The Soundbite University: 60 Years of University News Coverage
The Soundbite University is a large-scale study conducted by Kalev Leetaru and Dr. Paul Magelli at the University of Illinois to explore the broader changes in how higher education has been covered in the national press over the last 60 years. More than 18 million documents comprising the entire run of the New York Times from 1945 to 2005 were examined for all references to United States research universities and compared to spatial, temporal, and a variety of institutional indicators to examine how coverage has changed over this period and the characteristics most commonly associated with elevated national press visibility. One of the most surprising findings is the transition of the research university from a newsmaker to a news commentator, suggesting a need for universities to profoundly change the ways in which they interact with the press, especially as we enter a new era in media.
The Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications provided the hosting and computational support for this project, while the Proquest Corporation made available access to their historical newspaper collection.
NEW: Download the timelines used to create this study.
- Subject to Soundbite. In 1946, 53% of articles mentioning a research university were about that university, focusing on its research or activities. Today, just 15% of articles mentioning a university are about that university: the remaining 85% simply cite high-stature faculty for soundbite commentary on current events.
- Sustained Interest. The New York Times has shrunk in size by half, while the number of news articles referencing research universities has remained constant. Thus, as a percentage of all stories in the paper, higher education has increased nearly linearly, to 13% of all articles and 21% of all front page articles today.
- Trajectories. Private universities have 63% greater total news mentions and 57% greater front page appearances than public institutions. However, when limiting to just news coverage about institutions (excluding soundbites), roughly 24% of public institution coverage and 29% of private institution coverage is about the university.
- Location. Distance from major metropolitan areas and from New York City shows only a weak inverse correlation with news coverage, suggesting those institutions in the New York Time's backyard do not receive substantially greater coverage.
- Enrollment. Both public and private universities have an extremely strong correlation between graduate enrollment and news volume.
- Budget. Detailed budgetary information is only available for public universities. Total expenditures matter slightly more than total assets and most surprisingly, institutions spending more of their budget on public engagement and on instruction have a lower news volume.
- Research Output. Number of research grants, total US patents issued, and size of the faculty have strong correlations at public universities, with slightly weaker correlations at private institutions. Total number of faculty has a strong relationship at both institutional types.
- Press Engagement. Most research universities do a very poor job at aggregating press release content from across their institution into a single place.
- Web Pages & Blogs. Today, most discourse around research universities occurs online. Institutional characteristics correlated with online coverage mirror those for New York Times volume, suggesting these indicators underlie higher education media visibility overall, rather than being unique to the New York Times.
- Faculty Media Brands. Universities recruit and retain faculty based on their "academic brand" and must recognize they also have a "media brand" that should be developed and promoted.
- Relevance. Many universities are relatively tone-deaf in their press contacts, pouring out a constant stream of press releases on a preset schedule. The news media no longer devotes space to the latest university news and instead institutions should look for tie-ins with current events and more strongly promote stories with the greatest resonance and relevance to current events.
- Media Guides. Institutions should prepare "media guides" that list faculty in each topic area that are available on short notice to respond to media requests.