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Content Analysis

Content Analysis

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2007, despite numerous hits to the industry and a rush of resources away from print and toward the Web, newspapers stood out in 2007 for unique coverage. Their particular strength, at least in print, may be less covering breaking news than tracking stories that percolated, ebbed and flowed over the course of the year. The nation’s newspapers gave front-page coverage to issues and events often not found in other news genres. The state of the U.S. economy, the continuing debate over health care policies and foreign news beyond the war in Iraq, among others, stood out on newspaper front-pages.

Here, we take a look at three distinct areas of coverage where the role of newspapers stands out.

The Economy

In January of 2008, economic concerns rose significantly among Americans to rival the war in Iraq as the top problem facing the country.1 At the same time, it began driving the presidential primary debates and became a top issue influencing primary votes.2

In the press, newspapers had already been covering the issue for months, dedicating staff, space and early attention the story when most other genres had yet to treat it as top news.

Looking across 2007, newspaper front pages covered the downturn in the U.S. economy more than any of the other six genres studied. Over all, it was No. 4 among the biggest stories of the year in newspapers, accounting for 3% of the front-page newshole. The only other genres to include the economy on their top 10 list were online news sites, where it ranked No. 6 over all (2%) and network morning and evening television news, where it placed No. 5 for each (2%).

Top 10 Newspaper Stories
2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

The emphasis in print is even greater than it first may seem, considering it includes only the front-page articles. The business section fronts may well have had more. This compares to the entirety of network evening news shows, the hard news section of the morning programs (where all the economic news would likely be) and several hours of cable programming each day. (The online news studied is more similar to newspapers — the top five stories of the page.)

This difference also was not a case of the big national papers tuned in to debates in Washington and on Wall Street while smaller papers across the country focused on more local matters. If anything, the local papers tuned in to the issue of the flagging economy first. The issue actually accounted for more of the front-page newshole in medium-sized metropolitan papers (3.6%) and small papers (3.4%) than the national papers (2.9%)3.

Part of this attention at the local level was due to the nature of the story. It did not evolve as a Washington policy event initially but in neighborhoods across the country as people found their houses were not selling or the sale of their neighbors’ houses suggested their home values may have dropped. The sense of security that people had in their homes began to waver, and local newspapers began reporting the shifts, having attachments to the local communities and still with newsrooms structured to cover more than the news of the moment (something local television finds hard to break free of).

Breakdown of U.S. Economy Stories
Across Newspapers
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

As early as March of 2007, for example, the Ohio Star Beacon in Ashtabula reported that late mortgage payments had jumped to a three-and-a-half-year high, with foreclosures at an all-time high. The Bakersfield Californian front page noted that, after a steep decline, the local housing market was now one of the nation’s worst.

Another sign of the local nature of this story is that these smaller newspapers devoted their own staffs to covering this issue. For major national news stories, local and metropolitan papers tend to rely on the wires, especially the front-page stories. This was not the case when it came to coverage of the economy in 2007. At the mid-level metro papers, nearly 80% of coverage about the economy was from staff reporters versus about half the coverage of about the war in Iraq and only 37% of coverage about Iran. At the most local papers more than half (53%) of front-page economic coverage were written by staffers compared to just 29% of Iraq coverage.

How Newspapers Covered the U.S. Economy
Coverage by Format
Design Your own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

The national paper that stood out most in early coverage was the Wall Street Journal. In March 2007, the paper carried front-page articles on failing mortgage lenders, fears about sub-prime loans and foreclosures, regulators facing added scrutiny and even a profile on one investor trying to take advantage of the low housing market.

Setting the Agenda

The failing economy had become a major story in American newspapers as early as March of 2007 when it was the eighth-most covered news event (accounting for 2% of the front-page newshole). The burst of coverage was driven largely by the downturn in the housing market. Fully 89% of the economic coverage that month (63% of the coverage for the year) pertained to the housing market. Again, roughly half of that was state or local reportage.

Elsewhere, the media had not yet noticed. The state of the economy did not show up in other sectors as a top story until August. That month, when the Federal Reserve began taking action, possible bankruptcy emerged at the largest mortgage lender and credit worries hit overseas markets, news Web sites, network news programming and radio news suddenly jumped into the story. For cable news, it took even longer and the economy did not make it into the top 10 list until December.

Newspaper Coverage of the U.S. Economy
2007
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

In newspapers, the troubled economy spiked to the top spot in August, accounting for 8% of the front-page newshole. And after that, the only months when the economy was not a top 10 story were May, June and July, when the scandals at the World Bank, the death of Jerry Falwell and Palestinian uprising drove it lower.

Health Care Policy

Newspapers also stood out as the one genre to devote significant amount of front-page space to the debate over health care policy. In 2007, it was not one big event or debate in Congress driving the coverage, but a story that ebbed and flowed throughout the course of the year as Congress debated new programs, states adopted new practices or public opinion shifted.

Over all, the health care debate was the 10th-biggest story on newspaper front-pages and accounted for 2% of the total front-page newshole.

Top Stories in Media in 2007
Percent of newshole

Rank
Media Overall
Newspapers
Network Evening News
1
2008 Campaign 11% 2008 Campaign 9% 2008 Campaign 8%
2
Iraq Policy Debate 8 Events in Iraq 7 Events in Iraq 7
3
Events in Iraq 6 Iraq Policy Debate 5 Iraq Policy Debate 6
4
Immigration 3 U.S. Economy 3 Iraq Homefront 3
5
Iran 2 Immigration 3 U.S. Economy 2
6
U.S. Domestic Terrorism 2 Iraq Homefront 3 VA Tech Shooting 2
7
U.S. Economy 2 Domestic Terrorism 2 Domestic Terrorism 2
8
Iraq Homefront 2 Pakistan 2 Global Warming 1
9
Pakistan 2 Iran 2 Iran 1
10
Fired U.S. Attorneys 1 Health Care 2 Immigration 1
Health Care Coverage Across Media
2007, by Month
Design Your own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

No other genre covered the story to a degree that placed it among their top 10 stories of the year. Even the network evening news, whose agenda is usually the closest match the newspaper front pages (See Network Content) gave the story significant coverage only in one month of the year. That was October, when the debate about the State Children’s Health Insurance Program pushed health care to No. 9 among network news stories (for 2% of the newshole on network news programs). That month it is also ranked No. 5 in the radio programs studied (4%).

In newspapers, the health care issue ebbed and flowed but was around much of the year. The coverage ranged included rising Medicare costs, state initiatives such as the requirement in Massachusetts that residents carry health insurance, and, later in the fall, congressional debate over the proposed broadening of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. In total, it made the top 10 list in six months.

It appeared first in March with news of several different changes in policy: new strict federal standards on transplants, states turning to pharmaceutical companies to help contain Medicaid spending and doctors delinquent on Medicare tax payments. It then reappeared in June — more coverage of delinquent doctors, high costs for retirees in California, other state-level developments — and remained within the top 10 through October. In September when several local papers reported on new state findings or programs, it was the No. 5 among stories used.

As with the economy, this was not a case of the big papers covering the Washington debate. The issue actually accounted for more coverage in mid-sized papers (2%), followed by the smallest (1.8%) and then the national papers (1.4%).4

In this case, more than half of the reporting was about initiatives or problems in health care policies at the state or local level. Coverage included businesses in Albuquerque starting to charge high-risk employees, San Francisco — the first city ever — offering health to uninsured individuals, and new figures on college graduates opting out of health insurance.

Geographic Range

Beyond the issues in our own country, newspapers also were second only to news Web sites in their coverage of foreign affairs that did not involve the U.S. directly. The newspapers examined here devoted 13% of their front-page coverage to non-U.S. news, three times that of cable news (4%), more than double that of radio (7%) and also more than network television news (9%). Only online coverage devoted more — nearly 25% of lead-story coverage. Aside from events in Iraq the biggest foreign stories were about the situation in Pakistan (9%), the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories (3% on conflict between Israel and Palestine and 2% on the factions among the Palestinians ) and Iran (2%).

Geographic Focus by Medium
2007
Design Your own Chart
Note: In every medium less than 0.1% of the newshole had no specific geographic focus
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

One of the big issues in print is whether local and big metro papers should now become more local, or even “hyper local,” in the language of some Wall Street investment advisers. In past studies, PEJ has found a fair degree of foreign coverage in local papers, often on the front page, and more than in other media.

The geographic differences bear watching in 2008 as many metro papers found hyper local coverage to be, in many ways, more work. Covering 12 neighborhoods required more reporting, more resources — and in many cases faced greater competition — than did covering national issues.

Conclusion

As newspapers struggle with the future unknowns — audience base, delivery mechanism, revenue base and even reporting agenda — one thing is clear: In 2007, the print pages, and the print front-pages in particular, still provided information that was harder to find elsewhere. How, and if, that service translates to the Web or to the distribution of newsroom resources remains to be seen.

Footnotes

1. Pew Research Center for the People & Press, January Political Survey, Final Topline, January 9-13, 2008, www.people-press.org.

2. For detailed , WashingtonPost.com reports entrance and exit poll results from every state that has voted:

http://projects.washingtonpost.com/2008-presidential-candidates/primaries/exit-polls/topics/One-of-four-most-important-issue/r/ (Republican).

http://projects.washingtonpost.c om/2008-preside ntial-candidates/primaries/exit-polls/topics/most-important-issue/d/ (Democrats)

3. In order to get a representative sample of what the 1,450 daily newspapers cover across the United States, PEJ divides them into three tiers based on circulation. Five newspapers from the first tier and four each from the second and third tiers are in the sample. The list is as follows:

1st Tier

2nd Tier

3rd Tier

New York Times Boston Globe Sun Chronicle
( Attleboro, Mass.)
Washington Post Star Tribune
(Minneapolis)
Star Beacon
( Ashtabula, Ohio)
Los Angeles Times Austin American Statesman Chattanooga Times Free Press
USA Today Albuquerque Journal Bakersfield Californian
Wall Street Journal

For each of the newspapers included in our sample, we code all articles where the beginning of the text of the story appears on the front page of that day’s hard copy edition. If an article has only a picture, caption or teaser to text inside the paper, we do not include that story in our sample.

We code all stories that appear on the front page with a national or international focus. Local articles that have no connection to a major news event or ongoing issue are not included in the sample. In this case, among other issues, the economy and health care were considered national domestic issues and included in the analysis.

4. The weekly news coverage index studies national news and thus for local newspapers includes all local coverage that pertains to a national news story. It does not include purely local news such as the closing of a local school or a highway accident. In this case, all health care stories were considered a part of the national news and were included in our analysis.