Though college students are not believed to be looking at newspapers anymore, at least one class put down its iPads long enough to sift through the pages of The Times-Picayune as well as its electronic components.

An article tediously headlined “Tracking digital-era news quality declines: A Tulane student project tracks The Times-Picayune before and after a digital overhaul” appeared in a recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. In it, author Dean Starkman reported about a class study headed by Tulane Communications Professor Dr. Vicki Mayer. The study, using an academic method called “content analysis,” attempted to analyze the quantity and quality in The Times-Picayune before and after the elimination of daily print distribution. 

Starkman interviewed Mayer and offered these observations:


-The survey’s authors believe that the data show clear evidence of a lower quality product since the changeover, certainly on the digital platforms.

“The falling number of sources from 2011… to 2013 … across platforms suggest as well that the stories were put together more quickly in 2013, with less reporting work put into each one,” the report says.

-In an interview, Mayer says the study shows the new regime generally produces “a much softer, lower-quality product.” Either, she says, Nola “made a decision that people on digital don’t deserve the same kind of news that print readers do… or if the economics are based on clicks, you just put up whatever will get clicks.”


Jim Amoss, The Times-Picayune’s editor, was given a chance to comment and was outspoken in his criticism of the study by offering a thoughtful five-point rebuttal. Ultimately the article becomes a debate about methodology. Starkman describes the study as a “first attempt to compare news content in the digital first era," then adds: 


Still, I find this to be a meaningful, if not definitive, comparison, of the news judgments of operation versus that of its Times-Picayune predecessor. It reveals a sourcing drop-off between the two periods and suggests a more sensationalist, soft focus of the digital product.


My own observation about measuring content is that it is difficult to tell because there is no longer this single entity called The Times-Picayune. Instead there is a hybrid, which is part digital, part home-delivered newspaper, and part something sold on the newsstand on certain days.

There are still some good people at The Times-Picayune doing good work, such as the recent series on campaign contributors done in partnership with WVUE TV, Ch. 8, but the news flow is hard to follow.

For all the complex numbers and analysis, one statistic is undisputable: There are four fewer days a week when The Times-Picayune is not delivered to our homes.



BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and online.