom search for a small fee. Then ask the contributors why they gave. These are people with a greater stake in the outcome than most.
Every community has issues affected by the race: the economy, jobs, tax policy, farm policy, immigration, education, energy, the environment, social issues, national security and use of American forces (which are disproportionately rural in origin). Identify the issues that are most important to your readers, and the local people involved in them; tell the issue stories with their help and with information from reliable online sources, going beyond the press releases and platform statements.
College professors can also be good observers. They can have their biases, but are usually up-front about them and willing to give you names of other authorities who disagree with them.
Don’t be satisfied with just running opinions. Your readers deserve the facts, and they’re not hard to find. When it comes to opinion, don’t feel obliged to run letters repeating debunked claims or gross misrepresentations. Your newspaper should provide more light than heat. And those online polls? Be honest and tell your readers they are not scientific gauges of opinion.
Editor’s note: ME Kathi Bliss of the Lockhart Post-Register, who has spent a couple of weeks covering the nation’s biggest hot air balloon accident, has now turned her attention to looking over applications from people who want to string for the P-R. And she has found it pretty frustrating. But what editor hasn’t lamented the language skills of people who want to work for a newspaper?
I am a hard-core stickler for grammar, punctuation and spelling. And I’ve received resumes that make me understand why I’d just as soon do this job myself. Actual, in the moment “text speak.”
I received a cover letter that included a nod that “Ur always having to travel to football games.”
Sorry, son. I’d rather travel every other Friday night from now until Rapture, than have you as a stringer.
Am I wrong, here? Am I asking too much?
I can’t, and I won’t, pick up a stringer that uses text-speak for a cover letter. I’d rather do it myself.
If the definition of news is something new that affects a lot of people, then the biggest news story you’ll have in August is probably back-to-school.
Maybe you’ve seen that as more of an advertising opportunity than a set of news stories – so let’s consider the possibilities. Remember that this is a significant rite of passage for any family with children or teens. And remember too that all parents care about issues related to their children’s school.
Your advertisers will appreciate stories that relate to school issues also, because people who read those stories will be more likely to see their back-to-school ads.
The most obvious stories deal with school openings and schedules and changes to faculty and facilities at schools. But there’s so much more. Here’s a not-in-any-particular order list of story ideas for back-to-school.
●Everyone’s shopping for clothes. What are the latest trends in clothing and shoes? What’s hot now? And how about the latest big-seller in book bags and gadgets? And ask parents about costs for supplies and how they are coping. Also, what about the effects of the state’s sales tax holiday Aug. 5 through 7? Here’s some information you need to know and pass on about that weekend.
●Ask about changes in school or district policies (tests and academics, dress codes, student conduct, even pick-up and drop-off traffic patterns. How will those affect parents?
●Any additional programs, courses, curricula in high school? Or have some been dropped?
●Talk to teachers about how parents can support children’s learning. Many parents don’t see the value of reading to their children, going over their homework, or even just making sure they bring their books and homework to school every day.
●Involve parents in your coverage, especially on social media. Ask them to share first day of school photos or memories.
●If you’re fairly close to a university that trains teachers, talk with some education faculty members about the pressures facing today’s teachers, and whether it is getting more difficult to recruit young people to teach in today’s high-stakes classrooms. Texas is estimated to be about 30,000 teachers short this fall – how does your district compare?
●Summer learning loss is a phenomenon schools must deal with every fall. Kids’ scores across the boards drop after summer vacation. Talk to teachers about this problem and how they are addressing it.
A great resource for reporters is Education Writers Association. Membership is free to working journalists who cover education stories, and every week you get a great list of story ideas and resources.
This article explores the relationships among newspaper quality, circulation, and newspaper circulation penetration at North Carolina community newspapers during two three-year periods in 1998, 1999, and 2000 and 2012, 2013, and 2014. Winning prizes seems to be correlated with circulation size: the greater the circulation, the greater the resources to devote to creating journalism that captures awards. However, the gauge of the success and impact of a weekly newspaper community is evinced by the percentage (the higher the better) of circulation penetration in the core community.
“Our job is to cover the everyday lives of ordinary people.”[i]
– Bernard L. Stein (Lauterer, xxii)
Community or weekly newspapers have long been rooted in small towns, described by scholar Jock Lauterer as “newspapers of the Blue Highways, off the Interstates” where journalism with an intimate, obsessive, and “intensely local focus” is practiced (Lauterer, 2000, p. xxiii). The purpose of this article is to examine any relationships connecting winning prizes in North Carolina Press Association (NCPA) community newspaper contests with circulation, quality, and circulation penetration in two different time periods – 1998, 1999, and 2000 and 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Defining quality can be both elusive and subjective. For the purpose of this research, it is defined as winning prizes in the annual NCPA contest. Community newspapers in North Carolina are, roughly speaking and mainly, weekly newspapers. The words “weekly,” and “community” are used interchangeably in this study when applied to newspapers.
Aileen Gronewold described weekly journalism as “the last front porch of America” (Gronewold, 1999, p. 4). Weekly newspapers “symbolize community” to their readers, she believed, operating as the “hub of the town” and “bringing people in touch with one another” (p. 1). Community newspapers were described by Rob Anderson, Robert Dardenne, and George Killenberg as the “public conversational commons” (Anderson et al., 1966, 159). Ken Byerly coined the term “community journalism” while a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1960s and authored a book titled Community Journalism (Lauterer, 2000). According to Kathleen Mason (2000), “Weekly community newspapers distinguish themselves from dailies by focusing nearly exclusively on the community or communities within their coverage areas, excluding national and international issues unless those issues directly impact the local communities.” Numerous studies define community in relation to geography or place, most especially towns, cities, or political districts (Lowrey et al., 2008, p. 280).
Newspapers help create and define that unique community identity. It is not hard to see evidence of this. Look at a front page and it can be seen usually in large letters: the Montgomery Herald, the Perquimans Weekly, and the Yadkin Ripple. The warp and weft of small towns – Little League baseball no hitters, prom kings and queens, church socials, summer band concerts, and Homecoming football games may be ignored by larger media, but they are the grist and joy of weekly newspapers. As Lauterer perceptively observed, “[W]eekly people are so busy putting out the next paper that they don’t have much time for public relations – nor do they need it” (Lauterer, 2000, p. xxiii). Almost without exception, the newspapers in this study defined their communities by putting the town they serve in their front-page nameplate.
RESEARCH HYPOTHESIS AND METHOD
Primary research and data collection were conducted to test the hypothesis that there are correlations among newspaper quality, circulation, and circulation penetration. The NCPA breaks community newspapers into three categories: Division A – newspapers under 3,500 circulation; Division B – newspapers 3,500-10,000 circulation; and Division C – over 10,000 circulation. Only divisions A and B were analyzed. A Division C newspaper, published three times a week with 25,000 circulation has considerably more in common with daily newspapers than with other weeklies of, say, 1,200 circulation.
The NCPA awarded first, second and third place honors in 24-30 categories in each of the two classes over the six years researched (1998-2000 and 2012-2014). Award data was gathered both from the NCPA office in Raleigh and from the NCPA website (NCPA). Each award was weighted: first place was assigned three points, second place two points, and third place one point. So, a newspaper with four firsts, one second, and two firsts would have a quality score of 16.
Two key terms warrant definition. “Circulation” refers to the overall total number of copies distributed by a particular newspaper per issue. “Circulation or market penetration” refers to the percentage distribution within the core geographic area (market area) covered by a newspaper and defined by that newspaper, whether it be a town, towns, or county. Circulation may occur outside that area, of course, but this was not studied.
Scholars researching daily newspaper circulation are fortunate. The Alliance for Audited Media (until 2012 the Audit Bureau of Circulations) audits daily circulation. For community newspapers, third-party auditing is rare. Advertisers depend on U.S. Postal Service circulation and even notarized publisher’s certificates. Annually, newspapers are required to publish an ownership and circulation statement during October. A combination of those methods was used to determine circulation numbers for this study.
There were exactly the same number of newspapers – 91 – in both study periods. All 91 of the weekly NCPA-member newspapers eligible for this study (Divisions A and B) were contacted by telephone up to four times to collect data. Six newspapers declined to participate in the study in the earlier period, while seven did so in the latter period. One post office refused to provide household address information, so its newspaper was removed from this study. Several business-only publications were not included in the study along with the Outer Banks Sentinel, an exceptional weekly newspaper, but one serving a string of beach towns covering parts of at least two counties. Depending on the year, only between two and five newspapers statewide do not belong to the NCPA.
The hypothesis that quality is strongly correlated with newspaper circulation penetration is not supported by this research. However, circulation size is correlated with quality, but perhaps in a way not anticipated, related more to financial resources than any other reason. Circulation size may bring with it more advertising revenue that allows a larger news hole, a bigger and more talented staff, plus certain technological advantages. Circulation penetration, however, provided very positive news and hope for community journalists.[ii]
The Top 5 newspapers in terms of penetration are shown in Table 1. Looking at the top newspapers in terms of penetration, it appears there is a strong correlation between high penetration and low quality. The two newspapers with 100 percent circulation are free distribution. The Top 5 and Bottom 5 newspapers in terms of circulation are shown in Table 2.
TABLE 1: MARKET PENETRATION
Top 5: 1998-1999-2000
Mountain Times-Avery Ed.
Clay County Progress
Red Springs Citizen
Top 5: 2012-2013-2014
Bottom 5: 1998-1999-2000
Bottom 5: 2012-2013-2014
State Port Pilot
TABLE 2: CIRCULATION
Top 5: 1998-1999-2000
State Port Pilot (9,689)
Cherokee Scout (8,130)
Alamance News (6,656)
Taylorsville Times (6,600)
Mountain Times Avery Ed. (6,532)
Top 5: 2012-2013-2014
News Journal (10,000)
Franklin Times (9,700)
Jefferson Pilot (8,950)
News Reporter (8,400)
Lincoln Times-New (7,998)
Bottom 5: 1998-1999-2000
Liberty News (1,005)
Spring Hope Enterprise (984)
Denton Orator (900)
Littleton Observer (785)
Rural Hall Indep’t. (343)
Bottom 5: 2012-2013-2014
Rural Hall Indep’t. (748)
Blowing Rocket (700)
Liberty Leader (1,091)
Cherokee Scout (8,500)
In the first period, the only consistency appears to be in the Bottom 5 in circulation. Evidently, very small newspapers have a difficult time generating both quality points and circulation (both actual numbers and penetration). Clearly, having the resources and the money to invest in the news “product” can produce results. The patterns among the top newspapers were somewhat random, with inconsistent interactions among the variables. The State Port Pilot is the only newspaper that seems to represent fairly well the expected result, though penetration might have been predicted to be much higher. The Pilot dominated the NCPA contest in all the years studied, nearly doubling the quality score of the second-place Tideland News in the initial period and the Cherokee Scout in the second period. The Littleton Observer was a good example at the other end of the continuum: it had low penetration and low circulation numbers without quality points.
The Top 5 quality point winners are shown in Table 3. Statistical correlations are shown in brackets; there is not statistical correlation (shown in brackets below) in any of the quality scores from either period in any category. Mostly the correlations are non-existent or negative.
TABLE 3: QUALITY
Top 5 – Quality [+.60],: 1998-1999-2000
State Port Pilot
Top 5 – Quality: [-.40]: 2012-2013-2014
State Port Pilot
Bottom 5 – Quality: [-.20]: 1998-1999-2000
Bottom 5 – Quality: [-.00]: 2012-2013-2014
Yancey Common Times Jrn’l.
Rural Hall Indep’t.
Red Springs Citizen
The Havelock Times went out of business in the late 1990s. During the first two years of the first period, the Times and the Havelock News were both extremely successful in the NCPA contests. TheTimes tallied 11 quality points and had two first place awards in 1999. However, the News was considerably more successful, amassing 56 quality points and 11 first place awards with at least one in all three years. Havelock had a population of approximately 20,000 in the late 1990s. This head-to-head competition suggests that competition creates better products, whether they are newspapers, cars, allergy medications, or detergents. Employing the quality criteria of this research, the higher quality paper – the Havelock News – should have won the newspaper battle . . . and did.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, population sizes and economics tend to preclude competitive publications in the same town. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this trend. Two newspapers in Clay County (approximately 11,000 population) continue to thrive (to some degree) while still competing. The Smoky Mountain Sentinel would not reveal its circulation numbers at all during the first period, but claimed 63 percent in the second. The Clay County Progress indicated 87 percent penetration in the first period, slipping to 75 percent by the second. In North Carolina, for instance, two newspapers shared one town, each owned by one half of a divorced couple.
The countywide Alamance News, with one of the largest circulation in absolute numbers of any newspaper in this study, is dramatically different in penetration (just into double digits) from other countywide publications. It competes in a county that has a daily newspaper (the Burlington Times-News) and another weekly newspaper (the Mebane Enterprise). These are not, however, unique attributes of Alamance County. The News departs radically from the style and content of most weekly newspapers by not running obituaries, eschewing sports coverage, except a few features, and publishing pages of agate lines of bankruptcies, deeds, deaths, and crimes of all types. The News also attempts to cover nearly two-dozen small towns in Alamance County, so its numbers are diluted by the size of the county.
The vagaries of judging can clearly account for some differences – maybe even a substantial amount – in quality from year-to-year as well as between study periods. In 1989, for instance, the Geneseo (Ill.) Republic took first place for Best Use of Photos in the National Newspaper Association’s nationwide competition. However, the same entry in the same year only received an honorable mention in the equivalent statewide Illinois Press Association contest. Other confounding factors could involve the anomalies and serendipity of the submission process. Some newspapers may concentrate submissions in certain, limited categories because of particular strengths, building up quality points as a result. This, then, might affect general excellence as defined by this study.
Three newspapers went out of business in the interval between the two study periods: the Randolph Guide, Fuqua-Varina Independent, and the King Times-News. Six other newspapers merged: the Littleton Observer and Lake Gaston Gazette (now the Lake Gaston Gazette-Observer), the Zebulon Recordand Wendell Clarion (the Eastern Wake News), and the Pender Post and Pender Topsail (the Pender Topsail Post & Voice).[iii]
Judging from the results of this study, winning press association awards is simply not a good measure of weekly newspaper success or quality. The prosperity of a community newspaper in North Carolina is judged, not by quality or circulation, but by readers sending in their renewal checks and plunking down a stack of quarters at the local gas station or grocery store. Success, seemingly, is all about circulation and the resources that provides.
Market penetration, not circulation is the pivotal indicator. For instance, the minuscule Rural Hall Independent (748 circulation) has zero quality points, but an impressive 60 percent penetration of its market area by doubling its overall circulation in the dozen years between study periods. Perhaps the real story involves the peculiarities and nature of small towns that share a unique, clear identity with the newspapers that serve it. If there’s a lesson for community newspaper editors from this study, it is this: engage more with their communities, expand coverage, while obsessively focusing on the people that make up those communities and their concerns. Rather than expend time and resources on contests outside their communities, the most successful weekly newspapers do a better and more essential job telling readers and community residents about themselves.
According to community journalism scholars Bill Reader and John Hatcher, “The modern community journalist is not an autonomous outsider, objectively recording all that transpires, but a community connector who has both a professional and a personal stake in that community” (2011, p. 8). Charles Kuralt called this a “relentlessly local” approach (Lauterer, 2000, p. xix). Robert Putnam observed that newspaper readers are “more rooted in their communities” (Putnam, 2000, p. 218). The best newspapers return the favor.
“A forum for parents to learn about the local schools, for residents to consider proposals for change, for church and civic groups to announce their doings, for neighbors to share happy times and sorrows.”
– Bernard Stein (Lauterer, xii)
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Hatcher, J. & B. Reader (2012). New terrain for research in community journalism. Community Journalism 1:1, 1-10.
Lauterer, J. (2000). Community Journalism: The Personal Approach. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Lowrey, W., A. Brozana, & J. Mackay. (2008). Toward a measure of community journalism. Mass Communication and Society 11:3, 275-299.
Mason, K. L. (2000). Newspaper numbers game: The relationship of editorial quality to circulation and market penetration in weekly community newspapers. Master’s Thesis, S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, Syracuse University, Department of Public Communications.
Meyer, P. (1991). The New Precision Journalism. Lanham et al: Rowman & Littlefield.
Meyer, P. & M. D. Arant (1992). Use of an electronic database to evaluate newspaper editorial quality. Journalism Quarterly, 69:2, 447-454.
Journalists long have been the gatekeepers of content for traditional media, but now with social media, does that role still stand? Although studies have focused on larger circulation newspapers, the literature suggests a gap among community newspapers’ judgment of news values and gatekeeping as applied to social media postings. A survey of 108 journalists working at newspapers with a circulation of 30,000 or less revealed insights into how journalists perceive the traditional news values when posting to the social media. Helpfulness played highly on Facebook while timeliness played better on Twitter.
In today’s society, news and social media seem intertwined. People merely need to pick up their phones and scroll through Facebook or Twitter to catch up on headlines from the world or as close as their neighborhood. The Pew Research Center began tracking Americans’ interactions with social media in 2005 and found only 7 percent of people used social media, but by 2015, that number had soared to 65 percent of adults (Perrin, 2015). As Americans continued to log in to sites such as Facebook and Twitter to connect with friends and family, news organizations began using these social networking sites to connect with their readers. In 2013, 47 percent of Facebook users said they found news on that social networking site (Mitchell, Kiley, Gottfried & Guskin, 2013). By 2015, 63 percent of Facebook and Twitter users said they used these social networking platforms to access news about events and issues outside their sphere of friends and family. This statistic increased from 52 percent on Twitter and 47 percent on Facebook just two years earlier (Barthel, Shearer, Gottfried & Mitchell, 2015). Furthermore, 59 percent said they kept up with Twitter during a live news event while 31 percent kept up on Facebook (Barthel, Shearer, Gottfried & Mitchell, 2015).
Additionally, one in 10 Americans consume news on Twitter and four in 10 on Facebook, and the Pew researchers found an overlap of 8 percent between those who use both Facebook and Twitter to consume news (Barthel, Shearer, Gottfried & Mitchell, 2015).
In Pew’s 2013 study, a third of Facebook users who followed news organizations said they connected with an individual journalist to follow updates, and these news consumers were more likely to click on news links to discuss issues with their friends (Mitchell, Kiley, Gottfried & Guskin, 2013). As social media gained a stronghold as the go-to source for Americans to communicate with friends and keep up with their communities, journalists and news organizations began to see the value of a social media presence on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
The Washington Post, for instance, mandated in mid-2011 that reporters use Twitter and Facebook (Rosenberry, 2013). Researchers at the University of Missouri found that 84 percent of daily newspapers use Twitter or Facebook (Rosenberry, 2013). Greer & Yan (2010) used a content analysis of newspapers with a circulation of under 50,000 over a 10-month period in 2009-2010 and found steady growth in social media usage, including a doubling of Twitter use within that time (Greer & Yan, 2010).
However, the literature yields little about the usage and trends of social media at newspapers with circulations of 30,000 or less. This pilot study chose the 30,000 or less threshold for circulation as a benchmark for smaller newspapers that may not be studied as frequently as larger metros. This study seeks to find the motivating factors for journalists setting the news determinants and the relationship between those news determinants or news values when posting to social media at daily newspapers with a circulation of 30,000 or less.
Theoretical Framework: Gatekeeping
Psychologist Kurt Lewin (1947) first devised a theory that tracked the flow of the channels by which food reaches the dinner table and determined that a specific area could function as the gate as a part passed through a whole. Although the original case applied to food, the gate later applied to news items, and gatekeepers ruled the gate sections and controlled the flow of information (Lewin, 1947). David Manning White applied gatekeeping to journalism in the 1950s and studied why newspaper wire editors selected stories for publication. White (1950) used a wire editor, defined for his study as a white man in his 40s at a newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 in an industrial Midwestern city, as the gatekeeper who controlled the flow of information from the wire services to the newspaper audience. White queried the editor about the reasons behind his choice of wire news copy and found the editor made his decision based on personal experiences (White, 1950). Snider (1967) replicated White’s study with the same editor, dubbed Mr. Gates, and found the story selections were still based on Gates’ perceptions and news could be defined as “the day-by-day report of events and personalities and comes in variety which should be presented as much as possible in variety for a balanced diet” (Snider, 1967, pg. 426). Bass (1969) studied the role of the news gatherers (writers, reporters, local editors) in stage one and the news processors (editors, copyreaders and translators) in stage two, concluding that the person’s role within the organization defined his perception (Bass, 1969). Halloran, Elliott, and Murdock found that gatekeeping began with the reporter and the gatekeeping function among the editorial staff varied from newspaper to newspaper (1970). However, Chibnall (1977) wrote, “The reporter does not go out gathering news, picking up stories as if they were fallen apples. He creates news stories by selecting fragments of information from the mass of raw data he receives and organizing them in a conventional journalistic format” (1977, p. 6).
Studies (Gieber, 1956, Westley & MacLean, 1957) concluded that gatekeeping was not as much a personal decision as it was an organizational one. Herbert Gans (1979) found that gatekeeping is more of a process than an individual decision, as information is packed for an audience. Gans asserts that “the news is not simply a compliant supporter of elites or the Establishment or the ruling class; rather, it views nation and society through its own set of values and with its own conception of the good social order” (1979, p. 62). Shoemaker, Eichholz, Kim & Wrigley (2001), who surveyed editors and reporters about stories resulting from fifty Congressional bills, found that routine forces, or those set by the news organization, were more significant than individual forces (Shoemaker et al., 2001).
However, when considering individual forces, one has to account for the demographics, ethnicity, gender, education, class, religion, and sexual orientation of the gatekeeper (B.C. Cohen, 1963; Johnstone, Slawski, & Bowman, 1976; Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes & Wilhoit, 2007; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1986, 1996). Weaver & Wilhoit (1996) examined the background of journalists and concluded that the average journalist in the 1990s was a white man earning $31,000 a year who had worked in the field for 12 years and worked for a medium-sized, group-owned newspaper (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996). Their study (2007) more than 10 years later found no variation.
In the digital era, who is responsible for determining the content: the individuals or the organizations? Cassidy (2006) found little difference between the gatekeeping functions of legacy media and new media (Cassidy, 2006), and Singer (1997, 2005) suggested that print-based routines are still prevalent in the online news world. Cassidy (2007) also found that traditional print journalists question the credibility of online information and cited works from researchers Boczkowski, 2004; Deuze, 2005; and Singer, 2006, to suggest conflict exists between the traditional role of journalists as gatekeepers and the online world as a free publishing arena (Cassidy, 2007).
As newspapers continued to move into the online realm, Bruns (2003) suggested a model of “gatewatching” for online news rather than the traditional model of gatekeeping. Bruns (2003) said gate watchers watch the gates and then show their readers which gates will open to “useful sources.” The gatewatcher model also allows for a quicker posting of news and information since it is online, and newsgathering becomes “more transparent.” (Bruns, 2003, pg. 35).
Shoemaker & Vos (2009) challenged contemporary scholars to study gatekeeping in the 21stcentury, and they suggest asking questions about how communications routines differ among various forms of media and the assorted platforms.
What determines news? Editors and reporters long have relied on the gatekeeping theory to determine the flow of information between the news professionals and the audience. The classic study of news values (Galtung & Ruge, 1965) found that events that did not carry multiple meanings were more likely to be published. They identified 12 factors that they identified as important to news selection, which included frequency, continuity, elite people, and reference to persons (Galtung et al, 1965). A variety of definitions and determinants exist in the literature, but for the purpose of this study, the researcher chose to use Rich’s (2009) list that includes timeliness, proximity, prominence, unusual nature, conflict, impact and entertainment/celebrity (Rich, 2009). A reporter or editor generally decides on the newsworthiness of a story based on these criteria (Rich, 2009):
Timeliness – Events are reported as soon as they happen or as soon as they are scheduled to happen.
Proximity – Local readers care about what happens in their local communities.
Prominence – Well-known people in the community become subjects of news articles.
Impact – Newspapers seek local angles to world events and show their impact on the local community.
Conflict – Stories report on conflict within a community.
Helpfulness – Consumer, health and other how-to stories that provide information of use to the community.
Entertainment/celebrity – Stories about entertainers or celebrities.
In a study of Swedish journalists and their news determinants, Stromback, Karlsson & Hopmann (2012) argued that the concepts of news selection, news values, news, and standards of newsworthiness should not be treated as interchangeable concepts as they are “conceptually and empirically distinct” (Stromback, Karlson & Hopmann, 2012, p. 725). Furthermore, they concluded using normative theory that no differences exist between the news values for traditional media and online media (Stromback et al., 2012).
Sheffer & Schultz (2009) studied whether blogs changed news values for newspaper reporters. Their study, a conceptual analysis, examined newspapers in three divisions (under 25,000 circulation, 25,000 to 100,000 circulation and 100,000-plus circulation) and found that journalists viewed blogs as another platform for traditional reporting. Sixty-three percent of newspaper bloggers examined did not include first-person writing, nor did the majority (87 percent) engage readers in a conversation (Sheffer & Schultz, 2009).
The proliferation of social media tools may have changed the dissemination and gathering of news for legacy media, but reporters still report on news and issues in their communities. Reporters now attend city and county government meetings, trials and even ball games with their smart phones or tablets tucked alongside their reporter’s notebook and recorder.
Social media tools allow reporters to report in real time and push content to their fans or followers. Grant (2012) proposed the seven functions for social media in journalism: report, promote, share, engage, follow, sourcing, and defend. Within these, reporting and sourcing allow journalists to use the news values of timeliness and proximity. “In the process, we need to reconceptualize our roles as journalists — instead of our being the source of information, social media allows us to become the hub for information” (Grant, 2012).
Journalists use Twitter to report events in real-time whether they cover a high-profile trial or a breaking news event. By using Twitter as a reporting tool, the reporters emphasize the news values of timeliness and proximity. National Public Radio reporter Andy Carvin used Twitter to tell the story of the Arab Spring uprising in the early months of 2011. He collected reports from the streets and tweeted up to a thousand times a day (Shephard, 2013). Carvin said he used multiple tweets to provide context for his readers and was careful not to repeat rumors. “That’s why it’s not unusual for me to tweet hundreds of times during a breaking news story because I’m constantly asking questions and reminding people what we know and what we don’t know” (Shephard, 2013). Mark Stencel, NPR’s managing editor for digital news, said Carvin actually turned the traditional reporting method public. “In a lot of ways, this is traditional journalism,” Stencel said. “He’s reporting in real time and you can see him do it. You can watch him work his sources and tell people what he’s following up on” (Briggs, 2013, pg. 96).
When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in October 2012, reporters and citizens engaged in exchanging information via Twitter. According to the Pew New Media Index, 34 percent of the tweets produced during the storm involved news organizations, government sources, and the public reporting on news and human interest, yet another longtime news value. (Pew, 2012).
Besides tweeting 140-character updates of news unfolding in real time, Twitter also allows reporters to link to their sources or other news outlets, thus providing transparency in the reporting process. Lasorsa, Lewis & Holton (2011) found that 42 percent of the tweets from journalists from September 2009 to March 2010 contained an external link. (Lasorsa, Lewis & Holton, 2012, p. 24) Half of the tweets referred the public back to the news organization’s site, 25 percent to other media sites, 18 percent to external web pages and 7.2 percent to blogs. The researchers surmise that “some amount of accountability and transparency may be occurring in the microblogging activities of journalists” as reporting in real-time allows the journalist to show the audience their reporting and sourcing process (Lasorsa, Lewis & Holton, 2012, p. 24)
Those who apply gatekeeping theory to online media point to the use of a hyperlink as the act of enforcing the gate (Dimitrova, Connolly-Ahern, & Williams, 2003). De Maeyer (2012) asked journalism educators and journalists in Belgium about their views on hyperlinking and found they agreed that “classic journalistic principles are what should guide journalists’ linking behaviour” (De Mayer, 2012, pg. 699). Furthermore, Meraz (2009) studied political blogs in regards to hyperlinking and found the traditional mass media ruled the hyperlinking choices by linking to traditional news sources rather than citizen blogs or others (Meraz, 2009, pg. 702).
In social media, a widely accepted practice among both journalists and the public involves using hyperlinks within Facebook status updates or tweets to drive the reader back to a site, whether it’s a news site or another site. Hermida (2010) said when links are shared via Twitter, they create “a diverse and eclectic mix of news and information, as well as an awareness of what others in a user’s network are reading and consider important” (Hermida, 2010, pg. 303).
Bastos (2014) found in his study of social media postings by the staff at The Guardian and at The New York Times that Twitter is more useful for hard news items while Facebook is a stronghold for softer news such as fashion or entertainment. “As readership agency begins to deliver critical feedback to news items and interfere in the agenda of legacy media, newsrooms will have to strike a balance between news that editors understand to be important and news that answers the wishes of increasingly interactive and demanding readers” (Bastos, 2014, p. 17).
While much of the literature discusses social media postings at larger publications such as The New York Times or The Guardian, little has been written about the smaller publications typically associated with community journalism. Before discussing social media usage among community newspapers, one must define community journalism. Lauterer (2006) offered two definitions – one pertaining to circulation size and the other pertaining to the scope of what constitutes a community. Within circulation, Lauterer defines a community newspaper as one “with a circulation under 50,000, serving people who live together in a distinct geographical space with a clear local-first emphasis on news, features, sports, and advertising” (Lauterer, 2006, p. 1). However, community journalism also could extend to look at the broader segments of ethnicity, ideas, faith or interests (Lauterer, 2006).
Hatcher & Reader (2012) wrote about the need for scholarship to cover community journalism and determined that “community is no longer defined exclusively in terms of proximity or social homogeneity” and journalism is no longer limited to the work of reporters. “Today, a person can belong to a vibrant and active community without even knowing the people next door. Those communities still need and share news, opinions and other bits of information that fall under the big tent of journalism” (Hatcher & Reader, 2012).
However, community newspapers may be slower to adapt to the changing landscape of using social media in the reporting and dissemination process. One community newspaper editor in Eastern Kentucky wrote in Givens’ survey (2012) that Facebook could be viewed as a negative because it took the social news contributions (weddings, engagements, birth announcements, etc.) out of the community paper. The editor said all a person has to do now is log into Facebook and see pictures of a child’s birthday or special event that otherwise might have been submitted to the newspaper (Givens, 2012).
This study provides a snapshot of current media practices with regard to news value judgments against a theoretical framework of gatekeeping. Reporters and editors at daily newspapers with a circulation of under 30,000, which would fall into the smaller quarter of what’s defined as “community journalism,” were surveyed about their current practices of determining which news values matter when posting stories and/or links to social media.
Based on previous studies involving the individual and organizational forces of enforcing the gate and determining news content for audiences, the literature suggests the following questions for this study:
RQ1: Which news values influence a community journalist’s decision to post news content to social media platforms?
RQ2: What is the relative importance in a community journalist’s decision-making process for posting news content on social media platforms?
RQ3: Does a community journalist’s age and level of experience influence his or her decision to post news content to social media platforms?
RQ4: Does the publication, with a circulation of 30,000 or less, require journalists to abide by a written policy for posting content on social media sites?
This study uses quantitative and qualitative methods to gauge the perceptions of journalists working for newspapers with circulations of 30,000 or less. The university’s Institutional Review Board approved all collection instruments and methods.
The researcher emailed 1,000 invitations containing a SurveyMonkey link to randomly selected journalists (reporters and editors) from 658 newspapers with circulations of 30,000 or less. The researcher gleaned email addresses from newspaper websites; however, 30 responses bounced immediately because the journalist to whom the email was addressed no longer worked for that publication, had exceeded his or her email mailbox storage limit or the spam filter rejected the unknown recipient. One hundred eight journalists responded to the survey, for a response rate of 11.4 percent. No benchmark figure for an acceptable response rate exists, but a postal survey sent without any other notification typically garners a low response rate of less than 10 percent (Descombe, 2014) and when Web resources are used, such as an electronic survey sent via email, the response rate can be comparable to a survey delivered via the postal service (Kaplowitz, Hadlock & Levine, 2004). Thus, the response rate, which included reminders, can be considered as representative for this pilot study.
Of those, 99.1 percent, or 107 respondents, indicated that their publication maintained social media accounts for news purposes, and only 0.9 percent, or one respondent, said the newspaper did not use social media.
The survey included both qualitative and quantitative questions regarding journalists’ use of social media. The first section asked about the frequency of posting and their perceptions of the traditional news values on social media posting. The second section included open-ended responses about which news values they placed relevance on for social media posting and how they decided to pursue a story via traditional reporting means contrasted with how they decide to post information to social media. Two questions concerned whether administrators (editors, publishers, etc.,) had to approve social media postings and if the paper followed a written policy regarding social media.
The researcher emailed invitations with links to the SurveyMonkey instrument and then sent two reminder emails, each spaced two weeks apart, during the month of September 2013. Reminder emails typically have a positive response rate for Web surveys as compared with an email containing the survey (Kaplowitz, Hadlock & Levine, 2004). The data then was analyzed using SPSS, and the researcher chose to use t-tests and ANOVA.
Demographics: Seventy-eight of the 108 respondents answered the demographics section. The respondents were evenly split (50 percent) on gender. With regard to age, 34.6 percent were ages 21-30, 16.7 percent were ages 31-40, 21.8 percent were ages 41-50, 20.5 percent were ages 51-60 and 6.4 percent for ages 61 and up. For experience, 34.6 indicated that they had 21 or more years in the business, followed by 24.4 percent for 0-5 years, 16.7 percent for 6-10 years, 6.4 percent for 11-15 years and 17.9 percent for 16-20 years.
The majority of respondents, 87.3 percent, held a college degree, 10.1 percent had a master’s degree and 2.5 percent listed their highest level of education as a professional or academic degree (J.D., M.D., Ed.D., etc.).
Seventy-nine respondents answered the question about their level of training in social media. Nearly 61 percent said they have learned on their own, 25.3 percent attended a seminar or webinar, 12.7 percent said they learned in other manners and 1.3 percent had no training.
Research questions: Regarding RQ1 and RQ2, participants were asked to think about the various news values (timeliness, proximity, prominence, impact, conflict, unusual nature, helpfulness and entertainment/celebrity) and rank them on a five-point Likert scale (Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree) about the degree to which the news values affect their posting.
Slightly more than 60 percent of journalists strongly agreed they consider helpfulness as a consideration for posting to Facebook, followed by timeliness at 55 percent; impact, 45 percent; proximity, 37 percent; prominence, 25.8 percent; unusual nature, 26 percent; conflict, 14 percent, and entertainment, 5.4 percent.
FIGURE 1. JOURNALISTS SURVEYED RANKED HELPFULNESS AS THE TOP NEWS VALUE FOR FACEBOOK.
Timeliness ranked first for Twitter with 65.9 percent indicating strong agreement as a consideration when they post stories or links. Helpfulness rated second at 61 percent, followed by impact, 40 percent; proximity, 31 percent; prominence, 22 percent; unusual nature, 26 percent; conflict, 13.2 percent, and entertainment, 4.3 percent.
FIGURE 2. JOURNALISTS SURVEYED RANKED TIMELINESS AS THE TOP NEWS VALUE FOR TWITTER.
Analysis through one-sample t-tests of news values correspond with the descriptive data between the top news values for Facebook and Twitter. Using 3 as the benchmark value, the researcher determined that news values with a higher score than 3 are decidedly used by journalists to determine news content. Helpfulness ranked higher for Facebook at 4.42, but timeliness ranked higher for Twitter at 4.48. By contrast, entertainment ranked the lowest for both at 2.76 for Facebook and 2.75 for Twitter.
Relation of news values
The researcher chose to run t-tests to determine relationships between the importance of news values on both the Facebook and Twitter platforms. The paired t-tests compared specific news values to one another.
For postings on Facebook, impact (M=4.14, SD=.97) ranked slightly higher than conflict (M=3.32, SD=.99) when journalists post news items. Significance was indicated for the news value of impact, t(92)=6.8, p<.01. Impact ranked slightly more important than unusual nature (M=3.80, SD=1.03). However, when comparing helpfulness and impact, journalists place slightly more importance on helpfulness (M=4.42, SD=.86) than impact (M=4.13 SD=.99). Significance was found when comparing helpfulness and impact, t(91)=3.02, p<.01. These results suggest that journalists still rely on traditional news values and gatekeeping to decide which news items to post to Facebook. Helpfulness, an important consideration for helping readers live their daily lives, rated higher than impact, but when impact is compared to unusual nature, journalists choose items that have an impact on their local community. Also on Facebook, significance (t(92)=3.30, p<.01) was found for journalists using timeliness as a news value. Journalists were more likely to use timeliness (M=4.34, SD=.89) than proximity (M=3.96, SD=1.02).
On Twitter, significance was found between the choice of conflict and entertainment celebrity (t(83)=4.63, p<.01) and significance was identified between timeliness and proximity, t(90)=6.03, p<.01) Journalists were more likely to post news items identified with timeliness (M=4.47, SD=.86) than proximity (M=3.89, SD=.91). Significance also was identified between helpfulness and impact (t(90)=5.23, p<.01). Journalists were more likely to post items involving helpfulness (M=4.5, SD=.86) than impact (M=3.4, SD=1.02). Journalists also are more likely to post items involving conflict (M=3.3, SD=.98) than entertainment/celebrity (M=2.8, SD=.99).
These results suggest the traditional news values remain important, and because of Twitter’s immediacy, timeliness remains the top news value. Even though reporters and editors serve a local community, timeliness carried more significance than proximity.
“Breaking news or information that has a timeliness factor needs to be posted right away to either Facebook or Twitter, or both,” wrote one journalist in the open-ended portion of the survey. Another journalist wrote that social media offers a chance to let the public know the reporters are on the scene and working on stories. “Then you can report on it traditionally and post links to updates and a link to the full story when it has been investigated and written.”
Journalists surveyed for this study replied with specific examples related to how they use the news values to determine social media placement in their publications. Specific examples help researchers determine the current practices in the field.
“For my organization, proximity and helpfulness take on special significance. My print newspaper, although a daily, is heavily focused on our local communities. Because we have no revenue stream attached to our social media and little attached to our online/mobile platform, our primary goals with all of these products is to drive traffic to the print product and enhance our brand.”
“The news values are the same as those of traditional print. But the most important item (which was absent from your survey) is monetization. We publish a daily newspaper from which we derive clear revenue. Our website does not have an effective business model at this time and is probably undermining our print readership.”
“I don’t consider there to be a significant difference in news values between social media and print or web. News is news.”
One journalist said the immediacy of social media allows him to quickly disseminate items classified under the helpfulness news value. He said Facebook, in particular, allows for getting the news out quickly to his community because if he waited to publish in the daily paper, the item would no longer be useful or timely to his readers.
Regarding RQ3, would a journalist’s age and level of experience influence his or her decision to post news content to social media platforms, the tests revealed mixed results. No significance was found to exist among the levels of experience through the ANOVA test.
However, independent t-tests revealed significance, (t(27)=2.06, p<.05) between younger journalists, ages 21-30, and older journalists, ages 61 and up, for their consideration to post items of prominence to Facebook. Younger journalists (M=4.20, SD=.957) were more likely to post items of prominence to Facebook than older journalists (M=3.20, SD=1.095). No other statistical significance was found between the older group and younger group of journalists, which indicates that age may not be a deciding factor for the gatekeeping function for all the news values.
However, statistical significance (t(39)=2.28, p<.05) was found when comparing the age groups of 21-30 with 41-50 with regard to their consideration to use timeliness and impact as values for posting to social media. Younger journalists, ages 21-30, (M=4.68, SD=.627) were more likely to cite timeliness as a news value for Facebook than middle-aged journalists, ages 41-50, (M=4.00, SD=1.317). Significance also existed for the decision to post items involving impact to Twitter for the younger journalists, (t(39)=1.484, p<.05). Younger journalists (M=4.40, SD=.866) also were more likely to cite impact as a decision for posting to Twitter than middle-aged journalists (M=3.75, SD=1.125). No other statistical significance exists between the younger and middle-aged groups.
With regard to RQ4 in the open-ended section of the survey instrument, the researcher asked respondents about their publication’s social media policies regarding posting. Forty-four journalists indicated that their publications do not have limitations or a written policy about what they can post, and 28 indicated that they do have a policy.
One journalist who identified as an employee of the Rapid City Journal posted the newspaper’s policy that the paper drafted after consulting the guidelines set by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Missoulian and the Wisconsin State Journal. The policy includes items reminding the staff to verify their information before posting and remaining objective when interacting with political parties on social media. The policy also encourages the journalists to remain cautious about retweeting content from user-generated sources so that their retweets are not taken as endorsements. Employees also may not post unpublished photos, audio or video gathered by reporters unless an editor has approved live-tweeting or live-blogging.
A few who indicated they do not have limitations expanded their answers to include reasons why. “We do give some thought to holding in-depth and exclusive stories until after they appear in print,” one journalist wrote. Another wrote, “There are no concrete limitations. We have our reporters and our online editor use common sense when posting.”
Several journalists also raised the question of whether posting to social media would affect their newspaper’s business model or drive traffic to their website, which is behind a paywall. “In the absence of a clear revenue stream, we should only be driving readers to and not away from our print product,” one editor wrote.
Journalists use the gatekeeping method for determining the newsworthiness of content for the legacy media, so it should follow that consciously or subconsciously they use the same method for posting to social media. Journalists at publications of under 25,000-circulation, 25,000-100,000 circulation and 100,000-plus circulation all viewed blogging as an extension of traditional reporting (Sheffer & Shultz, 2009). Thus, differences in circulation sizes as well as platforms may not make a difference in regard to traditional journalistic practices.
Cassidy (2006) and Singer (1997, 2005) both suggested that print-based routines remained prevalent in the online world, and Brems (2014) suggested that the routines are becoming adapted to speed and space. The speed of social media may help to push the boundaries of the traditional deadline and publication schedules as reporters and editors are no longer bound to a schedule for publishing content. Breaking news, for instance, no longer has to wait for the morning paper.
Twitter seemed to attract journalists who wanted to post breaking news or timely links, but Facebook seemed to drive opportunities to engage or connect with the newspaper’s community. Helpfulness ranked first as a news value for Facebook, followed by timeliness, while timeliness ranked first on Twitter followed by helpfulness. Both Twitter and Facebook allow newspapers to quickly share information that qualifies as both timely and helpful to their communities. For instance, if a traffic accident closes an interstate or major highway, a reporter or editor can help their public determine an alternate route immediately, unlike years ago when newspapers had to wait until the next publication cycle. Helpfulness also allows journalists to post updates about weather events, such as reports of confirmed tornadoes or flash floods. This news value also gives readers immediate information about shelters in times of a weather crisis. Facebook’s visual nature enhances the posts about helpful community information by enabling journalists to post a photo from a scene or a graphic that gives additional information.
One journalist replied in the survey that he could easily get information out to his audience that was both timely and helpful in the case of an accident. In that case, the journalist again is acting as the gatekeeper by deciding to post helpful information immediately rather than waiting to disseminate that information in the traditional print product. The item would still be disseminated to the public, but the action of immediately posting it allows the gatekeeper to control the flow and timing of that information to the public.
In a sense, this feeling of “helpfulness” can create another form of community online. Much like knowing one’s neighbor, the community still needs the news and shared shreds of information (Hatcher & Reader, 2012). Formal and informal measures help the community to produce and supply information to the public (Hatcher & Reader, 2012), much like the notion of helpfulness as a news value when news organizations and their audience engage in social media postings about things happening in the community. The same may hold for the news value of impact, which alerts a community to an issue that may affect it. In this day and age of vanishing geographic communities, what may have an impact on the audience in a larger population area also may have an effect on those in a smaller area. The only separation now comes in the form of a screen as Americans are increasingly living their lives online, and 63 percent of Americans consume news through Facebook and/or Twitter (Barthel, Shearer, Gottfried & Mitchell, 2015).
Timeliness allows reporters and editors to immediately update their readers about everything from traffic incidents to a verdict from a high-profile local trial. Timeliness became a hallmark for Twitter as the company described itself as a “real-time information network” (Twitter, 2011).
Additionally, Boyle & Zuegner (2012) found the largest focus of tweets for mid-sized papers focused on local news. In this study, proximity, long a hallmark for local news, ranked third for both platforms. One has to wonder if the age of a mediated form of community might push that news value down slightly as community may no longer be defined as a specific location, but rather a specific audience that may extend well beyond geographical confines. Social media could redefine that traditional definition of proximity beyond a specific area.
With the results showing a tendency to use traditional news values for postings to Facebook and Twitter, Cassidy’s conclusion holds that online and print journalists are not too far separated on their perceptions on gatekeeping and news values (Cassidy, 2006). The journalists queried in this survey work for daily newspapers of circulations under 30,000 that are delving into using social media as a way to connect with their audience, disseminate content and possibly drive the audience back to either the online site or the traditional print product.
Although a few significant differences were found between the youngest age group and the oldest age group in regard to the news value of prominence, journalists as a whole did not have differences for levels of experience. The absence of significance may back up Cassidy’s finding that no differences in the gatekeeping function exist between online and print journalists. Journalistic training, whether conducted on the job or in a classroom, does not seem to matter about the perception of the news values for social media. Cassidy (2007) also wrote that research pertaining to the sociology of news values suggests that journalists “internalize the norms and values of the profession, as well as those of the organization for which they are working” (Cassidy, 2007, pg. 18). Additionally, Shoemaker & Vos (1996) found that patterned routines may be repeated as journalists perform their jobs. Thus, one has to wonder if the posting of content falls under the guise of a patterned routine or a spontaneous response, and if that response, in fact, controls the gate or allows the gate to swing open toward Bruns’ model of gatewatching.
As people continue to increase their reliance on social media for daily activities, the difference for ages and posting may not exist. Younger journalists may correspond with social media usage rates of the population ages 18-29 where 90 percent use social media (Perrin, 2015). Social media usage among those ages 65 and up also tripled from 2010 at 11 percent to 35 percent five years later (Perrin, 2015).
Although Cassidy’s study did not note significant differences between print and online journalists, Bruns’ gatewatching model could be applied to social media because of the transparency involved when reporters and editors interact with their audience on social media. For instance, he mentioned that readers are “encouraged” to check a reporter’s sources, and indeed, if a reporter posts updates from stories-in-progress, an argument could be made that it is a measure of transparency (Bruns, 2003, pg. 36). Carvin, the former NPR reporter, used Twitter during the Arab Spring to report in real time and show his audience his sourcing, and thus the transparency of reporting (Briggs, 2013). Lasorsa, Lewis & Holton (2012) surmised that transparency may already be occurring in microblogging, such as Twitter, because journalists post in real-time to an audience that sees their sourcing and reporting (Lasorsa, Lewis & Holton, 2012, p. 24).
Additionally, the lack of policies for posting, as mentioned in RQ4, suggests the newspapers trust the established routines of gatekeeping as a way to determine the news content. Brems (2014) asserted the journalist still remains a trained figure for the public to use as guidance for content, whether online or anywhere else (Brems, 2014).
Limitations of the study and future research
These results of a small sample in this pilot study indicate a snapshot of current practices of posting to social media platforms. The researcher plans to conduct additional surveys with media organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists or the American Society of Newspaper Editors and state press associations in hopes of getting a larger response. The researcher also plans to use incentives to bolster the response rate. Sheehan (2001) found response rates when the first interoffice messaging system was introduced recorded a mean response rate of 61.5, but the rates have dropped to 24.0 in 2000 (Sheehan, 2001).
Future research also could examine whether individual or routine forces (Shoemaker et al., 2001) play a role in posting to social media. Another study could address the notion of gatewatching and apply that model to reporting in real time on Twitter. Additional research could be conducted via content analysis of several circulation groups (1-10,000, 11,000 to 19,999 and 20,000 to 30,000) to determine the types of content news organizations post.
Because social media evolve frequently in regard to platforms and usability, perceptions of journalists and their view of news values on social media should be gathered regularly to determine the current practices and applications to the existing theories of gatekeeping.
Today’s community newspapers, specifically those with a circulation of 30,000 or less, use social media for both reporting and news dissemination, and the trend likely will continue as readers use Facebook and Twitter as social networks and coincidentally for their news reading. Consciously or not, journalists, whether an editor or a reporter, remain the gatekeeper in deciding which types of items to post to Facebook or Twitter. The pilot study, although a small snapshot of community newspapers, suggests journalists still use traditional news values to determine posting to social media. As such, the reporters and editors who post remain the traditional gatekeepers because they are using factors to determine what they think their audience wants to see, much like they do for determining the types of stories to place on Page 1. News has to be timely and helpful to have an impact on a local community because readers turn to social media several times a day for updates from their friends and their media sources. In a way, social media continues the cycle of how newspapers involve their communities and engage readers for comments and interaction through community forums, reader contests and even reader submissions of stories. The difference is that social media provides the element of immediacy as readers can tweet back to the paper or individual reporters, and they can comment on Facebook status updates.
As social media become an important journalistic strategy for news organizations, large and small, future studies should continue to examine the relationship between the journalist as the gatekeeper and if traditional values still hold.
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About the Author
Leigh Landini Wright is an assistant professor of journalism at Murray State University.
This article examines how the Washington Post and 11 daily newspapers in Virginia covered the 2013 gubernatorial campaign of Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who received 6.5 percent of the overall vote on Election Day. The study found that community newspapers with circulations under 50,000 provided a higher percentage of their news coverage to the third-party candidate than did the Post and the larger daily newspapers in Virginia.
Candidates who run for political office outside the traditional two-party system are usually ignored or ridiculed by the news media (Joslyn, 1984; Rosenstone et. al., 1996; Sifry, 2003; Stempel, 1969; Stempel & Windhauser, 1984; Stovall, 1985; Zaller & Hunt, 1994; Zaller, 1999). Minor-party contenders who garner some media attention commonly find themselves portrayed as spoilers or protest votes whose only role will be to tip the election in favor of the Democrat or Republican (Herrnson & Faucheux, 1999).
One form of news media that third-party candidates might find more hospitable could be the community newspaper – small weeklies and dailies that focus heavily on local news. Unlike their metropolitan cousins, these smaller publications are known for printing stories about all aspects of their community, whether it is a town council meeting or a neighborhood bake sale (Byerly, 1961; Gronewold, 1999; and Janowitz, 1967). Editors and publishers of smaller newspapers are seen as more connected to their audience, and they view their role as the main chronicler of everything that occurs in that community (Gladney, 1990; Jeffres et. al., 1999; Kennedy, 1974; and Lauterer, 2006). They are, in the words of Gronewold (1999, p. 1), “the last front porch in America,” one of the few institutions left that are dedicated to recording the history of a town, boosting civic pride, and bringing people together. Could this value system of inclusion spill over into election campaigns that involve third-party candidates? Are community newspapers – whether they operate in small towns or focus on specific urban neighborhoods – more receptive to covering political candidates who venture onto the campaign trail from outside the Democratic-Republican establishment?
This exploratory study takes the first step in answering this question by examining how small and large newspapers covered the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Robert Sarvis, a Harvard-educated mathematician who mounted a serious third-party challenge as a Libertarian. The Virginia race makes a good case study because Sarvis campaigned throughout the state and received 6.5 percent of the vote, the largest percentage of any third-party gubernatorial candidate in the history of the South and the third largest total for a Libertarian in any state (Virginia State Board of Elections, Official Results, 2013. See also, “Virginia Libertarian for Governor Vote,” 2013; Beckel, 2013; Jacobs, 2013; Kirch 2016). Sarvis was also seen as a legitimate candidate by political pundits (Payne, 2013; Tuccille, 2013; Will, 2013) and Virginia voters, many of whom said they were looking for an alternative to Republican Ken Cuccinelli II and the eventual winner, Democrat Terry McAuliffe (Bouie, 2013; Dvorak, 2013; Miller & Rogers, 2013; Reinhard, 2013; Zito, 2013). Moreover, polls throughout the campaign indicated Cuccinelli and McAuliffe were deeply unpopular with the Virginia electorate while Sarvis was viewed positively by an estimated 65 percent of the voters (Quinnipiac Poll, October 10, 2013; Quinnipiac Poll, November 4, 2013). The central question this study seeks to answer is, did community newspapers respond differently than metropolitan newspapers to the candidacy of Sarvis or did they mimic the type of coverage provided by larger dailies? More specifically, did community newspapers provide a higher percentage of their coverage to Sarvis than metropolitan newspapers?
The study is important for two reasons. First, there is nothing in the literature that compares the differences between community and metropolitan newspaper coverage of third-party gubernatorial candidates. This is a serious omission given the importance small newspapers play to many Americans (Lauterer, 2006; Miller et. al., 2012; Reader 2015). Second, third-party gubernatorial candidates are worth studying because minor parties have had more success at the state level than in national presidential contests (Kirch, 2008; Kirch, 2013; Lem & Dowling, 2006).
The study being reported here developed out of a larger content analysis of the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election (see Kirch, 2016). The emphasis of the larger study was to examine the overall news coverage of the Libertarian compared to the Democrat and Republican while this study emphasizes how community newspapers covered Robert Sarvis compared to the Washington Post and Virginia’s biggest dailies. The larger study was not originally intended to examine a difference between community and metropolitan news coverage of a credible third-party gubernatorial candidate. However, it was determined that an analysis of community newspaper coverage should be conducted and then reported in a separate study when patterns emerged to suggest a difference in how local and metropolitan dailies were approaching the Virginia election campaign. Separating the analysis of community newspapers from the larger study allowed the researcher to (1) place more emphasis on the differences between community and metropolitan dailies and (2) determine whether a larger study of community journalism and third-party candidates is warranted. A summary of the larger study’s results is reported later in this article to place the analysis of community journalism in its proper context.
Because most voters have little or no direct contact with political candidates, the news media play a vital role in bringing the world of politics to the electorate (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Lippmann, 1965; Patterson, 1980). However, while news organizations like to think of themselves as objective conveyers of information, scholarship shows the mass media is often an active participant in the political process. For example, the press legitimizes established political institutions (Blumler, 1978; Graber 1997) and shapes the image of candidates through the use of news frames (Davis, 1994; Jamieson & Waldman, 2003; Joslyn, 1984; Patterson, 1980 and 1994; Zaller & Hunt, 1994). The news media also play a pivotal role in setting the nation’s political agenda (McCombs, 2004; McCombs & Shaw, 1972). One way they do this is by telling voters which candidates they should consider and which candidates can be ignored (Davis, 1994; Funkhouser, 1973; Graber, 1997; Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Joslyn, 1984; McCombs, 2004; McLeod et. al., 1974; Patterson, 1980 and 1994; Shaw & McCombs, 1977; Weaver et. al., 1981; Winter, 1981). Entman (2007) pointed out that the news frames employed by journalists can “promote a particular interpretation” of an event (p. 164), while Ramsden (1996) said reporters are instrumental in telling the public “which policy issues to use as criteria to evaluate the candidates” (p. 66). These findings are backed by other studies that show how the news media – using a process known as priming – can determine (1) the parameters around which campaign issues are debated and (2) which candidates are likely to win an election (Callaghan & Schnell, 2001; Entman, 1993; Golan & Wanta, 2001; Iyengar, 1987 and 1991; Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Kim et. al., 2002; Kiousis et. al., 1999; McCombs, 2005; Min, 2003; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007; Son & Weaver, 2005; and Weaver, 2007).
This last point is particularly true when it comes to third-party political candidates. Scholarship over the past 50 years has shown that independent and minor-party presidential contenders receive significantly less news coverage than Democrats and Republicans (Joslyn, 1984; Sifry, 2003; Stempel, 1969; Stempel & Windhauser, 1984; Zaller & Hunt, 1994; Zaller, 1999). In 1980, for example, the leading newspapers and news magazines gave Republican Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter 10 times more coverage than all 11 third-party and independent candidates combined (Rosenstone et. al., 1996). In addition, events held by Carter and Reagan were 50 percent more likely to generate press coverage than events held by the most popular independent candidate, John Anderson (Stovall, 1985). Even Ross Perot, who received nearly 20 percent of the national vote as an independent for president in 1992, was only able to attract media attention because he had millions of dollars in personal wealth to spend on his election efforts (Gold, 1995; Rosenstone et. al., 1996).
Zaller (1999) has argued that these coverage patterns make it difficult for third-party candidates to win. He said that while “media coverage could … reflect reporters’ anticipation of election results,” it is also possible that the coverage helps determine those results (p. 103). McLeod and Hertog (1992) pointed out that voters might be less likely to vote for a candidate who – according to the news media – has little chance of winning. Joslyn (1984) noted, “A candidate who is ignored will have a difficult time producing the voter awareness necessary for electoral success” (p. 12). Third-party candidates face similar challenges at the state level, with one study showing that third-party gubernatorial contenders during the 2002 campaigns in California, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Maine appeared in fewer stories, headlines, and lead paragraphs than their major-party counterparts (Kirch, 2013).
Scholars have posited several reasons why news organizations ignore third-party candidates. Zaller (1999) concluded that reporters will not cover minor candidates because they do not believe voters want to know about political contenders who have little chance of winning an election. Zaller found that reporters risk their credibility with the public and their professional standings with their colleagues if they consistently boost weak candidates who eventually fade from the political scene. Others have pointed out that third-party candidates receive less coverage because campaigns are covered like horse races in which only the leading candidates get attention from the news media (Adams, 1984; Atkin & Gaudino, 1984; Harmon, 2000; Patterson, 1994; Robinson & Sheehan, 1980).
Pirth (2004) found that third-party candidates receive less coverage than their major-party competitors because they do not have compelling stories that intrigue reporters. Others have shown that mainstream news organizations are ideologically predisposed to accept the two-party system as natural to American politics and don’t even think to cover third-party candidates (Altschull, 1995; Gitlin, 1980; Hall, 1977; Kirch, 2015; Rachlin, 1988; Tuchman, 1978). Minor-party contenders are also ignored because they often are not qualified for the offices they seek (Collet, 1996; Rosenstone et. al., 1996), they represent small constituencies that generate little interest among the general population (Abramson et. al., 2000), they fail to build long-lasting coalitions that can seriously challenge the Democrats and Republicans (Berggren, 2005), and they run in a system that has traditionally and legally favored only two major parties (Dwyre & Kolodny, 1997; Lowi, 1999).
All but one of the studies cited here have examined press coverage of third-party candidates at the presidential level – and all of these studies focus on major news outlets like the national television networks or large metropolitan newspapers. What has been left unexplored is how community newspapers cover third-party candidates at the state level, particularly for governor. This is significant because community newspapers account for most of the news media in the United States (Hatcher & Reader, 2012; Lauterer, 2006; Reader 2015). For example, Miller et. al. (2012) reported that a majority of American adults believe that local news is important and use the community newspaper as their main source for local information. The National Newspaper Association (2010) has estimated that 150 million Americans read a community newspaper each week. In its 2013 readership study, the NNA (2014) reported that 67 percent of U.S. residents regularly read a daily or weekly community newspaper while 94 percent of survey respondents said their community paper was informative. The Pew Research Project reported that 72 percent of American adults “are quite attached to following local news and information, and local newspapers are by far the source they rely on for much of the local information they need” (quoted in Reichman et. al., 2015).
Gubernatorial races are worth exploring because minor-party candidates have had more success at the state level than they have had running for president (Lem & Dowling, 2006). While no candidate from a minor party has occupied the White House, independent and third-party contenders won 13 gubernatorial elections in the 20th century, including such notables as Lowell Weicker of Connecticut in 1990, Angus King of Maine in 1994, and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota in 1998 (Gillespie, 1993; Gold, 2002; Reiter & Walsh, 1995). More recently, third parties have organized serious challenges for governor in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Virginia over the past 16 years (Ballotpedia, 2016; Gillespie, 2013; Jacobson, 2014; Kirch, 2008; Kirch, 2016).
Determining what constitutes a “community newspaper” can be difficult. Early scholarship on the subject defined community journalism simply as weekly newspapers in small towns or urban neighborhoods that focused on local news (Byerly, 1961; Edelstein & Larsen, 1960; Janowitz, 1967; Rogers, 1942; Vidich & Bensman, 1958). More recently, the National Newspaper Association (2016) has defined community newspapers as publications committed to covering all aspects of a specific community, whether it is a geographic place or a political, social, racial, or religious group (see also Stamm & Fortini-Campbell, 1983). Others have defined community newspapers in terms of circulation. The newspaper association’s annual readership survey focuses on people who read newspapers with circulations of 15,000 or less (see 2014 report) while Lauterer (2006) described community newspapers as weekly or daily publications with circulations under 50,000.
Of all the definitions, though, the one consistent aspect that has been mentioned since at least the 1950s is the community newspaper’s propensity to stress local news at all costs. Quoting the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, Lauterer (2006) said that community newspapers are “relentlessly local,” adding that they are “the heartbeat of American journalism” and “journalism in its natural state” (p. 2-3). Studies show that local newspapers, whether they are in small towns or big city neighborhoods, help connect people and maintain a sense of community (Edelstein & Larsen, 1960; Lauterer, 2006; Terry, 2011; Yamamoto, 2011). Lowrey et. al. (2008) describe community journalism as “intimate, caring, and personal” (p. 276), adding that local newspapers tell the running stories of their communities while holding local institutions accountable to those communities. Local journalists, Glascock (2004) said, “become more involved in a community’s affairs” and “become more active in finding solutions to community problems” (p. 30-31). Other scholarship has found that community newspapers contribute to social cohesion and lead to greater community involvement among readers (Finnegan & Viswanath, 1988; Jeffres et. al., 2007); act as watchdogs of local government (Jeffres et. al., 1999); emphasize consensus over internal community conflict (Janowitz, 1967; Olien et. al., 1968); provide more issue-oriented campaign coverage than larger newspapers, which tend to focus on the horse race (Shaker, 2011); and stress community leadership (Gladney, 1990; Gronewold, 1999). At times, Hindman (1998) said, urban neighborhood newspapers become advocates of democracy, “giving power to the powerless” and providing a forum for voices that are often ignored in the mainstream press (p. 28). Byerly (1961), who was one of the first to coin the term community journalism, summed it up this way: “Community newspapers have something that city dailies lack – nearness to people” (p. 25).
Local newspapers also cover politics differently than national news outlets. In his study of the 1992 Democratic presidential primary season, Meyrowitz (1995) identified a difference between what he called “national journalistic logic” and “local journalistic logic.” His study analyzed news coverage of Democratic presidential candidate Larry Agran, the former mayor of Irvine, California, who failed to get on the media’s agenda even though he was outpolling more well-known Democrats in the days leading up to the 1992 New Hampshire primary. In interviews with reporters, Meyrowitz found that national news organizations look for reasons to exclude candidates from coverage because they do not have the resources to cover everyone. National editors and reporters, Meyrowitz concluded, take their cues on who to ignore from party professionals and by examining each candidates’ financial resources to determine who has a serious chance of winning the horse race.
Unlike reporters at large news organizations, Meyrowitz said, local reporters are much more likely to write about all of the candidates in a race in an attempt to broaden the public debate. He said local news organizations also face financial constraints that limit the number of stories they can dedicate to each candidate, but he said local journalists cover campaigns “through the filter of ‘community events’” and determine which candidates to cover based on “the local public’s reaction to candidates” as well as the insights of local politicians and academic experts (Meyrowitz, 1995, p. 51). While national journalistic logic focuses on the horse race, he said, local journalistic logic is moved by the strength of a candidate’s ideas and whether that candidate is campaigning in the newspaper’s circulation area.
This is not to suggest that community newspapers are perfect. Byerly (1961) himself said that the connection local newspapers have toward their communities is a source of great strength as well as their great weakness. They have been criticized for acting as promoters of their towns rather than as honest brokers of information. They have been called “the backyard junkheap of American journalism” (Lacy et. al., 1989, p. 39), “chroniclers of local minutia” (Morton, 1990, p. 57), and institutions that avoid the uncomfortable position of reporting conflict that might alienate their readers. Donohue et. al. (1995), for example, demonstrated that community newspapers often protect local elites, acting as guard dogs of community leaders rather than watchdogs of government. In their study of how four Texas newspapers covered the U.S. Department of Energy’s 1984 decision to use a site in the state’s panhandle for a nuclear waste dump, Schweitzer and Smith (1991) found that small newspapers were more susceptible to community pressures and often reflected the sentiment of the community on major issues rather than challenging local leaders when they battle outside forces like the federal government.
The digital era has complicated the notion of community. As Hatcher and Reader (2012) pointed out in the inaugural issue of Community Journalism, “‘Community’ is no longer defined exclusively in terms of proximity or social homogeneity” and “journalism is no longer defined as the work of professionals delivering ‘the news’” (p. 2). Instead, the authors argue, community journalism is the study of how journalism both reflects and facilitates culture. In an age in which the media landscape is in upheaval, Hatcher and Reader say, individuals can belong to multiple “mediated communities” in which they share common interests and goals with people from all corners of the globe (p. 3). In addition to geographic location, the authors said, community can be built around ethnic groups, short term goals, or an affinity for certain people or concepts – all of which can be covered by journalists and community members themselves through blogs, social media, and other digital sources. Lowrey et. al. (2008) concur, arguing that community can be defined as shared meanings between individuals who have no geographic connection. They conceptualized community journalism as a process, saying “media should help reveal and make understandable the community structure by informing residents of facilities, spaces, and events and how to use them” (p. 289).
Stamm (1985) noted that communities can be viewed through two dimensions: territory and institutions. Individuals, he said, identify with both a physical place and the institutions that provide them with services, such as the government or a church. While local newspapers could help bring people together as part of one large community, Stamm (1985) said various subgroups use internal communication devices like newsletters to connect members together in a way that the mass media cannot.
But geography is not completely dead. Rosenberry (2015) analyzed the websites of Irish community newspapers and found that even in the digital era, the local press maintained strong coverage of local events, including sports, government, politics, community history, and local land development. The author concluded that local websites continue to fulfill the classic functions of community journalism by covering a geographic location and local institutions.
In a survey of online news readers in Arizona, Mersey (2009) found that citizens feel a stronger connection to their geographic community than they do to various online communities. Community newspapers, whether in print or digital format, are the main source for this local news, Mersey said. As the author put it: “Geography matters to citizens and to journalism… The challenge of local newspapers in light of dwindling circulation figures nationwide is to stay geographically relevant” (p. 357).
Given the importance of community newspapers in the media landscape and the dearth of scholarship on press coverage of third-party gubernatorial candidates, this study seeks to answer three research questions using the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial candidacy of Libertarian Robert Sarvis as its test case:
What percentage of their overall coverage did community newspapers provide to Libertarian Robert Sarvis’s 2013 gubernatorial campaign, and how did this compare to the percentage of coverage that large newspapers provided the Libertarian?
Did community newspapers provide equal coverage of Sarvis and his major-party opponents, or did they follow the well-documented pattern of giving Democrats and Republicans more coverage than third-party candidates?
What was the nature of the third-party coverage provided by community and metropolitan newspapers? In other words, how was Sarvis portrayed in the community and metropolitan press, and was there a difference between how different newspapers covered Sarvis’s issue positions?
The study is a content analysis of the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election in which Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Libertarian Robert Sarvis. The analysis examined every staff-written article published about the campaign in the Washington Post(circulation 507,465) and 11 daily newspapers in Virginia between Sept. 4 and Nov. 6. The analysis included daily newspapers that published at least one staff-written article about the campaign in the fall. The state newspapers included The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk (circulation, 145,785), Richmond Times Dispatch (110,732), The Roanoke Times (78,797), the Daily Press of Newport News (59,200), the Daily News-Record of Harrisonburg (26,887), The News & Advance of Lynchburg (26,300), The Daily Progress of Charlottesville (21,510), the Daily News Leader of Staunton (16,873), the Register & Bee of Danville (14,692), The Progress-Index of Petersburg (10,152), and The News Virginian of Waynesboro (6,015). The newspapers and their circulation figures were identified using the 91stedition of the Editor & Publisher International Data Book for 2012. The amount of coverage varied depending on each newspaper’s size, with the Post publishing 107 staff written articles about the gubernatorial campaign and the Progress-Index printing one staff written piece.
Overall, 332 news stories were examined by three coders. The stories were published in daily newspapers from every region of Virginia and included publications from large metropolitan areas to rural communities. News stories were identified by conducting a Lexis-Nexis search using each candidate’s name and the terms “gubernatorial” and “governor.” Stories were coded on a variety of variables, including the newspaper that published the story, the date the story was published, and where the story appeared in the newspaper (front page, inside page, etc.). The study coded for whether a candidate appeared in a headline or lead paragraph, whether the story outlined each candidates’ issue positions, and whether the candidate or other sources were quoted in the story. The articles were also coded for adjectives that reporters used to describe each candidate, such as Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, conservative, liberal, underdog, spoiler, and others. An issue position was coded as “present” if it appeared in the same paragraph as the candidate and was clearly associated with that candidate’s policy proposals. The same coding scheme was used for adjectives. To make the data more manageable, the newspapers were categorized based on their circulation. Because the Washington Post was five times larger than the largest Virginia newspaper, it was placed in a category by itself. The four state newspapers with circulations of 50,000 or greater were defined as “large regional newspapers” while publications with less than 50,000 were labeled “community newspapers.” This definition of community newspaper comes from Lauterer (2006).
The three coders underwent a training session to familiarize them with the code book. In addition, two practice sessions were held before formal coding began to ensure that the coders agreed on how each variable was operationalized. Ten percent of the stories – or 35 articles – were analyzed by all three coders to test intercoder reliability using Krippendorff’s alpha. Results obtained an alpha of between .830 and .874 for the variables reported here. This is within the acceptable agreement rate described by Krippendorff (2004) for content analyses. One variable (whether a McAuliffe campaign official was quoted in the story) had an alpha of .791, which is considered less reliable. Several variables (such as whether McAuliffe, Cuccinelli, or Sarvis were mentioned in the story) had an alpha of 1.0. Variables with alpha’s below .791 were not included in this analysis because they were considered unreliable. The analysis did not include a comparison of where a candidate appeared in the newspaper (front page or inside page) because a Pearson chi test indicated no statistical significance in the results for this variable.
RESULTS OF PREVIOUS STUDY OF VIRGINIA’S 2013 GUBERNATORIAL CAMPAIGN
As mentioned earlier, this exploratory study on community newspapers and third-party candidates grew out of a larger content analysis that examined overall news coverage of the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial campaign. The larger study included a comparison of how Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II, and Libertarian Robert Sarvis were portrayed in the Washington Post and the 11 Virginia dailies. The larger study used the same coders and variables as the analysis of community newspapers reported here.
The larger study found that McAuliffe and Cuccinelli appeared in more stories, headlines, and lead paragraphs than Sarvis. For example, McAuliffe appeared in 97.9 percent of the news stories in the study period, Cuccinelli appeared in 96.4 percent, and Sarvis appeared in 39.8 percent. More telling was the number of times each candidate was mentioned. Cuccinelli’s name appeared 3,047 times while McAuliffe’s name appeared 2,980 times, for an average of about nine mentions per candidate, per article. Sarvis’s name appeared 489 times, or less than two times per article. Put another way, Cuccinelli received 47 percent of all candidate name mentions in the coverage period, McAuliffe received 46 percent, and Sarvis .08 percent. The major-party candidates appeared in far more headlines and lead paragraphs than the Libertarian. McAuliffe’s name was used in 39.2 percent of the headlines and 48 percent of the leads; Cuccinelli’s name was used in 33.1 percent of the headlines and 48 percent of the leads; and Sarvis was mentioned in 4.5 percent of the headlines and in 5.4 percent of the leads. Sarvis and his campaign were far less likely to be quoted by the Virginia press than McAuliffe, Cuccinelli, and their respective campaign officials. For example, Cuccinelli was quoted in 22.9 percent of the stories, and his campaign officials were quoted in 24.4 percent; McAuliffe was quoted in 19.6 percent of the stories while his campaign officials were quoted in 23.8 percent; and Sarvis was quoted in 9 percent of the stories that were studied while officials from his campaign were quoted in 1.5 percent. There was no difference in the rate at which each candidate was quoted when they appeared in a story. For example, of all the stories in which Sarvis was mentioned, he was quoted in 22.7 percent of the cases. By comparison, Cuccinelli was quoted in 23.8 percent of the stories in which he was mentioned and McAuliffe was quoted in 20 percent (see Kirch, 2016 for full results).
Community newspapers gave Sarvis a higher percentage of their overall coverage than did the large regional newspapers and the Post (see Table 1). For example, the seven community newspapers combined published 32 staff-written articles about the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial campaign, with Sarvis being mentioned in 26 of them, or 81.3 percent of the articles. By contrast, Sarvis was mentioned in 23, or 21.5 percent, of the Washington Post articles and in 83, or 43 percent, of the large regional dailies. The comparison reached statistical significance, using Pearson’s chi square (p < .01). The same pattern emerged when calculating the total number of times each candidate was mentioned in each type of newspaper. The Post mentioned McAuliffe by name 2,980 times, for an average of 12.2 times per article. Cuccinelli was mentioned in the Post 3,047 times, or 12.4 times per article, and Sarvis was mentioned 125 times in the Post, or 1.16 times per article. In the regional newspapers, McAuliffe was mentioned 1,469 times, or 7.6 times per article, Cuccinelli was mentioned 1,498 times, or 7.7 times per article, and Sarvis was mentioned 268 times, or 1.4 times per article. The community newspapers mentioned McAuliffe 205 times, for an average of 6.4 times per article, Cuccinelli 212 times, or 6.6 times per article, and Sarvis 96 times, or 3 times per article. Put another way, Sarvis received 4.5 percent of all the candidate name mentions in the Post, 8.2 percent of the name mentions in the regional newspaper articles, and 18.7 percent of the name mentions in the community press.
TABLE 1: OVERALL COVERAGE PATTERNS OF ROBERT SARVIS BY NEWSPAPER TYPE
Percentage of stories Sarvis mentioned
Percentage of stories Sarvis mentioned in headline
Percentage of stories Sarvis mentioned in lead paragraph
Average number of times Sarvis mentioned per story
Large Regional Dailies
Sarvis also appeared in a larger percentage of the headlines and lead paragraphs in the community newspapers than he did in the larger dailies. Sarvis was mentioned in a headline in 15.6 percent of the stories that appeared in the seven community newspapers, but only 2.8 percent of the stories that appeared in the Post and 3.6 percent that appeared in the large regional papers. A chi-square test result of p < .01 indicated statistical significance. The same was true with leads. Community newspapers mentioned Sarvis in the lead paragraph in 15.6 percent of the stories while he appeared in lead graphs in 2.8 percent of the Post stories and 5.2 percent of the large state papers. The results reached statistical significance with chi-square of p < .05.
There also appears to be a correlation between newspaper size and whether Sarvis was quoted in a news story (see Table 2). The Post quoted Sarvis in 3.7 percent of the stories, while large regionals quoted him in 10.4 percent and community newspapers in 18.8 percent. The chi-square of p < .05 reached statistical significance. By contrast, McAuliffe was quoted in 20.6 percent of the stories in the Post, 20.2 percent in the large regionals, and 12.5 percent in community newspapers; Cuccinelli was quoted in 18.7 percent of the Post stories, 24.9 percent of the large regional newspaper stories, and 25 percent of the community newspaper articles. However, the percentage of times each major-party candidate was quoted in the press did not reach statistical significance.
TABLE 2: HOW OFTEN EACH CANDIDATE WAS QUOTED IN NEWSPAPERS
Terry McAuliffe (D)
Ken Cuccinelli (R)
Robert Sarvis (L)
Large Regional Dailies
Although community newspapers provided more coverage to Sarvis than did the large state papers and the Post, they followed a similar pattern of giving the major-party candidates more coverage than the Libertarian (see Table 3). While Sarvis appeared in 81.3 percent of the news articles in the community press, McAuliffe was mentioned in 90.6 percent of the stories, and Cuccinelli was mentioned in 93 percent. The numbers for McAuliffe were statistically significant (p < .01), but Cuccinelli’s were not (p < .657). Likewise, the Democrat and Republican appeared in a higher percentage of headlines and lead paragraphs than Sarvis in the community newspapers. While Sarvis was mentioned in 15.6 percent of the headlines and 15.6 percent of the leads in the community newspapers, McAuliffe was named in a headline in 25 percent of the stories that appeared in the community newspapers and 40.6 percent of the lead paragraphs. Cuccinelli was mentioned in a headline in 28.1 percent of the stories and in the lead in 40.1 percent. However, the numbers for the major-party candidates did not reach statistical significance. Although community newspapers mentioned Sarvis more times per article than the regional newspapers and the Post, the major-party candidates still received twice as many name mentions per article in community newspapers as Sarvis.
TABLE 3: COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER COVERAGE OF ALL THREE GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES
Percentage of stories candidate is mentioned
Percentage of headlines each candidate appears
Percentage of lead paragraphs each candidate appears
Average number of times each candidate is mentioned per story
Terry McAuliffe (D)
Ken Cuccinelli (R)
Robert Sarvis (L)
Newspapers at all levels avoided adjectives to describe Sarvis in the articles in which he appeared. In almost every case, the Washington Post and the 11 Virginia dailies used only Sarvis’ party label as the adjective to describe him. The Post referred to Sarvis as an unknown candidate in 17.4 percent of the stories in which the Libertarian was mentioned, while the large regionals used this adjective in 1.2 percent of the cases. Community newspapers never referred to Sarvis as unknown. The variable reached statistical significance at p < .01. None of the other adjective variables that were tested – ideology, spoiler, protest vote, occupation, leading candidate, underdog, wild card, long shot, populist, college graduate, or political novice – reached statistical significance. Community newspapers devoted a higher percentage of their coverage to Sarvis’ issue positions than did the large dailies. According to the findings, Sarvis’ issue positions appeared in 12.5 percent of the stories that appeared in the community press but only 8.3 percent of the state dailies and 3.7 percent in the Post. This measure did not reach statistical significance, however, with a chi-square test result of p < .166.
This exploratory study provides some preliminary insight into how community newspapers approach campaigns involving third-party gubernatorial candidates. Specifically, the results suggest that small, local newspapers are more open to covering nontraditional candidates than their metropolitan cousins. RQ1 asked how much coverage community newspapers provided to Sarvis compared to the Washington Post and the four large regional dailies in Virginia. As the study noted, Sarvis appeared in a higher percentage of the stories that were published in newspapers with circulations under 50,000 than in the state’s larger newspapers and the Post. The Libertarian appeared in a higher percentage of the headlines and lead paragraphs in the community press than he did in the five larger newspapers, and he was quoted in a higher percentage of news stories that appeared in the community press than he was in articles published in the larger newspapers. RQ2 asked whether community newspapers provided equal coverage to Sarvis and his major-party opponents. The study suggests that while community newspapers paid more attention to Sarvis than larger publications, the smaller news organizations still wrote more articles about the Democrat and Republican than about the Libertarian.
Finally, RQ3 was designed to examine the nature of the coverage Sarvis received in community newspapers versus metropolitan dailies, focusing on how well the news media reported on the Libertarian’s issue positions as well as the adjectives that were used to describe him. As the results suggest, community newspapers focused more on Sarvis’ position on issues, such as taxes, gun control, and others, than the larger dailies. None of the newspapers analyzed used adjectives other than Sarvis’ party label to define him, although the Post referred to Sarvis as an unknown candidate in a higher percentage of stories than did the regional and community newspapers.
There could be several reasons why community newspapers provided a higher percentage of their coverage to Sarvis than the larger newspapers. First, community newspapers may be more responsive to community needs given that editors and reporters are closer to their readers and understand what their audience wants. This is consistent with Meyrowitz’s (1995) conclusion that community newspapers cover election campaigns under a concept he dubbed “local journalistic logic” in which reporters take their cues about which candidates to cover from local political leaders as well as the voters in their communities. Second, because they are “relentlessly local” (Lauterer, 2006), community newspapers may be more willing to cover a third-party candidate when he or she comes to town because it means more for their communities than it does for larger cities. This conclusion ties back to some of the hallmarks of community journalism, particularly its tendency to chronicle the history of a community (Lowrey et. al., 2008) and stress its nearness to people (Byerly, 1961). Third, the unassuming Sarvis may have attracted more attention from community newspapers because they are more consensus-driven in that they want to include all voices in the political debate. Meyrowitz (1995) came to a similar conclusion in his study of the 1992 Democratic presidential primary while Finnegan and Viswanath (1988) and Jeffres et. al. (2007) have said that community newspapers help drive social cohesion.
Finally, community newspapers may have devoted more space to Sarvis – or any candidate for governor who came to their community – because it is the one chance local reporters get to cover the gubernatorial race. Unlike the larger dailies, journalists at community newspapers are not on the campaign trail every day. If they have any ambition to cover big-time politics, local reporters would likely jump at the chance to cover a visiting politician for statewide office. This would allow local reporters to expand their portfolios as they try to advance their careers by pursuing jobs at larger news organizations.
Although preliminary, these results have ramifications for third-party candidates and journalists. Given that community newspapers are more prone to covering minor-party contenders, gubernatorial candidates from smaller parties should target newspapers in small towns as part of their campaigns. The study suggests that it would behoove third-party candidates to create media strategies in which they hold events in geographic locations that are covered by community newspapers, develop relationships with small-town reporters and editors, grant regular interviews with local reporters at small newspapers, and highlight policy proposals that impact specific communities that are served by community media. The study should also be a wakeup call for reporters at large newspapers that they are not serving the electorate’s needs by ignoring serious third-party candidates, especially in races like Virginia in 2013 when the public was looking for an alternative voice to the two unpopular major-party contenders. Reporters should recognize that by ignoring minor-party candidates they are limiting rather than expanding political discourse and helping the Democrats and Republicans maintain their control on power.
The study is limited, though. In all, only 32 staff written articles appeared in Virginia’s community newspapers during the 2013 gubernatorial election. While the results suggest a difference in how small and large newspapers cover minor parties, the sample is too small to form any conclusive judgments. Further research should include a much larger sample of community newspaper coverage by examining how local publications in several other states covered serious third-party gubernatorial contenders. These studies should examine the frequency in which a third-party candidate appears in stories, headlines, and lead graphs as well as how often minor-party contenders are quoted in stories. Of particular interest would be to examine whether a community newspaper’s propensity to cover issues rather than poll numbers (see Shaker, 2011) plays any part in why third-party candidates receive more coverage in these publications. In other words, if large newspapers ignore third-party candidates because they operate under a horse-race paradigm in which only the likely winners are deemed newsworthy, do third-party candidates become inherently more newsworthy when the contest element is removed and news coverage is focused more on educating voters about the issue positions of the candidates? This question is relevant in the context of community newspapers because smaller publications typically do not have the resources to conduct their own polls and have to find other ways to cover campaigns beyond just the horse race. In addition, a quantitative survey of reporters at different sized newspapers might also be conducted to identify any attitude differences between journalists at large and small newspapers toward minor parties. Such a survey could build on the “local journalistic logic” concept developed by Meyrowitz (1995) and expand his thesis beyond minor candidates within a major political party by viewing it through the context of third-party challengers.
The goal of this preliminary analysis was to determine whether enough evidence exists to justify a larger study in how community newspapers cover third-party gubernatorial candidates. The answer is yes. The current study is a first step in understanding the differences between metropolitan dailies and local newspapers when it comes to covering dissent. It is the first study to indicate that community newspapers may be more open to third-party challenges than their larger metropolitan cousins. The study sheds light on the specific missions of different sized newspapers, and it opens to door to a potentially new avenue of scholarship.
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