Helping three local news and information outlets understand their community’s information needs

Sarah Stonbely
Center for Cooperative Media
4 min readMar 15

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The Center for Cooperative Media just wrapped up a year-long project to assess the information needs of three New Jersey communities. Funded by a Google News Initiative North American challenge grant, the research was designed to help three nascent news and information outlets better understand the information needs of their communities.

The three outlets were chosen in part because they were all grantees of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium — a first-in-the-nation public funding initiative begun in 2018.

The research included an online survey asking community members questions about how they find local news and information, what kinds of topics they are most interested in, and their general feelings about their towns. In one community — Paterson — the survey was distributed in four languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali), to reach as many members of this diverse population as possible.

In each town we also convened at least two focus groups, where community members gathered in-person (with one exception) to share their thoughts and conversation with a professional facilitator, who used roughly the same questions as those asked in the survey; however, the focus groups allowed for interaction and a more nuanced picture of the information landscape.

While the three communities we worked with — Paterson, Trenton, and Blairstown, NJ — differ in important ways, there are also commonalities in terms of people’s desires for local news and information.

☑️ Service journalism wanted

First, all three communities expressed a desire for some form of “service journalism,” whether it was in the form of more information about the location and content of municipal government meetings, how to find service providers, or contact information for local leaders. Content like this may seem like low-hanging fruit, but publishers who can keep up-to-date and reliable lists like this — all in one place — would provide tangible benefit to their communities.

☑️ Social media relied on for news

Second, we learned that people in all three communities rely heavily on Facebook for news and information about their towns and the people in them. While not everyone enjoys the often partisan or misleading information that circulates so easily on Facebook, it is still one of the first to be updated when news breaks and one of the best places for publishers to be highly visible.

☑️ Multi-language content wanted, plus solutions-oriented news

Finally, in two of the three communities — Paterson and Trenton — people want more local news about crime and safety. In two others — Paterson and Blairstown — the publishers may grow their audience if they offer their content in languages other than English. In all three, at least some people mentioned wanting more feel-good, solutions-oriented local news.

After conducting the information needs assessments in each of the three towns, the publishers we worked with were given reports detailing and summarizing the feedback from their communities, along with recommendations for changes to their product to make it more responsive to those information needs. All three publishers are now in the process of making those improvements, armed with a clearer idea of the kinds of news and information their audience desires.

The results of this project provide valuable insights for local news and information outlets looking to serve their communities better. By identifying the commonalities in people’s desires for local news and information across the three communities, publishers can better understand their audience and tailor their content accordingly. Armed with the feedback and recommendations provided in the reports, the three publishers involved in this project are taking steps to make improvements that will make their newsgathering efforts more responsive to the information needs of their communities.

Ultimately, this project serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding and meeting the information needs of local communities.

Sarah Stonbely, PhD is the research director for the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact her at stonbelys@montclair.edu

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.

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Sarah Stonbely
Center for Cooperative Media

Sarah Stonbely, PhD is the Research Director of the Center for Cooperative Media, in Montclair, NJ.