Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

`Reality' in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

`Reality' in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Article excerpt

Many newspapers across the country are faced with decreasing circulation. Editor & Publisher reported that of 25 largest U.S. dailies, 18 lost readers in 1997.(1) According to W.R. Simmons & Associates Research Inc., readership of daily newspapers since 1970 has dropped by more than 19 percent.(2) Although newspaper profits have rebounded somewhat since the 1991 recession,(3) readership declines continue, and appear to be sharpest among women and minorities, and those aged 34 and younger.(4)

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the newspaper examined in this study, is no exception to this downward trend. USA Today reported that the Post-Dispatch saw the greatest circulation decline between 1991 and 1995 of any newspaper in the country, losing 16 percent of its subscribers.(5)

Although circulation drops have been a growing concern for editors and publishers for years, few attempts to reverse this trend have been successful. Such attempts have included getting readers more involved, marketing newspapers as commodities and practicing public journalism.(6) A recent suggestion for reversing growth decline is for newspapers to update their news definitions to include everyone in the community the newspaper serves. This definition includes both males and females, as well as people of all ages, occupations, races and socioeconomic classes.(7)

It has been argued that journalistic quality is affected when the media do not meet their responsibility to include a variety of sources and viewpoints to a pluralistic society.(8) Representing diversity in the news, however, is no longer just a question of ethics or enlightenment. A newspaper's economic survival depends on it. A lack of diversity in news content was cited as one reason readers cancel their newspaper subscriptions.(9) It has been argued, in fact, that the reason women and minorities cancel subscriptions in such high numbers is because their voice is not represented in the news.(10)

One way to approach the issue of diversity, then, is to analyze news content to determine the extent to which diversity is present. Although numerous studies have been undertaken to accomplish this very thing, most, if not all, have been conceptualized independent of input from the newspaper and its readers. Including the perceptions and concerns of the individuals who are directly involved with making and reading the newspaper will benefit scholars and practitioners and, ultimately, the readers themselves. Scholars will be better equipped to conceptualize more accurate and sophisticated studies, which can be fed directly to the news organization. Newspapers can then use this information to attempt fundamental changes in news process, editing and reporting. Ideally, the end result will be more diverse coverage that more accurately reflects the needs and concerns of the community the newspaper serves.

Using this approach, the current study was guided by input provided by Editor Cole Campbell and former readers of the Post-Dispatch. The primary goal was to determine the extent to which diversity was present in news stories and photos. Findings of this study were then fed back to the Post-Dispatch to attempt fundamental changes in news content. The data also served as a benchmark against which to track future content changes and provided a unique opportunity to connect the practical and theoretical domains.

Background

In face of a steady loss of readers in the preceding five years, the Post-Dispatch held in-house focus groups with former readers in 1996 to determine why subscriptions were being canceled. Although the findings of the focus groups have not been made public, pertinent details were shared as a starting point for the current study. According to Campbell, former readers expressed a desire to see themselves and their viewpoints represented in news content - not just the views of Caucasian men. In fact, most individuals indicated that they no longer read the newspaper because of a lack of diversity among sources. …

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