I wanted to see how much newspaper content was what Alex Jones calls the iron core of news — reporters going after facts — and how much was “other stuff” — opinion columns, sports, astrology, weather, comics, everything that was neither a hard news story or an ad.
The paper I used was my old hometown paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. It’s is a classic metro daily and pretty good paper for a town of 100,000, because The Missourian, the rival paper produced by the local journalism school, provides an unusual degree of competition for a town that size. I had several copies of the Trib lying around, having used it in a media class I teach at ITP; I took two copies of the August 27 edition, slit them down the spine, and made two piles, one with odd-numbered pages facing up, and the other with even-numbered pages facing up. (There was an insert about the upcoming football season, clearly a one-off, which I ignored.)
I then cut up each page, labeling every piece in two separate ways. The first label was about content: News, Ads, and Other (opinion columns, sports, crosswords, and the rest.) The only judgement call was an article in the sports section about a judge’s ruling in the Major League Baseball steroids case; I put that in the News pile; the rest of sports went in Other.
The second pair of labels was about source: Created or Acquired. Created content was whatever was written (or taken, in the case of photos) by Tribune staff, while acquired content was material from a wire service or database — news from the Associated Press, but also weather, comics, and so on.
Then I weighed the piles (in grams.) Once I had the weights, I ignored the ads — they are about half the paper, but not the half I care about — and did comparisons of the remaining content:
- Created vs. Acquired: The content created by Tribune staff made up less than a third of the total; over two-thirds was acquired from other sources, including especially the AP.
- News vs. Other: The paper was about one-third news and about two-thirds “Other” (and this is after ignoring the all-sports insert, tipping the balance in favor of news.)
- Created News vs. everything else: News reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper (again, ignoring the insert, which tips the balance in favor of news.)
In other words, most of the substantive part of that day’s Trib wasn’t locally created, and most of it wasn’t news.
Click the shirky.com link above to read the entire piece and hear Clay’s conclusions about the possible future of news institutions.
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