—News presented on digital platforms of Nola in 2013 was more likely to be about lighter subjects such as sports and entertainment, as opposed to politics, education, courts and other traditional core newspaper beats.

—2013 digital stories tended to be “softer.”

—Content on the less-curated phone and tablet apps, where story rotation is more automated, tended to be softer not just than print but also than the Web, where stories are more often hand-selected.

—Critically, stories appearing on digital platforms in 2013 contained fewer sources across all platforms, print and digital, than those in 2011.

Here are some graphics to illustrate the main points.

Hard vs. soft news:

2011 print:

2013 print:





2011 print:

2013 print:




And here’s the all-important sourcing graphic:

The survey’s authors believe that the data show clear evidence of a lower quality product since the changeover, certainly on the digital platforms.

“The falling number of sources from 2011 (~3) to 2013 (~1 or 2) across platforms suggest as well that the stories were put together more quickly in 2013, with less reporting work put into each one,” the report says.

In an interview, Mayer says the study shows the new regime generally produces “a much softer, lower-quality product.” Either, she says, Nola “made a decision that people on digital don’t deserve the same kind of news that print readers do…or if the economics are based on clicks, you just put up whatever will get clicks.”

Amoss raises several objections in an email to me, which I’ll quote in its entirety:

Prof. Mayer’s students’ work represents a significant investment of time in studying The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com. We welcome their interest in us and invite them to meet with us. Their study illustrates the difficulties of analyzing a fluid website and comparing it to a printed product. We had several reactions to it:

—It’s not surprising to us that the students found little difference in comparing our print editions of 2011 with this year’s. News, then and now, whether breaking or enterprise, remains at the center of our work. Our reporters and photographers, the largest news-gathering operation in this region, remain focused on it.

—As for the web site, the study doesn’t fairly represent our work. Contrary to the graphic in the study, the journalistic content that flows through our responsively designed site over a 24-hour period is the same, whether it’s read on a tablet, a mobile device or a desktop computer.

—Using occasional snapshots of the Top Box modules of our homepage as a measurement of the proportions we devote to various kinds of content is a flawed methodology. It doesn’t take into account the ebb and flow of the news cycle over each 24-hour period and the variety of other journalism, including coverage of business, politics, crime, food and dining, music etc. that courses through the interior pages of the site. Focusing on the Top Box doesn’t begin to provide a statistically valid measure of “soft” versus “hard” news.

—Stories on the site are frequently reported incrementally. An early, quick dispatch about a trial or a city council meeting will necessarily have fewer sources than its full-fledged version at the end of the day. To conclude that we’ve generally lowered our standards for sourcing is a fallacy.

—Given that everything that appears in the printed Times-Picayune also appears at some point on NOLA.com, it seems odd to conclude that the printed edition remains essentially the same but that the site reflects “softer” content.

Though there’s considerable overlap between digital and print journalism, they SHOULD be different from each other in approach and delivery, in pace and intensity. A good news site’s homepage should be in constant flux. A good printed newspaper should offer depth, context and curation. We believe we must do both.

A couple of thoughts:

Amoss has a point that the study’s failure to track the digital platforms over a 24-hour period leaves open the possibility that the study missed “harder,” better-sourced stuff that may have appeared at times other than when students took their screen shots. That doesn’t meant the study’s findings are wrong, only that more work needs to be done.

Amoss also has a point that since the printed Times-Picayune is similar in both periods, and since all printed material flows through all digital platforms, those platforms do “at some point” include the “harder” and better-sourced material.

He’s also right to note that since the exact same content flows across all digital platforms, the fact that the tablet content, for instance, should register far “softer” than the Web is an anomaly that needs explaining.

Here, again, a study that tracks curation patterns over 24-hour periods, and measures the length of time stories are allowed remain on the home page, would be useful.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.