January 11, 2010

How News Happens

Maryland Governor Announces Budget Cuts

On Monday, July 20, over dinner with legislators at his mansion, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley revealed how he proposed to cut nearly $300 million from the state budget.

The next day, O’Malley provided details to the press, and on Thursday invited the public to make comments and suggestions about the cuts on a new website.

The budget would prove the biggest story in the Baltimore media this week.

Lessons from Coverage

  • Traditional Outlets Drove the Coverage. O’Malley’s cuts were the biggest story of the week, but only in the mainstream media. Just four news websites not tied to the mainstream press mentioned the cuts at all. 
  • Enterprise Reporting was hard to find. Reporters conveyed the general outline of O’Malley’s cuts, but most of those details came directly from the Governor’s office and relied on the same handful of sources. Few outlets approached the story with a fresh angle.
  • Immediacy and the Web. Mainstream outlets took advantage of the immediacy of the Web, usually posting reports to their websites first and their legacy platform second. Beyond that, though, the Web and new media played little role in broadening the reporting or the discussion. Indeed, no local blogs studied published any content related to the reductions, though one mentioned them on Twitter.

Traditional outlets provided most of the coverage and most new information 

On Monday, July 20, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial that offered suggestions for ways Maryland could trim its budget. The paper was already too late.

That evening, at dinner with legislators, O’Malley outlined his proposed cuts. By 8:51 p.m. Washington Post reporters posted a story about the dinner and the planned cuts on Washingtonpost.com.

The next morning, the Baltimore Sun online and in print included some new information.

  • The cuts would focus on state agencies and target health care and higher education.
  • Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch were quoted on the record saying furloughs might be needed in a future round of cuts.

NBC affiliate WBAL soon posted a story on its website citing the Sun’s report for its information.

At 1:30 p.m. the governor made himself available to the press for questions. Once he had explained himself on camera, the story gained momentum.

By week’s end, 69 stories would appear in the Baltimore media ecosystem about the plans to cut the budget. Six would come from niche news outlets—two business papers and the alternative paper in town.  Another 42 would come from television stations (across online, radio and TV platforms), half (21) from a single station, NBC affiliate WBAL.  The local metropolitan newspaper, the Sun, would produce 12 stories (six in print and six online); the nearby Washington Post would produce five (both print and online).

However, just 16 of these 69 stories, 23%, would include significant new information.[1] Almost all of these came from older or more traditional news operations—eight from the Sun or the Post, one from ABC affiliate WMAR, one from NBC affiliate WBAL, three from CBS affiliate WJZ and three from the websites of niche print publications.

Following the governor’s briefing Tuesday afternoon, the website of the Baltimore Business Journal, a niche news outlet focusing on business news in Baltimore, was first with specifics of the plan—where the cuts will occur, the savings, and that K-12 education would be spared. “[We] are doing everything in our power not to have massive layoffs,” O’Malley was quoted as saying.

That evening all four local affiliate stations did stories, mostly with video from the press briefing. Two stations, ABC affiliate WMAR and CBS affiliate WJZ, offered new details beyond that.

In addition, there were five separate tweets about the cuts. The Baltimore blog Inside Charm City posted two, the first highlighting cuts in tuition assistance to national guardsmen and directing people to the governor’s Twitter page; the second linking to an O’Malley interview on MSNBC from earlier that day that was not directly about his plans. WJZ, WBAL and Fox Baltimore tweeted with links to their budget stories from TV.

The next morning the Sun published two long reports, each with new angles. The first featured reactions from executive director of MedChi, the state medical society, and University System of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan and looked back at O’Malley’s past fiscal actions.

The second was an editorial that put the budget challenges in context, suggesting that the governor had found some cuts that wouldn’t impact residents—like slicing lottery advertising—but the other cuts would hit them hard. “The standard he (O’Malley) has set for himself, and it’s a good one, is to manage the cuts in such a way that Maryland will be poised to recover more quickly from the recession than its peers. On that score, he makes some good decisions and some bad ones.”

Wednesday morning the Board of Public Works unanimously approved the governor’s proposal, after which 22 more stories appeared that day across six different mainstream media outlets and two niche publications. Most simply reported the plan’s approval, recapping details of the cuts from Tuesday.

Two exceptions stood out. WMAR-TV interviewed Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon about how the cuts would affect the city. The Washington Post, in print and online, reported that O’Malley was “harshly criticized afterward by Republicans for not acting more boldly.” House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell said, “We are in dire financial straits, and the governor continues to fail to act.”

Two niche business publications, the Daily Record and the Baltimore Business Journal, weighed in. The Daily Record offered new details, including comments from the state director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that O’Malley “should look to streamline personnel systems or reduce the amount of independent contractors it uses, rather than cutting staff.”

The third day, Thursday, July 23, 16 more stories appeared. By now the narrative had shifted mostly to a single angle—how the cuts would affect higher education, in particular the possibility of a tuition hike—after the announcement that the University of Maryland Board of Regents would hold an emergency meeting to determine how to handle the $40 million cut.

One outlet, the Washington Post, explored a different angle, and it was purely political. The piece online and in print discussed how O’Malley’s plan could impact his re-election bid for 2010 and how his relationships with key special interest groups who will all be affected by his cuts—such as labor unions, environmentalists and educators—could play a role.

On Friday, July 24, 11 more stories about the cuts appeared in five traditional media outlets and the website of the alternative newspaper in town, Baltimore City Paper. Six focused primarily on the governor’s online suggestion box. The Baltimore City Paper and the Baltimore Sun both tweeted about it.

And by Saturday coverage dropped off dramatically. We captured just one more piece, a Baltimore Sun story about how the cuts would impact the Chesapeake Bay.

Enterprise played small role in O’Malley coverage

The governor initiated most of the budget coverage. Fully 71% of all the stories were triggered by statements from O’Malley—his legislative dinner, press briefing or the public meeting where the cuts where approved. Press commentary triggered another 15% of stories. Only 7% of budget stories were the result of any press enterprise, exploring implications of the cuts or angles on the media’s own volition.

There were a few notable exceptions. Timothy Wheeler’s July 25 Baltimore Sun article discussed the implications of O’Malley’s reductions on the state’s efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and included detailed statistics about funding for the Bay’s restoration and interviews with several experts.  

Three broadcast reports also stood out for initiative. WJZ’s July 21 evening broadcast report interviewed three state workers who expressed concern but also a sense of resignation about the prospect of furloughs, and two days later WJZ interviewed University of Maryland students about the reductions.

On July 24, Maryland Public Television aired the only live conversation about the cuts with opposing points of view from original sources. In a point-counter point format, the show asked two legislators, Democrat Lisa Gladden and Republican Alex Moody, to share opinions on the underlying causes for the budget cuts. Moody claimed that the cuts were due to high levels of spending, especially on transportation. Gladden asserted that the cuts were inevitable because revenue fell short of expectations.

Generally however, when it came to sources, citizens heard from the same handful of people again and again. Governor O’Malley was quoted in 40 different news articles and was the driving source in 35 of those. Other individuals quoted often were Public Works Board members Peter Franchot, who is the state’s comptroller, (13) and Nancy Kopp, the state treasurer, (10); State Director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Patrick Moran (10); Chancellor of the University System of Maryland William Kirwan (8); and University System Vice Chancellor P.J. Hogan (6).

While the quotes differed from story to story, it was clear that most of the sound bytes came from the Wednesday board meeting. And there was little effort in seeking out alternative points of view or sources not directly related to the decision.

The one new aspect that radio provided was soliciting direct opinion (usually critical) from Maryland residents through call-in portions of the shows.  Of the programs captured for this study, all three of the radio talk shows that mentioned the cuts—Shari Elliker, C4 and the Ron Smith Show—were broadcast on one station, WBAL.
With a full dose of sarcasm, Bruce Elliot, a guest host on the July 22 C4 show, thought the cuts weren’t enough. “Found this buried in budget

… Draconian cuts in state workforce. State employs 80,000 people. He cut 39 jobs—58 ‘positions’ … Boy the sacrifice the state workers are making is stunning, isn’t it?”

The role of the web

What role the web played in this story largely involved traditional media using a new platform to break stories quickly. Of 28 total online stories, 24 came from traditional outlets. None of the blogs identified by the study that deal with local affairs commented or reported on the governor’s reductions. The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and Daily Record all posted stories online prior to the print versions.

Three web sites not tied to the mainstream press—bizjournal.com, citypaper.com and mddailyrecord.com—mentioned the cuts. The only citizen participation found was in interviews on local news and call-ins on radio talk shows.

Twitter
In a separate analysis of Twitter posts about O’Malley’s cuts, 16 tweets from seven different outlets appear from July 19 through July 25. Yet the same pattern emerged. Just two of the outlets were not part of a traditional news organization—Inside Charm City and Baltimore City Paper. And of the four Inside Charm City tweets, two simply re-ran earlier posts from other outlets—one from the Baltimore Sun. All others were posted by the twitter accounts of WJZ, WBAL, WBAL Radio, Fox Baltimore and the Baltimore Sun.

A look back at budget cut coverage in 1991—more reporting; greater depth

The budget story also offered a window on how newspapers in Baltimore have changed, or more accurately, shrunk. 

The last time significant budget cutting occurred in Maryland came during the tenure of Governor William Donald Schaefer in 1991. How did the coverage compare to 2009?

Overall, the 1991 cuts generated significantly more coverage in newspapers than did O’Malley’s cuts this year.

Schaefer announced his proposal to cut $450 million in spending to balance the state budget on September 30, 1991. From that day through October 6, 1991 (the same number of days examined for this report), a total of 83 stories appeared in newspapers, more than triple the number in 2009.

The Baltimore Sun produced the most articles, 49, or 600% more than the seven published in the Sun newspaper in 2009; the Washington Post and the Washington Times (both with 12) followed.[2] The Washington Post published three times more print stories in 1991 than in 2009. Papers in cities as far away as Orlando and Chicago also mentioned Schaefer’s reductions.

If newspaper-run websites are included in the comparison, Schaefer’s cuts still received nearly double the coverage of this year’s cuts (83 to 44 in 2009), though some of the web stories were repostings of the same stories as in print rather than different stories.

And to what extent has the expanded media ecosystem made up for the diminished level of coverage from print outlets? There were 73 budget stories produced by Maryland area papers in 1991 in the seven days following the governor’s announced cuts. There is no way of counting how many radio or television stories were also generated that week. But those 73 stories alone are more than the 69 produced by all outlets in 2009—and only 16 of these 69 budget stories contained new information. Though a precise comparison is impossible, a fair inference suggests there has been a substantial diminution in the amount of information the public was receiving.

There did seem to be greater controversy surrounding the 1991 proposed cuts, perhaps explaining some of the increased reporting. An October 2, 1991, AP story describes, “State troopers, cheered on by a group of drug addicts, marched on the capitol Wednesday in an unsuccessful attempt to block approval of the governor’s $446.2 million budget reduction plan.”

A Washington Post story the same day told the story of Steve Proctor, a state trooper who was scheduled to lose his job three weeks prior to his wedding day. “Like many of the other 1,765 state government employees whose jobs have been ordered cut to save money, Proctor reacted yesterday with surprise and some bitterness, warning that virtually every Maryland resident may eventually feel the effects of his and the other layoffs,” Charles Babington writes in his article “A Storm of Reaction Swirls Around Md. Governor; Workers, Agencies Affected by Reductions Say All Residents Eventually Will Be Hurt.”

But the journalistic initiative went far beyond covering the controversy at hand. Enterprise stories ranged from reports that placed Maryland’s budget woes in context with other states to how troopers, the poor and arts programs will be affected by the reductions. The Baltimore Sun produced a variety of original reports in 1991, including “Budget Response Shows Difference between City and Suburb,” and “Suddenly Unemployed: Coping with the Shock and Stress of Layoff Becomes First Order of Business.” The Baltimore Sun also ran a series titled “Balancing Act” on how Carroll County government was coping with the budget. 

There is other evidence, however, that the output of the papers is diminished. An examination of the Factiva database finds that the Sun overall produces far less than it did in 1991 the last time of major state budget cuts, or even 1999, a decade ago, to a degree that new media in that community can not yet come close to compensating for. For all of 2009, the Sun produced 23,668 stories. That is 32% fewer than it did for all of 1999, when it produced 34,852. And it is 73% fewer than in 1991, when the Baltimore Sun newsrooms  produced 86,667 stories.  The company at the time published both an evening and morning paper and operated competing newsrooms, another indication of the contraction in the resources that the Sun company is now able to deploy in covering the city.


Footnotes

1. Two of these stories were those that first broke details of the plan. The other 14 were those that added significant new details along the way.

2. For this comparative analysis of with 1991 and 2009, Nexis databases were searched for all stories relevant to the 2009 budget cuts in any section of the paper. Baltimore Sun articles from 1991 are not available through Nexis/Lexis; the online Sun archive was used to find 1991 articles.