Research: If it bleeds, it leads — online, but not as much in print

Scott R. Maier and Staci Tucker of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication studied how stories played in the print and online editions of The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune and The Seattle Times, as well as the online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer. What they call “story consonance” was “sporadic and generally weak”:

The digital metro newspapers differed sharply in story selection even from their parent newspapers. On average, only one in five of the top news stories posted on The Seattle Times websites was identical or similar to the stories found on the same day’s front page of its print edition. In Minneapolis, the difference was even more pronounced: less than 8 percent of the top stories posted on were in common with the Star-Tribune‘s print edition.

The researchers mimicked the Project Excellence in Journalism’s methodology in its News Coverage Index. Their study looked at 725 stories in May 2010.

Crime news got far greater play in the Times’ and Strib’s online editions, Maier and Tucker found, while their print editions “provided more front-page coverage of government, politics and education than did their online counterparts.” Both gave more attention to sports online, and the Times had more business news online than in print, they found. When story coverage converged, usually around “a dozen or so of the most closely followed issues,” digital and print coverage tended to diverge in story length and prominence, they found. The word count for the Strib’s print edition was three times the word count of its digital edition, for instance.

“If what’s happening in Seattle and Minneapolis is indicative, then local online newspapers really are offering a product that is fundamentally different in content focus as well as content and delivery,” they write.

Only by clicking into the depths of an online news site is an avid reader likely to find the same news stories featured online as on the front page of his or her local newspaper. These results have significant implications for the news industry and the reading public. … At stake is not only the solvency of local newspapers but how local audiences read and learn about the issues and events shaping their communities.

The study appears in the Fall 2012 edition of the Newspaper Research Journal.

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  • Steve Rhodes

    While I would prefer more cohesive news judgements, one explanation might also be that online preferences “breaking news” even if it’s of little value, such as minor crimes, final scores and so on. The “latest” gets the most play, not the most important. That is partially a consequence, as well, of content management systems (derived from blog software) that put the newest news on top, not the most “important” news. The answer? More clear labeling from news organizations that calls attention to the most important stories instead of letting them fall into an online abyss, and maybe finding ways to keep the site fresh while not designing breaking news as more important than it is (perhaps a scroll instead of a column).