“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1787 (“Letter to Edward Carrington”)

The decline of the printing newspaper industry is old news. Whatever the indicator we look at – sales/circulation, revenues, number of active journalists, number of active newspapers, or ad revenues – we are bound to conclude that newspapers are experiencing a life-threatening situation.

In the internet age and with the meteoric rise of social media sites, print and online newspapers have to compete with alternative advertising and communication models, bear diminishing reader interest, and face significant revenue cuts.

Total estimated circulation of US daily newspapers has steadily declined since the late 1980s, from approximately 63 million to 31 million presently. Advertisement revenue of US newspapers has also plunged from $49 billion in 2005 to $17 billion in 2017. The newsroom workforce is down to 39,210, from 74,410 in 2006 (a 47% decrease).

Paradoxically, their decline reminds us of their importance. Print and online newspapers are the guardians of democracy and the rule of law. They provide information to citizens, mobilize groups around issues, and serve as a watchdog against wrongdoings or excesses of power.

The current jumble of available information does not belittle the value of newspapers – quite the contrary. Researchers have established a link between the decline of local news and reduced citizen engagement in politics, and have shown the role of independent media in Africa’s return to democracy in the 1990s. Along similar lines, Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s survey of civic participation in Italy, Making Democracy Work, demonstrates that the regions with the highest levels of newspaper readership were the same regions in which a strong civic community was the norm. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America: “If there were no newspapers there would be no common activity.”

But despite their inherent worth newspapers are being sidelined from global flows of capital, and new avenues need to be built to connect surplus to scarcity.

To address this, the Granito Center for the Impact Economy, Granito Group’s think tank, is today launching the Newspaper Impact Rating (NIR), a tool to measure the relevance and social impact of newspapers. The beta version of the NIR presents 38 questions in four categories: “Content” (15 questions), “Reach and Engagement” (10 questions), “Independence” (10 questions), and “Seniority” (3 questions). There are 220 aggregated points allocated to these four categories. At the end, newspapers are placed in a four-tier ranking, ranging from Superior Impact (+176 points), High Impact (110-175 points), Regular Impact (68-109 points), Low Impact (22-67 points) and No Impact (below 22 points).

“Content” relates to the production of original explanatory, investigative and niche journalism in a fair, impactful, objective, ethical and well-sourced way. “Reach and Engagement” refers to the audience – how many people consume content – and their involvement – how much people move beyond just consuming to a range of more participatory behaviors, such as sharing, commenting, or action. “Independence,” on the other hand, pertains to the right to communicate ideas, opinions, and information without restraint.

Finally, “Seniority” alludes to the capacity of newspapers to serve as depositaries of information on the progress of societies across history. The Swedish Post- och Inrikes Tidningar, the oldest currently published newspaper in the world, dates back to 1645. Other mainstream European newspapers such as The Times (1785), The Guardian (1821), Le Figaro (1826) or The Financial Times (1888) have served as first-hand eyewitnesses to all major political, economic and social shifts. They are monuments that warrant protection.

Fresh capital in an old industry

Ranking newspapers according to their NIR is likely to unlock pools of capital to the highest rated in at least three ways:

1. Wider readership. As readers become progressively comfortable with the idea of paying for content, newspapers’ revenue models are increasingly dependent on paywalls. This changes the rules of the game. Instead of hunting for ads, newspapers are directly chasing readers. And if a reader equally appreciates reading The Washington Post as they do The New York Times, but they wish to pay only for one subscription, the NIR could become a deciding factor. Newspapers will push their way up their impact ranking to attract more readers in the same way as universities strive for high standings in global education rankings to attract the most talented students and qualified professors.

2. Impact investing. One of the trendiest investment disciplines, it is defined as investments made into companies, organizations and funds with the intention to generate both financial return and positive social and/or environmental impacts that are actively measured. According to the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), the industry is worth $228 billion – a 100% increase since last year. To move capital, impact investors demand both the financial and social angles of their allocations to be properly measured. And therefore the impact investing industry has developed a set of guidelines to measure impact, mostly in sectors such as education, healthcare, housing or poverty mitigation (e.g. IRIS). For new sectors to be taken into consideration by impact investors, their social relevance would need to be properly demonstrated. With the NIR, impact investors would be equipped to look at independent and quality newspapers as possible investment targets.

3. Philanthropy. Donating for social causes has moved from a personal check-writing exercise to a sophisticated industry that increasingly demands impact to be precisely defined and methodically measured. Global philanthropy has exceeded $150 billion per annum, but that money has only marginally supported newspapers. In the future, however, resources could be injected into independent newspapers, provided that their social role is adequately mapped and that their legal status is adjusted to a non-profit corporation or foundation. In fact, this will likely become a more conventional track in the future. The membership base of the Institute for Nonprofit News, for instance, reached 188 American organizations by January 2019, up from 27 in 2009. In the US, leading non-profit organizations include Harper’s Magazine, one of the oldest general-interest magazines in America (established in 1850), Mother Jones, or the Voice of San Diego, the first all-digital nonprofit news company in the country.

Measurement is, in fact, not new to journalism. Virtually no major newspaper abstains from tracking their print circulation and web traffic in the form of volume, reach or engagement. But as a recent article published by the International Journalists’ Network has alerted: “Media have only scratched the surface in assessing their value to the world. To better understand and deliver that value, we need to improve how we measure the true impact of journalism.”

The Newspaper Impact Rating (NIR) in practice

The process is quite straightforward. To receive their rating, newspapers need first to complete the NIR questionnaire and submit supporting materials. Then the Granito Center team independently verifies the accuracy of the answers and engages by phone with the newspaper to further review them. Although the aggregated rating is made public, specific answers are kept confidential as some segments are regarded by newspapers as too sensitive and strategic.

We beta-tested the NIR with O Estado de São Paulo (popularly known as Estadão), one of Latin America’s oldest and largest newspapers (founded in 1875). The assessment was supported by board president Roberto Mesquita and CEO Francisco Mesquita, and was spearheaded internally by executive editor João Gabriel de Lima, who, together with executive editor David Friedlander, answered the questionnaire and provided all necessary supporting materials.

In a scale from 1 to 220, Estadão reached 182 points, broken down as: “Content” (70 out of 80 points), “Reach and Engagement” (40 out of 50 points), “Independence” (42 out of 60 points), and “Seniority” (30 out of 30). The 182 score places the Brazilian newspaper in the highest category (“Superior Impact”).

The NIR provides clarity in a field that is still marked more by subjectivity and marketing than by accurate ways to tell apart those media projects that provide an important service to society from those communication vehicles that may have other interests in mind. Measurement makes it easier for journalists and media owners to explain their relevance to their communities and financial backers.

Adolph Ochs, who became the publisher of The New York Times in 1896, was a chief advocate of a new standard of reporting that came to be coined as “objective journalism”, which ultimately led to exceptional circulation rates. If the correlation between independence/reputation and higher sales has since been disrupted by market obligations, the future of “clean, dignified and trustworthy” media (as Ochs described his newspaper) may depend on having its relevance and social impact measured. Ironically, those sacred places of word craftsmanship would need to rely on numbers to stand out.