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.

But the Baltimore study, Rosenstiel tells me, is the only one to trace the information back to its original source, and the source is legacy news organizations.

A final word from Alan:

I agree that newspapers have influence that goes beyond their own brands, but they always did, being to this day the primary source of most broadcast news reports. Because the audiences of both newspapers and broadcasters have been fragmented in the digital era, none of them have the market share, mindshare or commercial power that they had prior to the arrival of the Net.

Fair enough.

Listen, the fact that the overwhelming amount of actual new information originates from desiccated newspaper newsrooms is decidedly not good news for anyone.

As a measure, the 2010 Baltimore study also found that the “trigger” for stories—precisely who set the news agenda, as it were—was the government (62 percent of the stories).

But that’s a separate question.

If I’m right that newspapers’ audience is growing, not shrinking, and if the Pew study is at all representative, then newspapers and legacy news organizations still underpin the news-eco system.

This is worth recognizing for its own sake. Another question becomes what can local newspapers do to bring their commercial power and mind and market share into closer alignment with their influence?


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.