Bursting the Bubble of Rural Media Deserts

Michelle Ferrier
Journalism That Matters
9 min readJul 4, 2018


By Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D.

[This article appears in an abbreviated form at the Columbia Journalism Review.]

I’ve been some kind of way since The New York Times profiled a nearby neighbor in my rural county of Athens County, Ohio. They called him “The Man Who Knew Too Little” because since November 8, 2016, he has managed to create a bubble around his life where no external news can enter. Shaken by the election results, he’s managed to engage others around him, including regulars at a local coffee shop we both frequent, to continue the “blockade” as he enjoys his latte in his favorite chair. No news chit chat with baristas. No news from TV. No news from a newspaper or social media.

Our lives could not be more different. Or represent such extremes here in one small college town in Southeast Ohio. Call me the “Woman Who Knew Too Much.”

I teach journalism, social media and online news at the local university. I’m the founder of TrollBusters, an organization that fights online abuse of journalists worldwide. And I’m the creator of the Media Seeds Project and the Media Deserts Project. Media Seeds is an experiment in sowing nutrients in the “media desert” of rural Ohio by building capacity for communication, journalism and civic engagement. The Media Deserts Project is a research effort to map the ways in which many of our rural and even urban communities are impoverished by the lack of fresh, daily local news and information. I launched the Media Seeds Project in Southeast Ohio in August 2017 to learn what it takes to turn deserts into fertile civic lands. The project is also informed by the Civic Communications Framework developed in 2015 while I was board president of Journalism That Matters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the civic communications health of communities.

You could say I’m jacked into news and information on a cellular level. I drink my morning coffee at home with my cell phone beside me, poised for alerts from my social media monitoring tools about rape and death threats against journalists. I read daily reports on the opioid epidemic in Southeast Ohio and West Virginia. I monitor hashtags like #onlineabuse, #MAGA and #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m on a mission to hunt down people like my neighbor and burst his bubble. Because I think that his cultivated ignorance and its counterparts — willful sowing of confusion and mistrust — are destroying our communities.

My research and work focus on building our capacity for more and better news and information at the local level, but also developing new ways to connect with the people in our neighborhoods and catalyze civic responsibility into local solutions. My methodologies are informed by social media, digital ethnography and narrative mapping techniques that examine geo-specific communities and monitoring digital and physical communications.

Making Media Deserts Visible

I was a local journalist back in 2008, building and growing an online community hub and engaging with local community members. As newspapers cut and slashed personnel through the economic downturn in 2008 or closed completely, they contracted their coverage on their perimeters and in their urban cores. Ownership of local radio stations consolidated in rural areas around right-leaning media organizations. Broadband access and last-mile challenges in rural geographies compounded the issue. Shifts across geography were happening on multiple levels in the media industry that left many geographies lacking robust local media ecosystems.

The Media Deserts Project maps these changes using geographic information systems (GIS) down to the ZIP Code level, so communities can design localized solutions.

I adapted a model developed by Lawrence Lessig that helps examine effects in a systemic way. I use Lessig to examine three layers:

  • Content (news/information),
  • Code (algorithms, policy and law) and
  • Conduit (platforms, Internet access, mobile delivery) layers of the Internet and media products to model local communication ecosystems.

And I use the narrative mapping techniques described by Stephen Mamber and remote sensing practices of environmental scientists as detailed in my dissertation work on digital culture and storytelling that examines the role of digital technologies in creating and sustaining digital identity, social networks and community engagement.

With funding from Duke University and the Democracy Fund, our Media Deserts Research Atlas, launched March 2018, allows users to search by state, county and ZIP code to find what media are operating on these multiple levels or what regulatory conditions might be affecting local access. Just as the Food Access Research Atlas, helped drive policy and decision making at the local level, our goal is to help jumpstart local conversations about building media capacity and helping residents create local solutions and connecting residents. We examine down to the ZIP code level (or ZCTA areas which are the geographic equivalent of the postal system routes) I worked with my colleagues at Ohio University from geography, public policy and journalism to shape our research tool to raise awareness of the dangers of growing media deserts.

Others have tried to make the correlation between these growing “news deserts” and effects on democracy. We believe the focus on news and the content layer masks the other dynamics across the local media ecosystem. Focus on news masks broadband access issues or local politics that concentrate information and governance. Our approach has been to focus on growing sustainable, thriving media ecosystems, customized to local conditions.

For one layer of our model, we use the Alliance for Audited Media data, specifically for daily newspaper circulation. As others have called out, this dataset is problematic in that all daily newspapers are not audited. We use the data to identify areas for deeper analyses, adding additional data from broadband service datasets and hyperlocal news organizations. We have been collecting data on hyperlocal online news sites and other media experiments to fill in the gaps in AAM data from state news organizations, online-only news organizations and social media analyses at the local level. We expect to put these capabilities to work tracking changes in one local ecosystem as the Media Seeds Project in Southeast Ohio begins to take root.

Sowing the Seeds of Civic Communications

Since August 2017, students in my Strategic Social Media and Digital Innovation & Information classes have used digital ethnography methods to create county-level media audits that help provide a view into local communications ecosystems. With funding from the Online News Association Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, the Rural Remote Reporting Project allowed us to deeply explore counties in Southeast Ohio that had been identified as “media deserts” according to our definition.

Students engaged in deep social monitoring and human-centered design practices to design and test communication strategies that explored:

  • “How might we…Foster and celebrate a greater sense of community or sense of place in the county?”
  • “How might we…Help communities affected by the health crisis to thrive?”
  • “How might we…Encourage dialogue and information sharing in our county? New pathways?”

Students worked within the community and in teams to design ideas and solutions using technology and digital media, facilities and environments, social media and mass media, events and programs and other ideas to share information between and with residents in new ways.

Students used a creative matrix to brainstorm possible community based solutions, specific to the user personas and digital ethnography work the conducted.

Students monitored more than 20 counties in Southeast Ohio on social media monitoring tools including Hootsuite, Krzana, Banjo, NUVI and other monitoring tools; observing community behaviors and reporting on their observations. The detailed county-level weekly reports help us examine the local media ecosystem for targeted interventions. Their ethnographic work resulted in a series of tools that may be used by community residents:

  • Community Information Needs Audit: Using the Knight Commission’s audit model, we examined each county on access to government records and media sources. Within each county report, students answer the audit questions on access to government data, media sources, etc. See link to sample report.
  • Digital Ethnography Report: Using Google Earth and Street View, student narrate a “walkaround” in the community, providing commentary about their observations from both street and 10,000-foot views of the geography.
  • Geography/Demography Report: We provided key demographic, geographic and historic features of the region in the county reports that describe media sources in the area, recent news in print, broadcast and online, geographic markers and other visual and narrative data.
  • Weekly Social Media Reports: These weekly summaries Identify key influencers, news of the week, observations about the community social sharing. Identified visual, textual and thematic content from community conversations on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Community Dashboard: This social media directory, provided in .xls format, provides the names, address and social media profiles of key agencies, organizations and social media influencers discovered during our monitoring. (Available upon request.)
  • User Personas: We culled our social media observations into 10 user personas — personalities that are representative of the characteristics of social media users of the region. (See sample posters in images below.)
Students created multiple user personas crafted from the online personalities they encountered in their social monitoring during the fall of 2017.
  • Stakeholder Mapping: We identified communication sources and communication influencers in this visual communication mapping exercise. See examples below.
  • Creative Matrix: We designed for community communication needs using different stakeholders and diverse media and communication tools. See image below.
  • Social Media Strategies for User Personas: News and Information: We specifically examined news and information more broadly, looking at key influencers and designed strategies for specific user personas. Students provided county-specific reports on user social habits, shared news/social content, influencers and other social media of the region. (Available upon request.)
  • Social Media Strategies for User Personas: Health/Opioid Social Strategy: We provided a strategy for reaching residents with public health issue messaging and tools using online and physical strategies. (Available upon request.)
  • Local Media Brand Strategy (Where Available): If local newspapers, radio and other media existed in the county, the student reports provide recommendations for building the capacity using social tools. (Available upon request.)
  • Targeted Communication Survey: ZIP-code specific surveys collected data about residents and their media habits. Questions also focused on community well-being indicators. Specific comments are captured in transparent images circulated back to the community.
One stakeholder map created by students examined who are core influencers around sharing community information as well as other places where information is exchanged locally.

The reports from Morgan and Meigs Counties, Ohio are being used as part of a participatory design process with community residents. The Media Seeds Project, a project of Journalism That Matters and Your Voice Ohio, funded by the Democracy Fund, is working with community residents in Meigs and Morgan County to build communication solutions, localized to geographic conditions.

Media Seeds also enables us to test a set of principles for community development that we created at Journalism That Matters when we brought together journalists, community members, students, educators, and others. At two events, Experience Engagement in 2015 and Elevate Engagement in 2017, these diverse groups began to describe a new way of engaging in community based on principles that guide our behaviors. We’re guiding the Media Seeds project by the principles those emerged:

  • Nothing about us without us
  • Speak truth to empower
  • Listening is our superpower

These principles build on both the media deserts research and community development work I began in North Carolina in 2011 and on a framework for civic communication we developed when I was Journalism That Matters board president.

We hope the project will help us learn more about strategies for turning media deserts into civic communications oases. Ultimately, we hope to cultivate a community communications infrastructure to support a thriving civic life. We’ll sow what we learn in other media deserts to nurture community revival.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the principal investigator for The Media Deserts Project, a joint research initiative of the Department of Geography and the Voinovich School for Public Policy and Leadership at Ohio University. She is an associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and the founder of Troll-Busters.com. She is a co-author on the book chapter “Media Deserts: Monitoring the Changing Media Ecosystem,” in The Communication Crisis in America, And How to Fix It, 1st ed. (2016), Palgrave, p. 217 and co-author of the chapter, “Further Down the Virtual Vines: Managing Community-Based Work in Virtual Public Spaces, (January 2015)



Michelle Ferrier
Journalism That Matters

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters. She is a digital content architect and principal investigator for the Media Deserts Project.