Friday, August 10, 2018

Even if you're not in a 'news desert,' that doesn't mean the information needs of your community are being met: study

With daily newspapers shrinking their circulation areas, going less than daily, or even (very rarely) going out of business, there's been a lot of talk in news and journalism-school circles about "news deserts," places (usually defined by county) without a daily local news outlet. Just where they are is still a subject for debate. But a well-documented study shows that even if you're not in a news desert, it's likely that your community's information needs aren't being met.

“Journalistic output is falling very short of serving the important information needs of many communities in America,” Phillip Napoli says in a Duke University news release. He and Matthew Weber of the University of Minnesota and two research assitants took a random sample of 100 cities with populations between 20,000 and 300,000. Twenty cities "received no local news stories in the seven days that we analyzed," Napoli reports in Columbia Journalism Review. "Twelve communities received no original stories during this time period; and eight received no stories addressing a critical information need," as determined by the researchers.

The four looked at more than 16,000 news stories, and coordinated their analysis of them; "44 percent of the stories were original; only 17 percent were local; and 56 percent addressed what we call a critical information need—they provided hard news or information in the public interest, as opposed to soft news like celebrity gossip," Napoli writes. "When we apply all three criteria to the stories we gathered, we find that, on average, only about 11 percent of the stories are local, original, and address a critical information need." You can read the full study here.

What sort of communities have the most robust journalism? Big ones, of course, but when the researchers controlled for size, they found that "Communities that are further from a large media market see more stories overall, and more stories addressing a critical information need," Napoli writes. "This suggests that, to some extent, large-market journalism can flow into surrounding communities and undermine local journalism." It's probably more than that; local papers near larger towns often have trouble competing for circulation with larger papers, and are short of personnel.

The researchers did their work online, with the help of the Internet Archive, which created a custom database with many local news outlets that it hadn't archived before. That means other researchers, or anyone curious about the performance of local news outlets, has a greater trove of information.

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