Report establishes new formula for evaluating quality of local news
How do you measure the health of a local news market? Is it the quality and size of the local daily? The number of reporters in attendance at weekly city council meetings? The size of the audience each outlet has? Or some combination of all three?
A group of researchers from Rutgers set out to answer that question as part of a new report examining the vitality of local news ecosystems in New Jersey. Their solution? Figure out the number of news sources in a city relative to the amount of people living there and you'll begin to get a sense of how abundant and accessible the journalism is.
"We were trying to develop a methodology for assessing how healthy or how robust journalism is in local communities," said Philip Napoli, a professor of journalism and media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. "Trying to develop something that could, in theory, scale, so that we could one day analyze not just three communities, but 50, or 100, and really start to have a better comparative sense of how journalism is doing in different communities."
Specifically, Napoli and his team picked cities of varying size and median income in The Garden State: New Brunswick, Newark and Morristown. Then, they counted up the amount of local news sources in each city and compared total news output of each community against the others.
The result? Morristown, the least populous city in the group with the highest per capita income, far outstripped the other cities in quality and amount of news produced per capita. For every 10,000 residents, journalism sources in Morristown produced 23 times more news stories and 20 times more social media posts than journalism sources in Newark, per the report. Compared to New Brunswick, Morristown journalism sources produced 2.5 more news stories and 3.4 times more social media posts per 10,000 capita.
Based on these results, the report makes a tentative connection between the relative wealth of a community and the quantity and quality of news it produces. Based on the results gleaned from the study, poorer cities and towns might be disadvantaged when it comes to information about the community:
These findings potentially point to a specific type of problem in local journalism, one in which lower-income communities are dramatically underserved relative to wealthier communities, and in which lower-income communities receive the bulk of their news from a smaller range of sources.
Napoli cautions that the study doesn't definitively establish a relationship between income and quality of local news — to make a stronger case one way or the other would require further analysis. Morristown's relatively abundant news sources could have been an anomaly among smaller U.S. cities, as could Newark's comparative dearth of news. There's also the possibility that factors like ethnicity, age, or proximity to a larger media market could affect the news output of a given city.
"There are a lot of possible explanations for the differences that we see," Napoli said. "And that's why we don't want to go too far in terms of any proclamations that we make on the basis of only three communities."
He adds that the report's definition of what constitutes news and who produces it is a subjective one. Napoli's team included radio stations, newspapers, television stations and community news sites in their study, eschewing some local bloggers but adding sources that aren't traditionally considered bastions of news — such as oldies station WMTR in Morristown. The study examined potential sources of news regardless of whether that entity actually produced journalism. To evaluate the quality of the news produced by the outlets selected, Napoli and his team determined whether Web and social media posts met "critical information needs" of residents and to what extent the journalism was original.
Since Napoli et al released the report today, journalists and industry watchers have been weighing in with interpretations of its conclusions. In a post on Medium, Dodge Foundation Director of Journalism Sustainability Josh Stearns underscored that the report helps explain the emergence of so-called news deserts, or holes within various news ecosystems:
These gaps are not simple in their cause or their impact. They structural, cultural and political and need to be addressed at many levels. But, what we are learning through our journalism sustainability work is that many of the solutions to closing these gaps exist in the creativity, passion and expertise of the local communities themselves.
Further analysis is needed to determine whether the differences observed among three towns in New Jersey are more broadly applicable to communities throughout United States and worldwide. But the report does provide researchers with a starting point to quantify which cities are best served by the news outlets in their communities — and which are suffering from a lack of news.
"Assessing the Health of Local Journalism Ecosystems" from Rutgers School of Communication and Information was prepared for the Democracy Fund, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited a Medium post explaining the significance of the Rutgers report. It was co-authored by Josh Stearns and his colleague Molly de Aguiar, not written solely by Stearns.