External information databases in small circulation newsrooms

External information databases in small circulation newsrooms

Martin, Shannon

Newspapers in the United States have long been though of as mass media information providers.(1) Their history is crowded with concerns about the quality and timeliness of the information provided.(2) One expression of these concerns was crystallized by scholars in the 1970s(3) who described mass media’s role within a society as that of closing information gaps.(4) news content of the modem United States newspaper described by these scholars is a collection of free information packaged for easy reader consumption.(5)

More than decade ago, journalism scholars began predicting that the newspaper industry would rapidly adopt electronic databases as tools for improving the reporters’ production.(6) More recent studies found that this means of information retrieval was extremely useful for gathering background material and meeting short deadlines.(7) Most recently, a national survey of U.S. daily newspaper newsroom computer use among large, medium and small circulation newspapers reported that nearly 90 percent of the responding newspapers had personal computers in the newsroom, but that only 43 percent of the newsroom employees had computer training.(8) Further, the survey reported that only 33 percent of the respondents said their newsrooms regularly used one or more databases for information retrieval.(9)


Small circulation daily newspaper, those with under 50,000 average daily copy sales, are information providers for millions of U. S. readers.(10) These newspapers present localized information five to seven days a week and are produced by only a few reporters and editors with less than a 12-hour turnaround time for most items of news.

The increased availability of personal computing hardware the newsroom as well as the general availability of on-line information services might seem a boon to those on tight deadlines and with few reporters and editors. Yet a recent survey of newspapers across the United States reported that small circulation newspapers on average used external databases about 1.4 hours per month, as compared to medium circulation newspapers at 7.6 hours, and large circulation newspapers at 90.9 hours a month.(11)

The same survey also reported that the percentage of small circulation newsrooms with at least one personal computer was nearly the same as for medium and large circulation newsrooms. Furthermore, small circulation newspapers equalled or exceeded medium and large circulation newsrooms in the percentage of newspapers adopting mainframes for newsroom use.(12)

These results seem to indicate:

* Computer hardware is nearly as often found in the small circulation newsroom, so database services are as accessible in these newsrooms as in large and medium circulation newsrooms.

* The small circulation newspaper is the least frequent user of electronic databases though these staffs are assumed to be on the tightest time-staff constraints in the industry.


With the increased accessibility during the past 10 years of on-line information research options, has the small circulation daily newspaper, as a news information provider, devoted any percentage of its editorial budget to on-line information gathering?

If not, are budget constraints the major factor in adopting on-line information gathering?

What percentage of the editorial staff budget is devoted to buying information in some form other than external database information retrieval?

Does the editorial staff management see a need for on-line information gathering and an advantage in on-line information gathering?


An exploration of the economic conditions and staff mores found among small circulation newspaper newsrooms may lead to industry solutions that would provide the millions of readers subscribing to, and in many ways depending on, their hometown newspaper with better news information service. Ultimately, this new knowledge may help to reduce what appears to be a widening information gap for those subscribing to small circulation, local newspapers, as well as provide a model for solving similar sorts of problems in those nations still developing such extensive and pervasive electronic information networks.


This study examines 27 small circulation daily newspapers’ editorial staff mores and management staff budgets for variables that may contribute to the adoption rate and use of external computer databases — a rate considerably different from that reported among medium and large circulation daily newspapers.

Newspapers participating in the study were selected for their similarities in market size and management recordkeeping. Average daily circulation was about 9,000 and average number of newsroom staff was about eight. Included are newspapers in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Virginia where the community was not served by a larger metropolitan newspaper.

Data for this study were gathered in two ways. Budget and staff statistics were collected from management records for each newspaper plant in order to discover the economic parameters of information retrieval costs. Also, a survey instrument was administered to collect similar factual as well as anecdotal information from each newspaper’s general manager and newsroom manager about each of the newsroom practices regarding information retrieval.

Two one-page questionnaires — one for general managers and one for newsroom managers — were mailed separately to each of the participating newspapers in early October 1993 and all were returned within 30 days. General managers were asked about line-item payment for information retrieval from on-line services, and about payment to other sources for information that reporters used in stories.

Newsroom editors were asked about the use of Vu/Text or news organization on-line services, as well as other commercial database services. They were also asked if they thought their staff would benefit from such information retrieval services, and if they or members of their newsroom staff had ever worked for news organizations with these kinds of services available. Finally, they were asked if they wished they had such services available to them now, and major reasons they did not request these kinds of information retrieval services be included in their departmental budgets.

A review of each newspaper’s editorial department budget for July 1983 and July 1993 was conducted in October 1993, and broken out into the following categories:

* Number of staff members, full time/part time.

* Total newsroom non-capital expenditures.

* Total newsroom staff salaries.

* Total newsroom freelance compensation.

* Total newsroom features services expenditures.

* Total newsroom wire/photo services expenditures.

* Circulation figures for the period.


General Managers. The survey results were very uniform among the questionnaire respondents. Two-thirds of the general managers reported that their newspaper accepted freelance articles, as a way of expanding the news organization’s reporter base. Only one general manager reported that the newspaper ever paid sources for information, and that it happened no sources had been paid there in the previous month (the time period specified in the questionnaire). None of them reported any expenses for on-line information retrieval services, and none of them indicated any disinclination to pay for such services were the service expenses approved by company management.

Newsroom Managers. Among the newsroom managers, only one reported the services of an in-house librarian, but 16 said that they wished they had such services for the newsroom. Ten of the newsroom managers said, however, that they did not wish they had commercial on-line information retrieval services or database access for the newsroom. Ten of the managers said they did, and six said they couldn’t decide.

Sixteen of the newsroom managers said they thought there would be a staff benefit o such information retrieval services, while only five said they thought there would not be a benefit. Only six said they had worked with organizations that had such retrieval services and only four of the newsroom managers thought they currently had staff members who had worked with such organizations.

The daily circulation of the newspapers in this study ranged from almost 18,000 to under 4,000, with an average newsroom staff of seven in 1983 and eight in 1993. The average total newsroom staff salary budget in 1983 was about $97,000, and in 1993 it was slightly more than $131,000. The freelance budget, on average, went up by $1,100 at each of the papers. And the budget for wire/photo and features services increased an average of about $10,000, from $62,562 to $73,877, at each of the newspapers during the ten-year period. In total, then, the average newsroom budget increased by more than $46,000, about 28 percent, from $165,000 to $212,000. This is slightly above the national inflation rate for this period — about 24 percent — according to the World Almanac 1993. Average circulation, however, during the same ten-year period, dropped by nearly 1,200 at these newspapers, taken as a whole.


Among small circulation newspapers, newsroom budgets rose, with increases in the budget amounts for features and wire/photo services, about 17 percent over a ten-year period, and employee salaries, about 30 percent for the same period. The actual number of newsroom employees rose by only 15 percent, however, reflecting that average salaries have risen, rather than the number of employees.

The newsroom managers from the small sample surveyed here clearly valued the research skills of a trained librarian, and thought those services would enhance the newsroom production. The managers were, however, less sure of the value of research done by newsroom staff if they were allowed computer access to information retrieval systems. This doubt, when coupled with the low number of managers who had, themselves, used on-line information retrieval systems, may account for the slower adoption of these kinds of systems among small circulation newspapers. Interestingly, however, the general managers reported no particular difficulty with the newsroom norm, mentioned in the introduction here, that frowned on paying sources outside the newspaper staff for information, and yet, in contrast, paying an on-line service for information.

Briefly, then, these newsroom budgets have increased during the past ten years while circulation has decreased. And these newsroom managers at the small circulation newspapers recognize the benefits of information retrieval support — whether by a trained librarian or by an on-line service — for the newsroom-staff. But they are not generally familiar with the on-line systems, and so they are doubtful of the systems’ benefits for their newsroom production staff.

Clearly, then, the concerns to be addressed among the newspaper and on-line information retrieval services communities are:

* Cost justification for on-line services; and

* Lack of familiarity with on-line systems and lack of requisite computer skill levels necessary among the newsroom staff.


1. See Jeffery A. Smith, Printers and Press Freedom: The Ideology of Early American Journalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988; Judith Lichtenberg, Foundations and Limits of Freedom of the Press, Democracy and the Mass Media. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990; Leonard W. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

2. See Robert M. Hutchins, A Free and Responsible Press. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947; George Boyce, James Curran, Pauline Wingate, eds., Newspaper History: From the 17th Century to the Present Day. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1978; Renata Adler, Reckless Disregard. New York: Knopf, 1986.

3. P.J. Tichenor, G.A. Donohue and C.N. Olien, Mass media and differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly, 1970, p. 158: G.A. Donohue, P.J. Tichenor and C.N. Olien, Mass media and the knowledge gap. Communication Research, 1975, p. 3; J.S. Ettema and F.G. Kline, Deficits, difference and ceilings: Contingent conditions for understanding the knowledge gap. Communication Research, 1977, p. 179.

4. A. M. Thunberg, K. Nowak and K.E. Rosengren in Communication Model for the Study of Mass Communication, Denis McQuail and Sven Windahl, eds., New York: Longman, 1986, pp. 72-73.

5. H. Eugene Goodwin, Groping for Ethics in Journalism, 2nd ed. Ames. Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987, p. 191ff.

6. Anthony Smith, Goodbye Gutenberg: The Newspaper Revolution of the 1980s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 206; Jerome Aumente, New Electronic Pathways. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1988; Thomas L. Jacobson and John Ullman, Commercial Databases and Reporting: Opinions of Newspaper Journalists and Librarians. Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 1989, p. 16; Frederic F. Endres, Daily Newspaper Utilization of Computer Databases. Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1985, p. 29.

7. James Brown, Sherry Ricchiardi, Leonard Fischer and Andrew Schneider, LEXIS/NEXIS Sport News Research Project, National Institute for Advanced Reporting, 1990, p. 18; Jean Ward and Kathleen A. Hansen, Journalist and Librarian Roles in Information Technology and Newsmaking. Journalism Quarterly, Fall 1991, p. 491; Jean Ward and Kathleen Hansen, Effects of the Electronic Library on News Reporting Protocols. Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1988, p. 845.

8. Brian S. Brooks and Tai-en Yang, Patterns of Computer Use in Newspaper Newsrooms: A National Study of the U.S. Dailies, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual conference, Kansas City, August 1993, p. 10-11.

9. Ibid, p. 11

10. According to the Newspaper Association of America 1993 Facts about Newspapers, 1,323 out of 1,570 daily newspapers are in the small circulation category.

11. Brooks and Yang, op.cit., p. 20.

12. Ibid, p. 22.

Copyright Ohio University Spring 1994

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