FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps wrote in 2007 that media consolidation has led to entertainment dressed up as news, less localism and serious political coverage, less diversity of opinion and ownership, and fewer jobs for journalists. In 2009 the San Antonio Express-News, a Hearst publication, laid off 135 people (15 percent of its employees). Of the 135 people laid off, 75 of them came from the newsroom. In 2010 I did a content analysis of the local news sections from 2006 and 2010. The purpose was to discover the impact shrinking newsrooms have on the quality and quantity of serious local news.
A short history of recent events is necessary to understand the changes going on at the Express-News:
2007 – 2009: Nationwide economic recession
Beginning of 2009: Wage and hiring freeze announced, which is still in place.
March, 2009: 135 people laid off and 30 positions left unfilled.
March, 2009: State and Metro press runs combined into a single edition.
April, 2009: Width of pages reduced from 12.5 in. to fewer than 11 in.
The content analyzed consisted of 10 local news sections, five issues from 2006 before major layoffs began and five issues from 2010 after the most serious cuts. The issues were chosen at random, the days of the week in 2006 corresponding with days of the week in 2010 since section size is often determined by the day of the week. The news section on Mondays, for example, is typically smaller because there are usually less people working on Sundays.
The dependent variables are the number of staff-written stories, ads, and news pages, as well as the seriousness of each article. Serious news was considered journalism that serves the public interest and enhances democratic participation. The most serious news was considered informative and addressed public services, issues or politics. The least serious included such topics as celebrity gossip and entertainment. Three independent coders determined the seriousness of each article using a 5-point Likert scale, 1 being “not at all serious” and 5 being “very serious.” The coders did not consider briefs in this analysis.
From 2006 to 2010, the number of pages remained essentially the same, but during that time the size of the pages were reduced. There were also two editions of the paper in 2006, State and Metro, and only one in 2010.
Considering that the number of pages remained the same, it is noteworthy then that there was a significant difference in the number of articles and ads. The number of ads increased from 26 to 36 (38 percent). The number of articles decreased from 60 to 48 (20 percent).
The decrease in articles overall is arguably a result of the increased ads, smaller pages, and fewer reporters. But it may also be a result of Hearst’s increasing efforts to share content among clustered papers in the chain, such as the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle. One very noticeable change, with regard to increased advertising, is the appearance of a large ad on the front of the local news section.
Despite the decrease in articles, the number of articles that were considered good examples of serious public-interest journalism by the coders was the same in 2006 as in 2010 (30 each). In other words, 50 percent of the articles in 2006 and 63 percent in 2010 were considered fair, good, or very good examples of public-interest journalism.
Despite everything, the Express-News maintained its level of serious reporting. This suggests that democratic duty is still a top priority for reporters and editors working within the constraints of consolidated commercial media.
Recent related links:
ASNE newsroom census total reflects decline in traditional journalism jobs, growth in online
PR Industry Fills Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms