The News Measures Research Project (NMRP) team, a research initiative led by Shepley Professor Philip Napoli, has published new findings from a study that measures the health and rigor of the local news infrastructures in communities.
Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News
PHILIP M. NAPOLI, MATTHEW WEBER, KATIE MCCOLLOUGH & QUN WANG
The economic challenges confronting local journalism have been well documented. Both of the revenue streams that local news organizations have traditionally relied upon (subscriptions and advertising) have been dramatically undermined as journalism production, distribution, and consumption have migrated online. And yet, while we know that local journalism is suffering, we know relatively little about whether all communities are being affected in the same way.
And yet, while we know that local journalism is suffering, we know relatively little about whether all communities are being affected in the same way.
- Are some types of communities suffering worse than others?
- Are there particular characteristics of individual communities that are related to the state of their local journalism?
These questions remain largely unanswered because, to date, most research on local journalism has involved detailed case studies examining the state of local journalism in a single community, or in a very limited number of communities. In addressing this gap in our understanding of local journalism, this study has three goals:
- To present a rigorous, replicable, methodological approach to assessing the robustness of local journalism across a large number of communities.
- To provide descriptive data on the robustness of local journalism that will provide indicators of the extent to which local communities are receiving journalism that is original, local, and that addresses critical information needs.
- To explore whether there are any relationships between the demographic and geographic characteristics of individual communities and the robustness of the local journalism that is available to those communities.
Drawing upon an analysis of over 16,000 news stories, gathered over seven days, across 100 randomly sampled U.S. communities, this study found that:
- Eight communities contained no stories addressing critical information needs.
- Twelve communities contained no original news stories.
- Twenty communities contained no local news stories.
In addition, this study found that:
- Only about 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community are truly local – that is actually about or having taken place within – the municipality.
- Less than half (43 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets are original (i.e., are produced by the local media outlet).
- Just over half (56 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets address a critical information need.
In addition, this study identified community characteristics that appear to be systematically related to the robustness of the local journalism that a community receives. The key characteristics identified in this anlaysis include:
- Distance from a large media market (the smaller the distance, the less robust is the local journalism).
- Number of universities (the more universities in a community, the more robust is the local journalism).
- Hispanic/Latino population (the greater the proportion of a community’s population that is Hispanic/Latino, the less robust is the journalism in that community).
This study also found no significant relationship between a community’s status as the county seat and the quantity or robustness of local journalism. This finding indicates that the presence of county government activity fails to generate any increases in journalistic production, which suggests that such government activity may no longer lead to a commitment of greater journalistic resources. Such a pattern would seem to reinforce contemporary concerns about the decline in local government reporting.
Overall, these findings provide some of the most comprehensive evidence to date of the magnitude of the news deserts problem confronting local communities. These findings, however, offer limited evidence of journalism divides – which we define as patterns in the availability of robust journalism that follow the geographic and demographic patterns that have characterized the digital divide.
Research through the NMRP project is ongoing, with a team of undergraduate, graduate students, and post-graduates from Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and Rutgers collecting data and learning more about the news media ecosystems of communities across the United States.
The NMRP Project has been supported by The Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.