A content analysis of a week of news in Baltimore suggests coverage with a fast-food feel: limited nutrition served up quickly by a growing number of outlets adding little that's new or interesting.

In a report released Monday, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found most local news is still generated by legacy media, with both the quantity and quality of the journalism diminished from years past.

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"While the news landscape has rapidly expanded," the study concluded, "most of what the public learns is still overwhelmingly driven by old media -- particularly newspapers."

PEJ examined stories from July 19 to July 25, 2009 and discovered smart use of new platforms by old media, excessive reliance on official versions and an intriguing example of the city police department breaking news on its own.

The study represents an important snapshot of news in transition, with some of its greatest value -- clues to future possibilities -- found mostly between the lines of the 40-page document.

PEJ credits The (Baltimore) Sun with strong, agenda-setting reporting on the topic of juvenile justice during the research period, but faults The Sun and other outlets for insufficient enterprise on most of six "major narratives" that emerged during the study.

"As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important.""As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important," the study reported. "We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such."

The study tracked the output of 53 news outlets ranging from "blogs to talk radio to news sites created by former journalists," but 12 of the outlets produced no content during the days studied. PEJ described 83 percent of the articles about the six main stories as "essentially repetitive," and said almost all of the stories breaking new ground came from established media via legacy or digital platforms. 

General interest newspapers produced 48 percent of the new material, followed by 28 percent from local TV, 13 percent by specialty newspapers, 7 percent from radio station Web sites and 4 percent from new media outlets.

PEJ listed government agencies as the source of nearly two-thirds of the six narratives, and argued that news outfits provided so little original reporting about the stories that the official version was allowed to stand mostly without challenge.

Cuts to the Maryland state budget was one of the "major narratives" studied, and PEJ found The Sun produced dramatically fewer stories in 2009 than it did during a similar period in 1991, the last time state budget cuts were a big story.

Sun editor Monty Cook told me by e-mail that the study shows how the paper continues "to provide in-depth journalism and breaking news, and [how] we're using multiple platforms to extend the reach of our craft."

He challenged the validity of the 2009-1991 comparison, noting that The Sun employed two separate newsrooms to publish both a morning and evening edition until the two were merged in 1992.

But a dispute over particular story counts should not obscure the study's larger finding: Baltimore area residents need more of the sort of extensive digging required to sustain independent news in the public interest.

"There is very limited capacity to do original reporting, let alone enterprise reporting," PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel said in a telephone interview Friday. "The new outlets just don't have a lot of staffing, and the old media -- which had been set up with a lot of reporters -- are now much smaller."

The reporters still on the job, Rosenstiel added, "are engaged in rapid coverage of events almost in real time ... All of that works against the ability to break new ground and do enterprise."

Rosenstiel said Baltimore was selected for the study for a number of reasons, including its status as "a major league town, the biggest city in its state, but ... not so large, like New York or LA, [to be] effectively unique or unrepresentative." He acknowledged that similar research in Minneapolis or San Diego could produce quite different results. "We would like to do more studies if we can," he added, "pushing this subject further, and this was a good place, we thought, to start."

I'd suggest three threads worth pursuing in future studies:

  • Feedback from users about the news they're getting
  • Techniques for making better use of social media as a tool for journalistic enterprise
  • Prospects for sustaining new and old forms of local news in an era of diminished advertising revenue

It's hardly surprising that new efforts have not yet picked up the slack created by cutbacks at the Sun and other mainstream media outlets. My Poynter colleague, Rick Edmonds, has estimated that newspapers nationwide have reduced their spending on journalism by about $1.6 billion in recent years.

Documenting that loss, community by community, is an important first step in replacing it, and Rosenstiel acknowledges that the study published Monday "only opens the window a little bit" on the problem.

With stories finding their way to publication incrementally, with chunks that are usually incomplete, often with errors, the art of advancing the story -- next-step journalism -- becomes an especially important part of the journalistic process. This is not just a matter of digging up entirely new stuff. It also involves verifying, correcting and making sense of the bits and pieces already out there. And figuring out how to use social media as tools in the process. 

But how to encourage more enterprise reporting amid the harsh realities of smaller staffs and constant deadline updates?

Currently, the study finds, local blogs and Twitter feeds serve mostly as an alert service for news already reported. An exception was the July 18 tweet by the Baltimore Police Department reporting that two officers had been shot, as opposed to the one officer reported wounded 20 minutes earlier in a tweet by a Sun reporter.

The incident reflected how social media, even in the hands of a government agency, can advance a story by correcting an error and adding facts. 

PEJ also tracked coverage of plans by the Maryland Transit Administration to add listening devices to video recorders already used on area buses. A month after the state's attorney general posted a notice about the plans, Paul Gordon, a contributor to a blog called Maryland Politics Watch, reported the news.

Three days later, Sun transportation writer Michael Dresser picked up on Gordon's report and gave him credit on his Sun blog for the scoop. Dresser also did what reporters do -- he called the state for comment about the plans. Once open to wider public view, the idea to bug the buses was scuttled by state officials.

Coverage of the bus bugs was not the most consequential of the six narratives highlighted by PEJ. But its mini case study portrays a collaborative media ecosystem with potential: The local paper misses a story, but a blogger gets it. The local paper builds on the blogger's good work, does some basic reporting and gets the facts in front of a much bigger audience. Finally, faced with increased exposure, government officials are held accountable.