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Content Analysis

Newspaper Content

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Even in a year when their future was cast further in doubt, newspapers continued to offer coverage that distinguished them in the media ecosystem.

Over the course of 2008, newspapers provided news consumers with a wider range of coverage than was available on most other platforms – even on just their front pages.

In the media over all, for instance, fully half of the newshole in 2008 was devoted to combined coverage of just two stories – the election and an economic slowdown that became a meltdown. Those stories filled 42% of the front-page newspaper coverage, leaving more room for attention to other subjects. 1

In turn, print front pages devoted more attention to subjects such as immigration, health care, U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and the war in Iraq than any other sector.

And within the newspaper universe itself, there were some notable differences in the news agenda. In some important ways, the smallest papers – those with circulations under 100,000 – offered a different portrait of events in 2008 than found anywhere else. Unlike their larger counterparts, the No. 1 story in the smaller dailies by a significant margin was the economic downturn rather than the election. And the main story of the war in Iraq was about how it was affecting the home front, even more than events unfolding inside Iraq. These findings suggest that the more community-oriented dailies were well positioned to report on national or even international issues by covering the local angle to a bigger story.

Top 10 Stories: Newspaper vs. Media Over All
Percent of Newshole

Newspaper
Media over all
Election* 23% Election* 36%
U.S. Economy 19 U.S. Economy 15
Iraq War 6 Iraq War 4
Domestic Terrorism 2 Domestic Terrorism 1
Immigration 2 Olympics 1
Olympics 2 Blagojevich Scandal 1
Health Care 1 Afghanistan 1
Pakistan 1 Pakistan 1
Afghanistan 1 Immigration 1
Georgia/Russia Conflict 1 Georgia/Russia Conflict 1

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

The Most Coverage of the Economy

In 2008, the newspaper sector devoted 19% of its front-page space to coverage of the deepening financial crisis. That was more than any other media sector and about one-third more than in the media over all (15%). This is part of a trend that began in 2007, when evidence of the economic crisis began to manifest itself and newspapers were quickest to jump on the story, with particular attention to the problems in the faltering housing market.

In 2008, as the narrative of the unfolding economic story shifted several times, newspapers continued to pay the most attention to the story. In every month in 2008, newspaper front pages devoted more coverage to the economy than cable news, network, radio or the online sector. The one exception was a stretch from May through July 2008, when network news focused on rising gas prices and pain at the pump – a story that in the end missed the coming banking and financial collapse.

Economy Coverage Over Time: Newspaper vs. Over All
2007 through 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

Not only did newspapers cover the economic meltdown more heavily on their front pages than other media did over all, but they also covered it differently. In print, the story of the economy was much more closely tied to housing and mortgages that it was in the media generally. And politics of the bailout plan, very much a Washington-centric narrative, was not a dominant story.2

In print, about 18% of the economic coverage was tied to the housing crisis and troubles afflicting federal mortgage funders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, compared with about 13% generally. Roughly another 11% of the economic story in newspapers was about the discussion of a recession – about 20% higher than the proprotion in the media over all.

In turn, newspapers devoted about 40% less coverage to the politics surrounding the federal bailout plan as the media in general. The ups and downs in the stock market accounted for only 2% of the newspapers’ economic coverage compared with 4% in the media over all. And newspapers offered about 20% less coverage of the troubled U.S. auto industry – and efforts to bail it out – than the media in general.

Given a deepening and multifaceted economic crisis that proved difficult for the media to track in real time, newspapers amassed a track record for this, the most extensive coverage of the second-biggest story of 2008. There may be several reasons for this. With the exception of a handful of national papers, they tend to be local insitutions first and foremost. And as we found especially to be the case of the smaller dailies, that gave them an opportunity to use their own communities as a way of telling the bigger story. At the same time, many newspapers have traditionally maintained a seperate business section as well as the roster of experienced business writers and reporters to deploy on a story like this.

Newspapers and the Presidential Election – Less Coverage, More Tone

When it came to the election, three things stood out in the coverage of American newspapers. The election dominated agenda in the print less than elsewhere. The coverage focused somewhat less explicitly on the horse race and more on personal biography. And while it may not have been so much about the polls, it nonetheless appeared to reflect their influence, for the coverage, often interpretative, was even tougher on McCain and more favorable to Obama than in the media generally.

Over all, even though the 2008 election ranked as the No. 1 story on newspaper front pages, less than a quarter of the coverage that began on the front pages (23%) was devoted to the election of 2008, compared with 36% in the media generally

And in a year in which horse race coverage of tactics, strategy and polling accounted for a majority of the coverage over all (57%) from January 6 to November 3, newspapers produced modestly less of this (54%).  But that slack was not taken up by coverage of where the candidates wanted to take the country in policy terms. Newspapers devoted a lower percentage of their campaign coverage to policy (11%) than any other media sector. What newspapers did to leverage their advantages in reporting time and resources, instead, was to produce the most front-page coverage of personal issues.

Frame of Campaign Coverage: Newspaper vs. Media Over All
Jan. 6-Nov. 3, 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
*Includes stories about advertisements, electoral calendar, endorsements, and treatment by the press

That coverage took the form of a number of lengthy profiles later in the race. From mid-September through Election Day, larger papers offered no less than a dozen such front-page profiles. Ranging in length from about 1,800 words to over 5,000 words, four were on the Democratic ticket – one on Joseph Biden and three on Barack Obama. Eight were on the GOP candidates – three on Sarah Palin and five on John McCain. A number of the pieces on McCain focused on his time in Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war.

There seemed to be some general patterns to these profiles. The Palin pieces, which examined her record as an elected official in Alaska, often talked about her as a polarizing figure. The Obama pieces emphasized evolution or transformation. And the McCain stories were framed by his wartime experiences in Vietnam.

On September 14, the Washington Post ran a 2,299-word story on Palin with the headline “As Mayor of Wasilla, Palin Cut Own Duties, Left Trail of Bad Blood.”  On the same day, the New York Times ran a 3,221-word story headlined “Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes.”

Also on September 14, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled Barack Obama in a 3,236-word article entitled “Transformations: A lifetime of evolving and adapting his identity has helped propel Barack Obama near the pinnacle of U.S. politics.”  A subsequent Washington Post 3,989-word profile of Obama appeared on October 9 with the headline “From Outsider to Politician.”

In October, within the space of about a week, three lengthy pieces on John McCain were published, two of them in the Washington Post: “In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped” and “Seeing White House From a Cell in Hanoi.”  The New York Times carried a 2,667-word piece entitled “Writing Memoir, McCain Found a Narrative for Life.”

Newspapers also stood out, at least during the homestretch of the general election phase (from September 8 to November 2) by being even more critical about McCain’s campaign, and more favorable about Obama’s, than the media over all. Fully half of the Obama newspaper stories were positive during this period, compared with 38% in the media generally, while 23% were negative (compared with 27% over all). That represents the highest percentage of positive Obama stories of any of the five media sectors studied.

Conversely, the tone of newspaper coverage of McCain was tougher than the already negative portrayal in the media over all. In newspapers, only 5% of McCain’s stories were positive (compared with 14% in the media over all) and 65% were negative (compared with 57% in the media over all.) That represented the lowest percentage of positive McCain stories of any media sector examined.

What would explain front-page newspaper coverage that magnified the over all media narrative about the two candidates? Perhaps format and deadlines played a role. Because newspapers are reporting on what happened yesterday and have the luxury of more space and time than the instantaneous media, their coverage of the candidates tended to be more analytical. While cable news may stage debates, often those are people disagreeing. Newspapers are more prone to come to some bottom-line conclusion. That may well have translated into more coverage focused on explaining and analyzing the prevalent strategic dynamic, which was a story of Obama running a more effective campaign than McCain.

Tone of Coverage: Obama vs. McCain
Percent of Campaign Stories, September 8-November 2, 2008

Newspaper
Media over all
Obama
McCain
Obama
McCain
Positive
50%
5%
38%
14%
Negative
23
65
27
57
Neutral
27
30
34
29

Newspapers Lead in Coverage of Iraq War, Immigration, Health Care and Terrorism

Like all other media sectors, newspapers found themselves with a narrower news agenda in a year dominated by the election and economy. But even so, the front pages remained more varied than much of the media menu. In practice, that does not mean that newspapers maintained their 2007 level of coverage for some of these stories, but rather that they decreased their attention to a lesser degree than other media platforms.

Given the range of news, the numbers often are small, but they add up across topics to a substantially more breadth. Among the items that got more coverage in print than elsewhere: the Iraq war, immigration, health care and U.S. efforts to combat terrorism.

Even as coverage of the war in Iraq plunged by about two-thirds in newspapers from 2007 to 2008, for instance, the front pages still devoted substantially more coverage to Iraq than the media over all (6% vs. 4% of newshole). While the impact of the war on the U.S. home front was largely absent in the rest of the media, it remained a sizable story in print, thanks largely to the more extensive coverage in the smaller community-oriented dailies.

Immigration, another big story from 2007 that diminished in 2008, remained about twice as big in print as in the media over all. Beyond the usual coverage of immigration policy and legislation, immigration raids and other enforcement-related issues, newspapers also spent time looking at the immigrant communities.

Newspaper Top Broad Topics vs. Media Over All
2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

Even as coverage of the war in Iraq plunged by about two-thirds in newspapers from 2007 to 2008, for instance, the front pages still devoted substantially more coverage to Iraq than the media over all (6% vs. 4% of newshole). While the impact of the war on the U.S. home front was largely absent in the rest of the media, it remained a sizable story in print, thanks largely to the more extensive coverage in the smaller community-oriented dailies.

Immigration, another big story from 2007 that diminished in 2008, remained about twice as big in print as in the media over all. Beyond the usual coverage of immigration policy and legislation, immigration raids and other enforcement-related issues, newspapers also spent time looking at the immigrant communities.

A 2,000-word article in the Los Angeles Times chronicled the path of a 60-year old Hispanic woman hoping that working for Mary Kay cosmetics would help to propel her into the middle class. The Wall Street Journal described how an influx of refugees from Myanmar, the former Burma, had helped the Swift meatpacking plant in Cactus, Texas, get up and running again after a federal raid in 2006 arrested 297 illegal aliens working there. And the Colorado Springs Gazette looked at how tougher immigration laws and the deepening financial crisis in the U.S. have resulted in a reverse migration back to Mexico for many immigrants.

Another subject that newspapers paid more attention to attracted little notice elsewhere in the media. Over all, health care accounted for 1% of the newspaper newshole – more than double the coverage in the media over all – and registered as a top-10 newspaper story, just behind coverage of the Olympics and ahead of coverage of Pakistan.

And driven by coverage in the larger dailies with the most resources, newspapers also offered the most coverage of issues related to U.S. efforts to combat terrorism – almost 50% more attention than the media in general. One key component of that coverage was the controversial prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Smaller Papers and Big Stories

The Financial Downturn Hits Home

An examination of newspaper coverage of several major stories reveals a significant distinction based on the size of the publication. In several cases, the smallest papers – those with a circulation less than 100,000 – devoted the most coverage to a major story, the economy, in large part by mining the local community.

The biggest papers (650,000 circulation and up) and major metros (100,000 to 650,000) devoted a nearly identical percentage of their front-page newshole (18% and 19%, respectively) to the economic crisis in 2008, their second-biggest story for the year.

But in mid-sized and small newspapers (under 100,000), the economy was the biggest story of 2008, ahead of the election. For the year, fully a quarter of the coverage that began on the front page (26%) was about the economy and much of it dealt in real terms with the impact of the nation’s financial crisis on the day-to-day struggles of families and local businesses.

Top 10 Stories by Newspaper Circulation
Percent of newshole

650,000 and up
100,000-650,000
Less than 100,000
1 Election* 22% Election* 28% U.S. Economy 26%
2 U.S. Economy 18 U.S. Economy 19 Election* 20
3 Iraq War 5 Iraq War 6 Iraq War 8
4 Domestic Terrorism 2 Global Warming 2 Olympics 3
5 Pakistan 2 Health Care 2 Health Care 2
6 Immigration 2 Domestic Terrorism 2 Holiday Season 2
7 Afghanistan 1 Olympics 1 Immigration 2
8 Olympics 1 Immigration 1 Gloabal Warming 1
9 Health Care 1 Afghanistan 1 Domestic Terrorism 1
10 China 1 Energery Debate 1 Energy Debate 1

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S

As the year began, much of this echoed the discussion in the national media of recession fears, falling home sales and rising foreclosures. In hometown papers it was illustrated by local examples. In the second quarter, the stories became even more specific – a local golf course up for sale, more people shopping at thrift stores, local layoffs and residents using bicycles to avoid paying high gas prices.  In the third quarter, coverage was sparer, and tracked the national bank failures. The only unusual local angle was coverage of rising home foreclosures. But in the final months of the year, as the national media focused on the financial industry bailout in Washington, the coverage on local front pages showed a sharp increase in more finely grained stories about how local people, communities and states were attempting to cope. The crisis was hitting Main Street, not just Wall Street.

The Colorado Springs Gazette, for example, carried articles about what local residents were doing to get by in hard times and how utility bills were expected to rise by 23%. The MetroWest Daily News outside Boston wrote about homes – vacant because of foreclosures – that were flooded by burst pipes. The New Hampshire Union Leader reported on local layoffs. And the Modesto Bee in California produced stories on divorced couples who were forced to remain in the same house.

As these papers proved, it can be easier to track and illustrate an economic downturn of massive dimensions by chronicling the fallout closest to home.

The Iraq Home Front

The impact of the Iraq war was also different in smaller newspapers than in the national media. While the home front was a small story nationally even in print (1% of the coverage in the biggest papers, 2% in big metros), the effect of the war at home was the major component of the Iraq story in the country’s smaller-circulation papers (fully 5% of all coverage).

These were stories that included homecomings, funerals, celebrations and remembrances (about a third of the coverage), about the impact of the war on families and communities (another third) and on conditions for wounded veterans – recovery from injuries, the Wounded Warrior program, as well as those struggling with mental health issues, homelessness, financial problems or substance abuse issues (about one out of six stories).

The Chattanooga Times Free Press recounted the emotions of the friends and family of a young Marine killed in Anbar Province as they waited for his body to arrive home. The Bakersfield Californian recalled the life and death of a local 21-year-old killed when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee in 2006. In September and October, the New Hampshire Union Leader carried a five-part series on a member of the local National Guard critically wounded in Iraq, and his fight to recover.

In many ways, smaller papers with a more intimate sense of their community were best positioned to examine the many different human costs of the war. The Colorado Springs Gazette, for example, reported on a Fort Carson soldier working as a teacher’s aide with kindergarten and first-grade students who found the job helping him with cognitive problems caused by an explosion. “I had trouble keeping up with adult conversations,” he told the paper, “but I could keep up with the kids.”

Local Olympic Heroes

One other story was clearly bigger in the small newspapers in 2008: the Olympics, where the coverage was about double what it was in larger papers.

More than half the stories highlighted hometown links to the Games – local athletes either competing in qualifying events or actually heading to Beijing, a local reporter going to China to cover the games, a local chiropractor selected to join the health care team, as well as reactions of local residents to media coverage or to stories of inspiring athletes.

The MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts profiled Natick sports chiropractor Scott Gillman, selected by the World Olympians Association to join the health care team in Beijing, as well as staff reporter Chris Bergeron, who – having previously lived and worked in China for seven years – was returning to a vastly transformed country.

The Colorado Spring Gazette’s stories, focusing on individual athletes, were, for the most part, more poignant. There was the story of Mike Farrell, a Colorado Springs resident who suffered nerve damage after being bitten by the family dog when he was only three days old, competing in the U.S. Paralympics cycling trials. (The Paralympics were held in Beijing a few weeks after the Olympic Games) And the tale of another local resident, Roger Stewart, the first known deaf wrestler to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials. Colorado Springs is the headquarters of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Footnotes

1. Only the online sector devoted less of its newshole (39%) to the year’s two top stories.

2. According to the weekly News Interest Index, which measures which stories are being followed “very closely” by the public, eight of the top 15 stories related to the economy. http://people-press.org/report/479/internet-overtakes-newspapers-as-news-outlet