The findings below are simplified for the purpose of clarity; please see the full paper for definitions and variable operationalization.
In April 2020, as the full scale of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, local journalists were designated “essential workers,” under the recognition that local news and information is crucial during times of crisis (News Media Alliance, 7 April 2020; NPPA n.d.).
In the places that have lost sources of local journalism, all sorts of negative ripple effects have been empirically documented (Barthel, Holcomb, Mahone, and Mitchell, 2016; Darr, Hitt, and Dunaway, 2018; Filla and Johnson, 2010; Gao, Lee, and Murphy, 2020; Hayes and Lawless, 2018; 2015; Shaker, 2014; Snyder and Stromberg, 2010), confirming the importance of local news and information to a community’s broader civic and structural health.
This follows more than a decade of declining revenue for all but a handful of local news outlets as advertising revenue has migrated to platforms, social media and niche sites, and audiences have fragmented or turned away from news entirely (Bell, Rashidian, Brown, and Hansen, 2018; Palmer and Toff, 2020; Prior, 2007).
It is in this context that interest in news deserts has grown, as people seek to understand the impact of these trends (Abernathy, 2018; Ferrier, n.d.; Stites, 2011). It has become increasingly clear that robust local journalism, like access to fresh groceries and decent banking options, is strongly correlated to things like median household income, education level, and race (e.g. Hamilton & Morgan, 2018; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019).
Further, conducting comparative research that allows statistical correlation of structural characteristics with the robustness of local news provision has been difficult and rarely attempted. One exception is a 2018 study by Napoli, Weber, McCollough and Wang which compared 100 communities. By contrast, this study compares 565 communities — making it perhaps the largest comparative study of the structural correlates of local news provision to date.
By understanding where robust journalism exists (local news “oases”), and where people are not having their critical information needs met (local news deserts), the many organizations that work to sustain and grow local journalism can provide more targeted relief and assistance.
This research is part of a multi-phase, multi-year effort to understand local news provision — in detail yet at scale. The state of New Jersey acts as both laboratory and pilot for testing and implementing a new method for evaluating local journalism provision; namely, rather than mapping news provision by where an outlet’s newsroom is based, news provision is mapped by coverage area, where a news outlet is counted in each municipality it says it covers (note that coverage area is self-reported, at least in this phase of the project).
News provision is then tied to various structural characteristics of municipalities: median household income, average educational attainment, character of the community (rural/suburban/urban), municipal spending, and demographic makeup (% African American and % Hispanic). The findings were as follows.
- 779 local news providers serving New Jersey were identified. Of the 779 total outlets, 683 (88%) are physically based in New Jersey, 42 (5%) are based in Pennsylvania (primarily Philadelphia), and 35 (5%) are based in New York (primarily New York City) (the rest are based in Delaware, Connecticut, or elsewhere). This variable shows one way in which this method is different from mapping projects that use the location of an outlet’s newsroom as a proxy for the audience it serves; there are nearly 100 local news outlets serving some part of New Jersey that are based across state lines. The largest percentage is still newspapers, at 40 percent, but the proportion that are online is nearly equal, at 35 percent (television stations, radio, and magazines make up the rest).
- More affluent municipalities are more likely to have a greater number of local news providers serving them, while a community in the lowest income bracket (median household income of $25,000 to $50,000) is more than twice as likely to be a news desert (0–2 outlets per capita). This measure is statistically significant.
- Suburban communities are by far the best-served municipalities compared to urban and rural communities. In addition rural communities are the most likely to be news deserts, meaning they have zero or one local news provider (zero urban municipalities fall into this category). The number of urban communities in each outlet-count bracket steadily increases as the number of outlets increases, showing that population density is positively associated with a greater number of local news originators. This measure is statistically significant.
- Communities that spend the most money per capita (municipal spending) also have the highest number of local news outlets covering them. The middle bracket of municipal spending is the largest, covering more than half of the municipalities, and the amount of coverage these communities receive varies widely. There are 18 communities that spend more than $3,000 per capita and 54 communities spending between $1,000 and $2,000 per capita that have a weighted count of between zero and two local news outlets per capita covering them. This measure is statistically significant.
- Municipalities with the greatest percentage of Hispanic residents are most likely to be news deserts, while the likelihood of having a higher number of local news outlets increases as the percentage of the population that is Hispanic decreases. This structural measure is highly significant. While municipalities that have the highest percentage of African Americans are also most likely to be news deserts, this measure was not statistically significant.
- Educational attainment was not found to be a statistically significant indicator of local news provision.
How can knowledge about the structural correlates of local news provision be used to help solve the local journalism crisis? The method introduced here suggests that mapping local news provision by coverage area provides a more accurate accounting of which communities are covered. By linking coverage to relevant characteristics of a community at scale, patterns in the structural correlates of local news provision may be observed.
However there is still work to be done; the coverage areas used here are self-reported. To understand which communities are actually covered — in addition to other important questions — a content analysis is required. This is the next phase of this project.
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Sarah Stonbely, PhD, is the research director at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Sarah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a 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.