Newspapers perform a valuable role in enforcing local accountability

In some ways this dichotomy might appear rather antiquated. After all isn’t everything online now and what difference do delivery systems make? But in reality we still see wide divergences between media organisations in terms of both consumption and production.

First, consumption: The general tendency across many countries is that most people rely far more on TV than on the press for news. In the UK the disparity is very marked, with TV way out in front. Ofcom reported in 2009 that 74% of people in the UK used TV as their main source of UK news, way ahead of other news sources. More recent 2010 Ofcom figures surveying internet users showed TV ahead of the internet and newspapers as the main source of international and national news in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the USA and Japan. Of course it is relevant that many of the online news providers are themselves traditional media organisations – whether from the press or broadcast.

Given that continuing dependence TV in many countries why does the power of the press still matter? And anyway hasn’t that always been a double edged sword, capable of ill as well as good, as recent events in the UK have shown? The answer lies in part in the much greater size, scale and different nature of reporting done in general by newspaper organisations compared to broadcasters.

In most Western countries there are many more journalists employed in newspaper organisations than in radio and TV. In 2009 the three national US TV networks employed around 500 journalists compared to 40,000 newspaper journalists. In the UK the strength of the BBC with its 8000 journalists means the balance looks different but print probably still employs significantly more journalists than broadcast.

Newspapers also provide a different kind of journalism. They tend to break more news, provide a greater diversity of stories and are often more effective in holding power to account – and having the determination to stick with a story – than their Radio and TV equivalents. Indeed in many places, including the UK, it is still the newspapers that often set the agenda for radio and TV news.  In the recent UK phone hacking saga the running has been made by two newspapers – notably the Guardian with some support in moving the story on at critical junctures from the New York Times.  Similarly the detailed analysis that created the real impact behind recent information from Wikileaks was led by newspapers rather than broadcast organisations.  And the forensic unearthing of UK Members of Parliament’s expenses was also led by a newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

In addition newspapers often perform a different role in terms of local accountability than their broadcast equivalents. Once again they tend to scrutinise local decisions more closely than the broadcasters and in this area newspapers in some countries perform better than TV. Of course that’s when they work well but we need to recognise too that there are exceptions as when local news organisations are too cosy with local power brokers. But it is the prospects for the local accountability offered by the press that many commentators worry about most – both in the UK and the US – if their financial decline continues.  As noted in our first piece though it is wrong to assume that news organisations as a whole are in a generalised crisis. In many places they are doing well and new opportunities – as well as threats – abound.

Even without the additional impact and resources of newspaper journalism there might be reasons for feeling concerned about them losing out to TV and Radio. A healthy press – when it works well- can still provide more choice and greater diversity of perspective than its broadcast equivalents – where entry costs and hence the level of concentration – tend to be much higher. 

Admittedly this might all change if online start-ups replace the journalistic and democratic functions and levels of investment shown by traditional press organisations. There are some striking examples of these ‘pure players’ breaking stories, see the cases of Media Part and Rue 89 in France and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London and US organisations such as Pro Publica and the Center for Public Integrity, but for the moment it’s too soon to say whether these initiatives can develop a sustainable business model that will ensure their long term survival.

Until that’s clear while TV will reach more people the press will generally employ more journalists, provide a different kind of news, be better at accountability journalism at national and local level and offer a greater plurality of views. That’s why, for the moment at least, its health still matters.

This article originally featured as a blog for The Economist, which can be read here, and was a response to the question: TV and radio news is performing well. Does it matter if the power of the press, in particular, is diminished?

David Levy is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

About David Levy

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