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Hard time for hard news: A study of newspapers

It's not every day UTS students have their work seen by three-quarters of a million people.

But that's exactly what happened on 24 November 2014 when the ABC's Media Watch program (external site) showcased research by 16 undergraduate and postgraduate journalism students.

A landmark collaboration between Media Watch and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) generated a fascinating – and sometimes chastening – snapshot of the changing face of Australian newspapers. The project was funded by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and coordinated by the ACIJ. For a full transcript of the program (external site).

Media commentators have spilled many thousands of words bemoaning the shrinking of newsrooms, and the collapse of quality journalism.
But there's often been little hard evidence accompanying their claims – until now. The team of students spent hundreds of hours poring over hard copies and microfiche in the State Library, gathering data and feeding it into spreadsheets.

They compared a week's news coverage in June 2014 with the equivalent week in 2004. The aim was simple: to actually count the amount of news, and in particular, local news, in the major metropolitan daily papers in Sydney and Melbourne: the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, The Age, and the Herald-Sun.

Over a thousand stories were fed into spreadsheets and categorised according to title, byline, content, length and position in the paper. Shona Gallagher, a final-year Masters student in Information Management, designed the methodology and led the team. Daniel Graham, who enrolled in a Masters in Journalism this year after completing an undergraduate degree in English literature, crunched the data.

The results confirmed what editors of the four major dailies studied already knew from bitter experience. Eric Beecher, a former Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and Editor-in-Chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, told Media Watch that the project had chosen "the worst decade in the history of the modern newspaper to study ... the worst decade in the last 100 years, maybe 150 years".

Put bluntly, there's just less news in the newspapers than there used to be.

There were 31.7 per cent fewer news headlines printed in the week sampled in 2014 than in 2004. Actual word counts also decreased.  On average, the newspapers had 25 per cent less word content in their news sections in 2014 compared to 2004.

In 2004, the four mastheads combined published 320,881 words in a week on local stories in their respective cities across, compared to 239,769 in 2014. This is a decrease of roughly 25 per cent.

Media Watch's own research on newspaper revenue shows why.  Combined weekday sales of The Age, Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald have fallen by almost 40 per cent. The volume of ads in all those papers has shrunk by nearly half.

Despite this, former editor of the Daily Telegraph Campbell Reid told Media Watch he had "just one word to say" to people who maintain that the time and resources to produce real journalism have shrunk: "crap".

Perhaps Mr Reid can take heart from this week's Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia Annual Conference, held at UTS and funded by FASS.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hamby, who has just left the non-partisan, not-for-profit Center for Public Integrity to join the new investigative team at BuzzFeed, told the conference he was "cautiously optimistic" about the future of investigative journalism, and that quality journalism would always find an audience.

Byline: Tom Morton