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Bigger, But Better? The Quad-City Times Dwarfs the Argus/Dispatch’s News Coverage PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 10 December 2009 08:00

On December 1, the Quad-City Times ran 29 square inches of copy on the not-for-profit organization Skills Inc. shutting down at the end of the year. The Rock Island Argus ran an eight-square-inch brief on its front page.

This can be seen as a microcosm of the Quad Cities' two daily newspapers. A River Cities' Reader analysis found that last week, the Quad-City Times devoted 80 percent more space to local news content than the twin Illinois papers, the Rock Island Argus and the Moline Dispatch.

For the week of November 29 to December 5, the Times had 91 articles, editorials, and columns written by staff members or Lee Enterprises bureau reporters concerning local and state issues and news, totaling 2,300 square inches. The Argus/Dispatch had 69 such articles, totaling 1,274 square inches.

Including letters to the editor, the Times had more local news content each day last week than the Argus or Dispatch. Outside of Saturday's paper -- in which the amount of local news content was nearly the same -- each day the Times devoted at least 23 percent more space to local news content than the Argus/Dispatch did. On Monday, the Quad-City Times featured 307 square inches of local news content; the Argus/Dispatch had 30 -- all letters to the editor.

For the week, the Times had 2,020 square inches of local news articles compared to the Argus/Dispatch's 1,118; 216 square inches of local news-related editorials compared to the Argus/Dispatch's 90; and 278 square inches of letters to the editor compared to the Argus/Dispatch's 210. There was only one area in which the two were comparable last week: local-news-related columns.

In eight subject areas (and not including letters), the Times had more coverage than the Argus/Dispatch in each. This was particularly pronounced in the Government/Politics category (945 square inches to 483), which is to be expected because of Lee Enterprises bureaus in the Iowa and Illinois state capitals.

(See the charts accompanying this article for more information. To learn more about the methodology of this survey, see the sidebar "Methodology and Disclaimers.")

The news mix is similar for both papers, with between a fifth and a quarter of non-letter local content being devoted to crime and courts, and roughly 40 percent devoted to government and politics. The Argus/Dispatch had a greater emphasis on business, agriculture, and the economy (24 percent of non-letter local content compared to the Times' 16 percent.)

Of course, the volume of coverage is not necessarily an indicator of the depth, thoroughness, and incisiveness of the coverage.

Even though the numbers tell a clear story on the space devoted to local news, reading the coverage produces a narrative that's more ambiguous. There are certainly situations when the Argus/Dispatch coverage is superior, even when the Times offers more coverage. (The Times is pretty good at overkill; last week it had three articles on an ATF agent's loaded gun found by kids in Bettendorf -- a news article, a column by Barb Ickes, and an editorial. The story never showed up in the Argus/Dispatch.)

What follows is a look at the substance of some coverage. These are only three examples, meant to illustrate that the Times' volume of coverage should not always be equated with better coverage.

Community Vitality Shapshot

The release last week of the annual Community Vitality Snapshot -- a compilation of statistics meant to give a picture of the health of the community overall -- offers a good opportunity for content analysis. The report's net is wide and the information is varied, and it presents a challenge to reporters; they need to interpret it.

The Times' coverage eclipsed the Argus', 110 square inches to 84 square inches. But that's largely a function of presentation; the article on the front page of the December 4 Times had a large point size. And the Argus coverage is certainly clearer, and came a day earlier.

The Argus lead reads: "The Quad-Cities is growing in population, the median age is getting younger and household income is increasing ... . The annual community snapshot ... also indicates there are more community volunteers and gains in education. But homelessness is on the rise and domestic abuse complaints doubled over the past year." The accompanying front-page graphic illustrates those trends and includes stats on the growing racial-minority population.

The Times employs a similar "this but that" structure for its lead: "On the one hand, Quad-City residents may weigh less, read more and volunteer to help others at a higher rate than last year. On the other hand, the lagging economy is still affecting the area in the form of more abuse reports, a higher number of residents lacking health insurance and many more seeking help from pantries to feed their family." The front-page graphic details food-pantry and meal-site use, the number of registered library cards, and turn-aways and crisis calls at domestic-violence shelters.

The Times coverage, first of all, is choosing specific measures that, out of context, might or might not be meaningful. Second, it's attributing certain conditions to the "lagging economy," which is speculative and supported only by quotes. (Actually, it's making the economy the story, rather than the indicators that are actually in the report.)

In contrast, the Argus article presents the big picture up-front and doesn't jump to conclusions: "The Community Vitality Task Force doesn't know why these changes occurred ... ."

Elijah Reid

During the week, the Quad-City Times published three articles on whether Elijah Reid will be eligible for the death penalty, totaling 100 square inches. The Argus published two, totaling 45 square inches. I doubt the case itself merits the Times' volume -- a preview article and coverage of two days of testimony and the ruling -- but its reporting and presentation are superior.

The December 3 coverage in both papers is instructive. The Argus article covers the same basic territory as the Times', but with less context and no real sense of the logic of arguments. The article notes that Reid has been tested at an IQ of 65 but never states what IQ would disqualify one from the death penalty. It also doesn't note Illinois' current death-penalty moratorium. And it attributes the following paraphrasing to Rock Island State's Attorney Jeff Terronez: "The inability to hold a job and living with others ... could just be a case of a person being a freeloader." If that's what he said, a direct quote is essential.

The Times article notes the standard for a mental-retardation disqualification from the death penalty, and mentions the current moratorium. It's also an example of the importance of specificity: Terronez "asked the doctor if Reid's poor eyesight could have affected the results of the tests he was giving and asked whether it was possible for someone with five children by three different women, as Reid has, to be deficient in social and communication skills." He also quotes Reid at length: "Every time I'm going to trial there is a continuance. ... I'm trying to prove my innocence. I've seen four or five murder trials go to trial in the time I've been here. I've been sitting here 18 months."

In contrast, Reid is quoted in the Argus as saying: "Can I please have my trial?"

Reading the Times' coverage, the judge's ruling on Friday that Reid is eligible for the death penalty makes sense based on what's been presented in the paper. That's not true with the Argus/Dispatch.

John Deere Classic

The extension of a sponsorship agreement between Deere & Company and the PGA's John Deere Classic tournament through 2016 was the lead story in both papers on Tuesday. They handled it very differently, yet neither did it particularly well.

The Argus piece is a bit of hometown boosterism, beginning: "Rick George says the John Deere Classic is 'really in a league of its own' when it comes to running a first-class PGA Tour event and being a gracious host to the world's best golfers and their families each year." One might think he was talking about the Masters for all the gushing.

The Times, however, lays on the gloom: "Significant fourth-quarter losses and a 2009 fiscal year that saw hundreds of Deere & Co. layoffs across the Midwest could have led company leaders to balk at continuing Deere's multimillion-dollar sponsorship of the John Deere Classic."

The Times casts the tournament as "good business" for Deere, although it never explains that assertion beyond quoting company executives as saying that the tournament is good for business. The gist of the article is that Deere took a "very serious look" at its sponsorship, suggesting that not extending it was considered. But by not explaining how the tournament is good for Deere, the Times doesn't give readers much understanding.

The Argus/Dispatch article makes no mention of a decision-making process, and offers no hint that extending the sponsorship was ever in doubt -- making it seem far less newsworthy. Unlike the Times article, however, it does peg the overall local economic impact of the tournament at $25 million annually.

There's a good story here that both papers missed, although the Times came closer to getting it.

Both papers also ran editorials on the tournament on December 2, and that's pretty sad.

First, given the small number of words devoted to the opinion of each paper's editorial board, this is what they chose to write about? During the week, the Times had seven local-news-related editorials and the Argus/Dispatch had three.

Second, what the editorial boards wrote was as dull and predictable as it gets: Both editorials take the highly controversial position that the John Deere Classic is good.


Sidebar: Why Did We Do This?

The March 18 issue of the River Cities' Reader featured a look at the business of daily newspapers in the Quad Cities. This is a look exclusively at the content, recognizing that there's more to newspapers than just money.

The daily print media are the primary sources of local news for most of us; they should present a picture of the community and the issues it faces at any given time. So it made sense to see how thoroughly they did that job.


Sidebar: Methodology and Disclaimers

This analysis was drawn from a week of newspapers, beginning on Sunday, November 29, and ending on Saturday, December 5. For information on The Rock Island Argus and The Dispatch, I used the Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday editions of the Dispatch and the Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday editions of the Argus.

For the purposes of this analysis, only bylined articles were included in which the author is an employee of the newspaper or its corporate parent. This skews the analysis in favor of the Quad-City Times, whose parent Lee Enterprises employs reporters in various bureaus. While that might change the numbers somewhat, it won't alter the overarching conclusion that the Quad-City Times has significantly more local news than the Illinois papers.

For measurements, we used only the space devoted to the story itself, sidebars, and informational graphics/charts. Headlines and photos were not counted. The length of the article was multiplied by the width of its columns.

Our purpose was to measure local news, so sports and arts coverage was excluded, along with "soft" news or features without a clear larger relevance. Although spot news (covering events such as fires and accidents) and crime and courts news are of debatable import, they were included and made up roughly a quarter of local news content in each paper.

More than 160 articles were included in the analysis.

This sort of analysis requires judgment calls, both on inclusion and classification.

Examples of excluded articles are the Quad-City Times' extensive coverage of the move of the South Bethel Church building, the Times' coverage of the featured speaker at the release of the Community Vitality Scan, and the Argus/Dispatch coverage of high-school state scholars and a diversity lecture.

The eight subject areas (Business/Agriculture, Crime/Courts, Economy, Government/Politics, Health, General/Spot News, Thomson, and Community Vitality) were exclusive, meaning that an article counted in one category could not be counted in another. The Thomson correctional center and Community Vitality Scan were given their own categories for three reasons: They don't fit comfortably in any other category; they were major local stories during the week in question; and they illustrate the larger trend, namely that there's greater coverage in the Times than in the Argus/Dispatch.

A few caveats when looking at this information:

  • While seven days of newspapers should be considered a fair representation, it should not be considered definitive.
  • Our dailies don't always cover issues at the same time. While the Times had a big package on Sunday on the possibility of federal Gitmo detainees moving to the Thomson correctional center and the Argus/Dispatch had relatively little during the week, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Times' overall coverage is superior. It just means the Times coverage was heavier in this particular week.
  • Monday's numbers for the Argus/Dispatch were clearly a function of coming immediately after Thanksgiving. But even if the day had featured a more typical level of local content, the Quad-City Times would still have had more. The Argus/Dispatch topped out at 290 square inches of local-news content last week; on Monday the Times had 307 inches.
  • Typos happen in every publication, but this sports headline in the Monday Dispatch is a horrific mangling of the language: "Poor Sports? UCLA, USC Flaunt Etiquette." No, they flouted it.

(Return to the main article.)


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