My Twitter feed is brimming with folks fighting over the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s latest study on the news ecosystem in Baltimore. “Old” media such as the New York Times are emphasizing in their headlines the rather self-serving fact that the study found that newspapers remain the engine behind most new information. The “new” media folks such as Jeff Jarvis are arguing that the study is nothing more than a sad shill for the dying old guard [Addendum: as Jarvis points out in the comments, he did say the study has some value as a baseline], telling us nothing new and setting up a “straw man” and lighting the match: “Do blogs give us most of our news? No, they don’t. Well, then, they must be worthless, eh? We’ll be lost without big, old media, won’t we? Just what we need.”
I generally count myself as pretty firmly in the “new” media camp, but I’m also a trained scholar, and I think that it’s silly to denounce efforts to empirically describe the current landscape so that we have an intelligent basis for informed commentary.
The PEJ study is valuable, and before either side gets too hysterical, let’s actually slow down and read it. [Disclosure: When I worked for the Committee of Concerned Journalists, PEJ was our “sister” organization working out of the same office, and Tom Rosenstiel was one of my bosses.]
How do we really know who produces the most original reporting in a community unless we actually try to count it? The study not only found that most new information is produced by newspapers – the finding seized by both sides in the debate with the most fervor – it found that newspapers produce drastically less of it than they used to. This helps to quantify what we all sense is happening and points to the need for journalism schools and other organizations to think now about how to fill the gap in gathering and verifying information vital to the public interest and community life.
The study also found that 83 percent of content is essentially repetitive, an important finding that points to possible efficiencies and better ways to deploy resources.
It found that a rush to break news fast is producing more reliance on official sources, and sometimes blatant republishing of press releases without labeling them as such – a finding that my own research has also confirmed and is a disturbing trend worthy of discussion.
Finally, the study found that often material is republished without proper attribution or credit given. This is a disturbing finding not only in terms of how it may harm the original producer but because we can’t trust the accuracy of information when we have no basis for determining how it was gathered.