I’m not saying that those numbers are something to write home about; just that the audience for local newspapers is larger than it used to be, including Web traffic, and probably significantly larger.

Does this make newspapers great? No. Does this make their future bright? No. Does the industry use its comScore figures to kid itself? No doubt it does.

And it’s undeniable, as Alan suggests below, that on a relative basis, newspapers are indeed shrinking.

But the absolute numbers count, too, and here are a couple things to consider when considering newspaper audience and influence.

When Pew, or anyone else, says that people surveyed said they used the “Internet,” “social media,” “mobile devices,” or digital media as a “source” for local news, it does not mean that the news itself came from a non-legacy news organization. As we’ll see, the opposite is much more likely to be true.

Pew says, for instance:

Urban and suburban residents also use a wider variety of local news sources on a regular basis. Close to half of urban (45 percent) and suburban (51 percent) residents use a combination of traditional, online and mobile local news media to get their local news, compared with 38 percent of those living in small cities and 27 percent of rural residents.

But, the “online and mobile” local news media refers to the delivery device, not the source. The same goes for aggregators, described as “Web native” sources in the New York Times study.

As Pew’s Tom Rosenstiel tells me in a note:

Getting a precise count of how many people are getting content that originated in newspapers from survey data is quite difficult for a host of reasons.

If people are going to an aggregator such as Yahoo News or even Huffington Post, they may not recognize the original source for the content they access.

Similarly, if they are reading a wire service story they may not know how to categorize that. If they are accessing content through a search engine, such as Google, and clicking on multiple links, they similarly may not be able to recall or identify the “source” that produced that story.

Add to the challenge of separating source from platform is the challenge of language and categorization…who is an aggregator now? Who is an originator? As the technology expands, even describing different platforms or making sure that people understand the question becomes challenging.

Finally, there is the challenge that people do not do consume media the same way each day. Most Americans read newspapers and watch TV. What is shrinking is the daily or seven day a week consumer, because people have so many more options. Digital technology is a delivery system. It is sometimes, less often, a source. But these are difficult conceptual differences to capture in a national survey of a representative sample of the public.

Got it. Obviously, since newspapers still earn much more from print operations than digital, the fact that many may be getting news from mobile phones or tablets is not necessarily great news for them. The fact that newspapers’ core audience is aging and that only a fifth of younger readers get their news from print (though, as we’ll see, there’s a catch here) does not bode well either.

On the other hand, it doesn’t mean their audience is shrinking. The opposite is true.

Why is this important?

The answer is in Pew’s underappreciated 2010 study of the Baltimore news eco-system, “How News Happens” (a great piece of work, and not just because it supports my hunches), which traced where “new information” actually originated for six important local stories across subject areas (a police shootout, the governor announcing budget cuts, the closing of a local theater etc.) The answer was of course the (hobbled) Baltimore Sun, other newspapers, local TV stations and other “traditional” sources, while new media pitched in a fraction.

The big graphic is here:

And, if you read the report, you’ll see the social media share looks bigger here than it actually was. For instance, it gets credit for a Tweet sent by a Sun reporter.

The bottom line is that the overwhelming amount of “new information” on major local stories came from newspaper and TV.

That’s the stealth influence of legacy media in the news ecosystem. Whether they can make a nickel off of this influence, I don’t know.

Looked at from another way: What appears to be a flourishing news environment rests on a severely weakened news gathering system.

Of course blogs have broken important stories, including in Baltimore . And it is true that people now turn to many sources for local news, about 300 in Chicago, according to this new study by the Chicago Community Trust.

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.