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A Matter of Life and Death? Examining the Quality of Newspaper Coverage on the Newspaper Crisis
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A Matter of Life and Death? Examining the Quality of Newspaper Coverage on the Newspaper Crisis


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Paper presented at the refereed research session "Best of the Newspaper Division’s Faculty Research Papers," at AEJMC's annual convention, St. Louis, August 10, 2011. …

Paper presented at the refereed research session "Best of the Newspaper Division’s Faculty Research Papers," at AEJMC's annual convention, St. Louis, August 10, 2011.


During 2008-2010, U.S. newspapers covered the “crisis” of their own industry extensively. Such coverage drew attention to the state of the newspaper but also raised questions about whether journalists over-reacted to this market downturn. This study examines how the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the New York Times framed the newspaper crisis. Results show that coverage focused on short-term drama over long-term trends, lacked sufficient context, shifted blame away from newspapers themselves, invoked “death” imagery, and altogether struggled to capture a holistic portrayal of newspapers’ troubles. Implications for self-coverage and business journalism are discussed.

Published in: News & Politics, Business

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  • 1. A Matter of Life and Death?Examining the Quality of Newspaper Coverage on the Newspaper “Crisis”
    H. Iris Chyi, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor
    The University of Texas at Austin
    Seth C. Lewis, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor
    University of Minnesota
    Nan Zheng
    Ph.D. Candidate
    The University of Texas at Austin
    Incoming Assistant Professor
    James Madison University
  • 2. State of the newspaper 2008-2010
    Declines in circulation and advertising revenue
    Reduced delivery
    Layoffs & buyouts
    Some went online-only
    Some folded
  • 3. Emotional sentiments in NP coverage
    “Extra! Extra! Are Newspapers Dying?”
    By Lieberman (2009), USA Today
    “Some Senatorial Tears for the Ink-Stained Wretches”
    By Milbank (2009), Washington Post
    “Paper’s Peril Hits a Nerve”
    Pérez-Peña (2009), New York Times
  • 4.
  • 5.
  • 6.
  • 7. Did journalists over-react to market downturn?
    “Publishers and journalists have become their own worst enemy,” because “they are running around arguing the sky is falling. And they're making the situation appear far worse than it is” Picard (2009).
  • 8. Self-coverage
    “The newspaper does not, perhaps it cannot, turn upon itself the factual scrutiny, the critical acumen, the descriptive language, that it regularly devotes to other institutions” (Carey, 1974).
    “Journalists have never covered their own industry with the same interest and vigor that they have covered other industries” (Picard, 2009).
  • 9. Self-coverage
    Publisher of the New York Times: “There is nothing more difficult for a news organization than covering itself.”
    Self-coverage is more challenging because it often involves navigating conflicts of interest within news organizations (Turow, 1994).
  • 10. Business reporting
    Requires specialized knowledge about the economy and the industry
    is more demanding than “writing about a football game, a school board meeting, a robbery, and new music fad, or a political campaign” (Welles, 1991).
  • 11. This study examined
    whether the coverage
    was based on media economics data
    placed the crisis in the historical/economic context
    privileged certain sources
    assigned blame for the crisis
    used sensational language
    generated certain impressions regarding newspapers’ vitality
  • 12. Method
    A content analysis of Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and New York Times articles
    From March 1, 2008 to March 1, 2010
    Full-text keyword searches through LexisNexis retrieved all articles containing “newspaper” and “circulation”
    A total of 144 news articles
  • 13. Number of stories over time
  • 14. RQ1: To what extent was the coverage on the newspaper crisis based on media economics data?
  • 15. RQ2: How much contextual information was provided in such coverage?
  • 16. RQ3: What types of sources were cited in such coverage?
  • 17. RQ4: What was presented as the cause(s) of the crisis?
  • 18. RQ5: How many stories used death imagery?
    More than a quarter (27.8%) of the stories used death imagery
    e.g., death, perish, die, dying, kill, etc.
  • 19. RQ 6: Does such coverage give an impression of optimism or pessimism about the state of the newspaper industry?
    Pessimistic (83%)
    Optimistic (17%)
  • 20. RQ7: Did different newspapers frame the newspaper crisis differently?
    The WSJ and NYT took surprisingly similar approaches when covering their industry’s crisis.
  • 21. Summary
    Short-term > long-term perspective
    Emphasis on human drama (personnel issues)
    Little historical context, lackinga wider worldview
    Sourcing privileges management
    Assigns blame to everyone but not newspapers
    Generates negative impressions
  • 22. Implications
    Exaggeration of crisis
    Closure of the second paper in town is nothing new and has contributed to increased profitability (Picard & Brody, 1997).
    Most businesses try to hide failures -- not newspapers.
    What does this suggest about coverage of other industries?
  • 23. Newspapers could do better in covering their own industry, with more context and sobriety.