Everybody knows that newspapers have been cutting jobs, cutting services, cutting corners. It is not so widely acknowledged that these cuts seem to be keeping them in the ring. Advertising is down, circulation is down, stories and pages are down, but the boxer keeps getting up again. The fighter still remains.

But how to assess the impact of these losses?

There are some numbers—on advertising, on circulation. The rough figures about newsroom employment could scarcely be more frightening—total daily newspaper newsroom staff fell from close to 60,000 to just over 40,000 from the early 2000s to 2009 (see the indispensable Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2009 and 2010 “State of the Media” reports). But even that number only hints at the outcome measure that most concerns people who worry about democracy when the bulldogs of watchdog journalism morph into terriers: the amount, breadth, and quality of public-affairs reporting.

One hope is that the efficiencies in reporting realized in recent years—more nimble and comprehensive computer search, increasingly accessible government (and other) databases, and the intensified loops of response and correction from armies of online bloggers and critics—have offset the huge losses to newsroom jobs.

A new study by J-Lab takes a stab at this issue. J-Lab is a nonprofit that encourages innovation in journalism, affiliated with the American University School of Communication. Its report, authored by Jan Schaffer, J-Lab’s executive director and a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, evaluated the state of news in Philadelphia. It concludes with a proposal for a networked news collaborative in Philadelphia to take advantage of a rapidly growing array of online start-ups as well as the strength of other longstanding Philadelphia resources in news organizations, journalism education, and community philanthropy. But perhaps most interesting for readers beyond Philadelphia’s environs is Schaffer’s study of a week’s worth of news in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2009 compared to what it was in 2006.

The study found that the number of “public-affairs stories” that focused on Philadelphia news dropped 17.4 percent, from 190 to 157. Column inches of public affairs news also dropped 17 percent. The Philadelphia Daily News had much less local public-affairs reporting to begin with in 2006—eighty-three stories, dropping just 7.2 percent to seventy-seven in 2009. Its total column inches actually increased 5 percent because a third of the stories were opinion columns that, at 600 words each, were longer than many of the very short news articles. Overall, the Inquirer lost seven full pages of news over the course of a month while the Daily News gained a qualified full page. Altogether, it is not a close call: there has been a substantial loss in public-affairs news reporting in Philadelphia in just three turbulent years.

Public-affairs stories on Philadelphia commercial TV also declined, though “there wasn’t a great deal of public affairs reporting to begin with.” In 2006, the four Philadelphia commercial TV stations broadcast thirty-two minutes on local public affairs in the sample week, down to seventeen minutes in 2009.

J-Lab uses the data to suggest that we not curse the darkness, but light a candle—the “networked journalism collaborative.” A collaborative could build on Philadelphia’s plethora of blogs and public-policy Web sites—J-Lab counts at least 260 of them, including “about 60” that have “some journalistic dna in that they report news, not just comment on it.” Mayor Michael Nutter’s press secretary remarks that his media list has grown from “about 40 to 700 in the last two years,” a stunning figure, evidence of seismic rumbles beneath the still largely familiar media surface.

So there’s excitement and hope for new opportunities. But the decline by more than one-sixth in local public-affairs reporting in the primary source of local news in a major American metropolis is the distress signal in this report. Will this figure hold up with more comprehensive study? Is it possible that the quantity of news dropped but quality rose? J-Lab did not measure quality. But however the discussion might deepen, we can be confident that this is not only a Philadelphia story.

 

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Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.