As the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot winds down at the end of July 2011, we are publishing a series of reports about our local news experiment. For the past six months, we have provided a free online service to help local residents find good journalism about their city -- and become more discerning news consumers in the process, thanks to the support of the Open Society Foundations.
In this report by staff writer/researcher Andrew Hazlett and NewsTrust founder Fabrice Florin, we’ll share what we have learned about Baltimore's news ecosystem. See also our other reports to date on our blog: our editorial report, educational and community report, survey results and first pilot statistics.
How are the news media covering public issues in Baltimore? Are local citizens getting the quality journalism they need to make informed decisions about their lives and government? These were some of the key questions we wanted to address during our six-month NewsTrust Baltimore pilot.
In this report, we will share some general findings about Baltimore’s news ecosystem and provide some details about some of the most interesting news sources we reviewed as a community. Our report is based on more than 3,200 reviews of local news stories and opinions during our pilot. The NewsTrust Baltimore site now features a large compilation of qualitative and quantitative data about the local news media, gathered by our staff and hundreds of community members and students. Through the numerical ratings and written observations of local citizens and journalists, we can now map some of the key players in the city’s news ecosystem, with a first look at the perceived quality of their journalism over the past six months.
How Baltimore news happens now
In January 2010, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published a report entitled "How News Happens." Focusing on a single week in the city of Baltimore, researchers traced several key news storylines as reported in traditional and new media sources. Tightly focused on original reporting of public affairs issues, the study found that newspapers created the vast majority of important news.
The report received a lot of attention when published. As discussed in the New York Times and within journalism circles, the study affirmed the central role of "legacy" print outlets, especially the Baltimore Sun, in generating original reporting that drives all news consumption.
Some took issue with the report’s definition of what qualified as a legitimate news source. At the time the Pew study was released, journalism scholar Jeff Jarvis argued it was a helpful snapshot of a moment in time but did not capture the emerging role of amateur and independent news sources.
Two years after the Pew study’s data was collected, NewsTrust Baltimore now offers new information on how that ecosystem has evolved. Our project is not directly comparable to the Pew study, but it does provide a detailed record of Baltimore news coverage over about six months.
What has changed in the last two years? Our findings reveal a rich, diverse and growing ecosystem of both mainstream and independent news sources in Baltimore.
Where the Pew study focused on a handful of news stories during one week, our project reviewed thousands of individual stories from 120 news sources across a six-month period. While the Pew study included only 10 blogs and online sources that met their criteria, we found newsworthy material from 68 local blogs and online sources, including both professional and amateur operations. We also discovered new or previously unknown sources throughout the life of the project, with informative news stories and insightful commentary from the edges of a rapidly changing news ecosystem. During the six months of this project, we saw some news sources go dark, others come back to life, and new entrants, such as Baltimore Fishbowl, make a splash.
Our observations confirm that Baltimore’s news ecosystem continues to be heavily influenced by The Sun and a few other mainstream news outlets. However, we also found a growing independent journalism scene filled with innovative players, with 70 independent sources representing 37 percent of our story reviews. Across this variety of media, we reviewed quality news and analysis from both independent and mainstream sources, many of which received high ratings regardless of their ownership or size. These diverse journalistic groups complement each other to offer Baltimore citizens a much broader spectrum of factual reporting and insights than we had anticipated when we started this project.
This graphic chart of our top-rated news sources helps visualize some of the key players that stood out for us in the Baltimore ecosystem.
Sources are shown as bubbles on this chart, where they are scattered vertically by quality (average story rating) and horizontally by activity (number of stories listed), with bubble size based on number of story reviews. Note that this chart only features sources that had at least 50 stories listed on our site and 35 or more reviews, to insure that their ratings were based on a sufficient body of work. These ratings, calculated on a 5-point scale, are based on story reviews by our staff and "trusted members" (50 reviewers who demonstrated high news literacy skills, earning a member level of 3 or more) -- instead of overall ratings from all community members (many of whom were students who were just learning these skills).
Here's a more detailed listing of our top 20 news sources that met our above criteria, ranked by rating, and showing their number of stories and reviews, using the same data set from Jan. 31 to July 15, 2011.
While these charts are based on subjective evaluations over a limited time period and cannot be viewed as definitive quality measurements, they do reflect a general consensus among our trusted members about which sources they found to be informative and credible over the course of our six-month pilot.
We are also encouraged by the fact that four out of ten of the top-rated sources on our bubble chart were independent publications (shown in green), which we view as a positive development for the Baltimore news ecosystem.
The pie chart below shows how Baltimore sources broke down between independent and mainstream publications, with a third of the content coming from independent sources, based on the number of stories listed for review on the NewsTrust Baltimore site.
And here's how the same story data set can be broken down by media type. Again, we note a wide range of diverse media types, particularly online, to complement the steady output from such newspapers as The Sun, The Post, City Paper and The Daily Record.
For more information on how local news sources in various media contributed to the overall news coverage, read our earlier report on the NewsTrust Baltimore blog, where we offered general observations and specific examples of interesting work in print and wire services, television, radio, and online sources.
By necessity, NewsTrust focuses on content that is readily available online. Unfortunately, this excludes a number of broadcast and print-only sources, as well as outlets that restrict access to paying subscribers. Our mission is to help people find good journalism online, so we can only review stories that the public can view on the Internet. This constraint may also exclude under-resourced newsrooms and small neighborhood papers, but readily shared online content is not just a convenience for NewsTrust editors -- it should be an important goal for any entity that works to inform the public.
Featured Baltimore news sources
To complement our overview of Baltimore’s news ecosystem, we feature below brief descriptions of some of the most interesting and representative news sources we reviewed during our pilot, along with links to their source profiles on our site. We selected a handful of major players and some unusual outlets that operate in various corners and niches of the city’s news and information ecology. We like to think of this short list as a "core sample" of the diverse media and styles that compose Baltimore’s news environment. For a complete list of sources we have found, we encourage you to explore our source listings -- and you can even rate these sources here, all on one page. Our many issue-focused News Hunts also provide rich detail on more of the sources that our community evaluated in the course of the project.
Baltimore’s news "solar system" typically revolves around The Sun, its newspaper of record. Like many newspapers in recent years, The Sun has weathered a revolution in how people consume information, an unprecedented economic crisis and ownership changes. Despite some dire predictions, The Sun has proven flexible and adaptive as the media landscape has changed around it. In the course of our project, no other source came close in number to the 1,171 Sun stories reviewed by the NewsTrust Baltimore community (out of 1,471 Sun stories listed on our site). The Sun excels in coverage of Baltimore’s government at the local and state level and Maryland’s delegation in Washington. No other news source was as comprehensive, in our observations.
NewsTrust Baltimore community members were particularly interested in reading and reviewing the work of Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Michael Dresser, Julie Bykowicz, Julie Scharper and Annie Linskey. These journalists cover crime, transportation and politics at the city and state levels. These are the same topics on which NewsTrust community members have sought out The Sun’s expertise.
We have found The Sun to be an excellent source of both in-depth news and up-to-the moment breaking stories. The online presence of the newspaper is timely and interactive. Blogs maintained by columnists and reporters complement news stories with analysis, context, and (when moderated) a forum for civil public debate.
Here are some notable stats we collected in our evaluation of The Sun, as shown on its source profile on our pilot site:
Overall Rating: 3.8*.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 1,171.
Highly rated for: Facts, Fairness, Accuracy, Information and Relevance.
Topics covered: Politics, Business, Living, Education, Crime, Sci/Tech, Maryland General Assembly, Health.
Most reviewed authors: Justin Fenton, Michael Dresser, Julie Scharper.
* All source ratings in this report are on a scale of 1 to 5 and based on a weighted average of story reviews by trusted members, rather than all reviews by community members, for reasons outlined above. As a result, these ratings may vary from the community-wide ratings shown on our public site.
The Maryland Daily Record is a statewide business and legal newspaper, published six times a week. The paper reports on commerce, finance, law, business, construction and real estate, with a focus on Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
During the NewsTrust Baltimore experiment, The Daily Record contributed a great deal of enterprising reporting. The launch of our project coincided with a widely-cited investigative series that highlighted problems and setbacks in a massive development project around Johns Hopkins Hospital. The stories generated a City Council hearing and numerous substantial comments from our community. In addition to specialized business news, The Daily Record has established expertise and relevance well outside its niche market.
Overall Rating: 3.7.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 161.
Highly rated for: Facts, Accuracy, Relevance, Transparency.
Topics covered: Business, Politics, Law, Development, Courts.
Most reviewed authors: Rachel Bernstein, Nicholas Sohr, Melody Simmons.
The Baltimore City Paper dedicated itself in 1977 to provide an alternative source of news and opinions on local politics, communities, culture and the arts in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
While it remains proudly alternative, it has also become something of an institution in Baltimore. Our community members rated the City Paper highly for its blend of lifestyle news and accountability journalism. That combination may be one reason for the paper’s longevity and continued relevance. As an illustration, NewsTrust reviewers praised City Paper stories on subjects ranging from the city’s Environmental Control Board to internet-enabled amateur ornithology
Anna Ditkoff’s Murder Ink column has ensured that homicide victims receive more dignity than is possible in scant police blotter reports.
Overall Rating: 3.7.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 150.
Highly rated for: Facts, Accuracy, Relevance, and Transparency.
Topics covered: Politics, Living, Business, Crime, Culture.
Most reviewed authors: Edward Ericson Jr., Van Smith, Anna Ditkoff.
Publishing a host of stories about innovative people and projects in Baltimore, Urbanite magazine engages in a very direct form of civic journalism. In addition to food, arts and lifestyle reporting and criticism, the magazine has sponsored competitions and exhibitions that encourage creative solutions to urban problems. In addition to a freely distributed print monthly, Urbanite has developed a robust online presence and a new project called The Great Baltimore Check-in -- an interesting integration of social media, location-based services, serious issues and recreation.
Overall Rating: 3.9.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 138.
Highly rated for: Sourcing, Style, Accuracy, Context, Relevance.
Topics covered: Living, Politics, Business, Culture, Arts, Sci/Tech, Food.
Top authors: Greg Hanscom, Cara Ober, Michael Corbin.
WBAL-TV is the NBC-affiliated television station in Baltimore. It is one of the flagship stations of the Hearst Corporation, which also owns sister radio stations WBAL and WIYY.
Among Baltimore television stations, the NewsTrust community had particularly strong praise for WBAL-TV. Our editors and community members were drawn to the station’s approach to the news. Strong investigative work by Jayne Miller and other reporters is one distinctive quality of WBAL-TV’s work. Its sister station, WBAL Radio, was also rated highly for its coverage of local issues by NewsTrust members.
Overall Rating: 3.5.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 49.
Highly rated for: Facts, Fairness, Enterprise, Relevance.
Topics covered: Politics, Baltimore City, Business, Crime, Living, Youth.
Most reviewed authors: Jayne Miller, Sheldon Dutes, Barry Simms.
WYPR is the local NPR affiliate, serving the metropolitan Baltimore area and Maryland with a goal to provide radio programs of intellectual integrity and cultural merit that aim to strengthen the communities it serves.
WYPR spurred the most reviews on NewsTrust Baltimore from among Baltimore’s radio stations. WYPR has reserved a large portion of its airtime for local news and analysis. From in-depth cultural coverage to daily interviews with newsmakers, it seems fitting that our community ranked WYPR especially high on the "originality" and "insights" scales.
Though it can be difficult for broadcast-oriented outlets to extend their work onto online platforms, WYPR has done an admirable job of enhancing their radio journalism with podcast versions and additional material.
Overall Rating: 3.7.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 113.
Highly rated for: Facts, Originality, Information, Insights.
Topics covered: Politics, Living, Business, Health, Sci/Tech, Arts.
Most reviewed authors: Sheilah Kast, Stephanie Hughes, Tom Hall.
The Baltimore Brew is a daily online journal featuring independent reporting and informed commentary about greater Baltimore. Founded by Fern Shen, a former Washington Post reporter, the Brew has proven to be a strong source of original reporting and opinion writing on several beats. The Brew has published many news-hunting scoops and informed analysis. By pursuing several stories on an ongoing basis, the Brew has developed authority on such topics as urban bicycling, the Sparrow’s Point steel mill, and downtown development projects. Despite its modest resources, the Brew is an enduring example of quality work outside the institutional frameworks of traditional journalism.
Overall Rating: 3.73.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 274.
Highly rated for Relevance, Originality, Insight, Accuracy, Information.
Topics covered: Politics, Business, Living, Transportation, Education, Sci/Tech, Industry, Development
Most reviewed authors: Fern Shen, Mark Reutter, Gerald Neily.
Other noteworthy sources
The prolific and highly-rated sources we featured above were staples of Baltimore’s news diet during our study period. But there were many other quality sources that added flavor, variety and some other essential ingredients.
* The Afro (formerly The Afro-American Newspaper) is rooted in a rich history dating back to the 19th century. The Afro was highly rated for the information it conveyed and the relevance of its reporting on the black community. It is published from a point of view and cultural context that is underrepresented in Baltimore’s media landscape.
* Baltimore magazine has been published for more than a century and, in addition to stories boosting the local dining and cultural scenes, it provided quality journalism on a number of public issues, as well as in-depth profiles of intriguing individuals.
* AOL’s Patch network of hyperlocal news websites has extended into Baltimore and its suburbs. Patch sites regularly broke stories in the region and covered local community issues particularly well. For example, the Towson Patch was one of our most highly rated sources. The daily churn of neighborhood news stories and event listings proved valuable, but there were also investigative pieces like this one which questioned the authenticity of "grassroots" efforts to push for more speed cameras in Baltimore County.
* The Washington Post does not actively cover Baltimore, but it provided quality news and analysis about Maryland politics, earning a consistently high rating from our reviewers.
* The Maryland Reporter, a nonprofit news operation, provided close coverage of local and statewide politics, producing "wonky" watchdog coverage and a number of stories that no other outlets covered.
* Center Maryland, a nonprofit online news aggregator, added depth, detail and texture to our understanding of the state legislative session in Annapolis and helped us find many quality news stories about local politics which we might otherwise have missed.
* Investigative Voice is an adventurous and energetic source of reporting on crime and politics in Baltimore. While it had a relatively low rating on NewsTrust Baltimore, its reporters and editors worked to break stories on the police and corruption beats.
* Bmore Media reports weekly on social and business innovation in Baltimore and has developed into a formidable source several years after a somewhat rocky start in the city.
The Baltimore blogosphere
In contrast to the Pew study of Baltimore’s news scene, we found a plethora of blogs and other online sources generating news and opinion. Some published only occasionally, others more regularly, but all added something to the conversation. The many voices conversing in the city’s blogosphere include community organizations, impassioned advocates, nonprofit policy groups and private individuals.
* Adam Meister, who blogs about Baltimore city politics on the Examiner and Charm City Current, did some digging into property records and broke a story that travelled up the media food chain to the point that a City Council member filed a lawsuit against him.
* Unsung Baltimore is an example of a personal blog that also covers events and reports news. Written by Kevin Griffin Moreno, a local nonprofit staffer and active NewsTrust Baltimore member, the blog contains personal reflections, and, from time to time, reporting on events in the city. His post "Walbrook Film Project Teaches Students About More Than Holding a Camera" is an example of the real journalistic value that can emerge from a personal blog.
* The Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog falls outside a lot of our usual categories and measures. It is an anonymous, single-minded blog repeating a steady drumbeat of attention on one issue plaguing Baltimore: neglected properties that degrade the physical and economic landscape of the city, as well as the living conditions of tenants and neighbors. As evidenced by this interview with The Baltimore Sun’s Jamie Smith Hopkins and some recognition from City Paper, the blog has made an impact on a major civic concern. This post on a particularly egregious case of landlord neglect is an example of this blog’s striking work: "Breaking a Rule."
* Audacious Ideas is a blog "created to stimulate ideas and discussion about solutions to difficult problems in Baltimore." It features insightful opinions about important local issues from a variety of community leaders and innovators in Baltimore. Disclosure: this blog is published by the Open Society Institute - Baltimore; its parent organization, Open Society Foundations, funded the NewsTrust Baltimore experiment.
Tweets, updates, streams and flows
During the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot, we have also seen local journalism that does not fit easily into traditional notions of the news media. Increasingly, news gathering and reporting can fall outside the form of an article composed of text for publication on paper or on a static website. We have certainly seen examples of professional reporters — notably The Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton and Julie Scharper — using Twitter in innovative ways. Staffers at The Sun also used the Storify service to curate and collect Twitter and Facebook posts from public figures and citizens reacting to the death of former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Email newsletters and discussion lists, often keyed to particular neighborhoods, are also an important news source for some Baltimoreans. The Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance blog lists seven active neighborhood listservs that focus on city parenting.
Within Facebook’s "walled garden," individuals and organizations make announcements and report new information. Communities coalesce around shared interests to share news and perspectives (see, for example, the active Baltimore Tech group).
In the course of half a year, we have had an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Baltimore news ecosystem. We have been impressed by the overall quality and diversity of the local news landscape. We have seen vital and innovative work by media organizations founded before the Civil War, as well as important news-breaking by amateur bloggers. Our tools helped surface and spotlight quality journalism from many sources in many media -- both mainstream and independent. Even in a time of transition, Baltimore's journalists are providing vital information to area residents.
As Clay Shirky has written about the news media, the local news scene is in a state of flux with more than a little creative chaos. But patterns are emerging. As news startups and impassioned individuals become more rigorous and as traditional news organizations become more open and responsive to the public, there is a growing opportunity for collaboration across the local journalistic community. The energy and reach of amateurs can combine effectively with the expertise, contacts and judgment of professionals. Enabled by social technology, including tools we use at NewsTrust, we are beginning to see deeper connections among all those who seek trustworthy information about their communities. In "Links that Bind Us" — a summer 2011 report from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University — many scholars and analysts explored this networked future of the news. We have witnessed, online and in person, ample evidence of the importance of community and collaboration in building a healthy news ecosystem.
A local nickname for Baltimore is "Smalltimore," a reference to the city’s tight-knit communities and the first-name basis of many social relationships. In reality, many divides and differences remain. A major achievement of NewsTrust Baltimore has been through our formal partnerships and informal connections with the many individuals and organizations contributing to the local news ecosystem. At our social events and on our website, the people producing quality journalism in Baltimore found a "clean, well-lighted place" where they could meet and exchange ideas with each other and the public. We believe that NewsTrust Baltimore has in effect catalyzed the same community we were invited to study.
As a result, personal bonds were formed between independent and mainstream journalists that might not have developed otherwise, and we are grateful to the local journalism community for participating in this project and for making us feel welcome in their midst. Our experience was itself evidence of Baltimore journalists' openness to experimentation and innovation.
New sources and new journalistic practices are emerging to feed citizens’ information needs. The media landscape is changing rapidly, and news organizations are adapting and transforming as well. Like the 2009 Pew study, our experiment may be capturing moments of transition. Overall, we see substantial progress in legacy media and new independent sources of local news, which encourages us to be optimistic about the future of journalism in Baltimore.