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How to assess the vibrancy of a community’s news ecosystem

Is there enough news produced by and for your community? How might you know?

That question is increasing in both importance and difficulty, as traditional news sources falter or transform and new sources of information reshape the public’s behavior.

During this time of large and uneven change in how much and what type of news is produced in each community, scholars are exploring a new method of measuring activity in a local news “ecosystem” to see whether the available information meets a community’s needs. This kind of ecosystem analysis can help newsrooms to identify gaps in coverage and underserved communities.

This kind of ecosystem analysis can help newsrooms to identify gaps in coverage and underserved communities.

The new method developed by scholars Philip M. Napoli, Sarah Stonbely, Kathleen McCollough and Bryce Renninger, forthcoming in the academic journal Journalism Practice, provides a systematic way to examine the vibrancy of a news ecosystem, and could offer key strategic insights to newsrooms.

Napoli, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, and his co-authors break up the task of assessing the vibrancy of a local news environment into three steps:

  • Infrastructure. To understand the news infrastructure, one needs to identify journalism sources serving a community. This involves cataloguing the easy-to-find sources of news, such as local newspapers and television news stations, and then adding to the list by searching the internet for other sources of information, such as local blogs or hyperlocal news outlets. The authors also recommend conducting interviews with community members well-versed in local affairs to identify additional news sources. Finally, Napoli and his team recommend looking at whether the media sources are available via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • Output. Output refers to how much news is being produced. For the available community news sources, Napoli and his co-authors count all of the stories that were posted on the homepage within a one-week period. Although they acknowledge that not all news sources are available online, the Rutgers and George Washington University team argue that using digital output is a sufficient proxy that makes the assessment of local news health more scalable.
  • Performance. Investigating news performance is the third step in examining the local information ecosystem. Taking inspiration from a 2012 Federal Communications Commission report, Napoli and his co-authors evaluate whether the news produced in the community contains information about eight different topics: (1) emergencies and risks, (2) health, (3) education, (4) transportation systems, (5) environment and planning, (6) economic development, (7) civic information, and (8) political life. Only coverage about the local community, as opposed to about national trends, is counted. Further, the research team records whether the reporting is original or aggregated from another source.

A “thriving” news ecosystem has a multitude of original local stories relative to its population size. Those with sparse reporting are considered information deserts, in need of additional resources.

A “thriving” news ecosystem has a multitude of original local stories relative to its population size.

Napoli and his colleagues show how the calculations work by evaluating three different New Jersey communities: Newark, New Brunswick and Morristown.

As the table below shows, Newark is the most populous of the three and has the lowest per capita income. In terms of infrastructure, output, and performance, however, Morristown has the strongest news ecosystem.

Morristown residents, compared to Newark and New Brunswick, have access to more sources, more stories, and more original reporting addressing one of the eight topics described earlier. The wealthier community, the research shows, also is the healthier news ecosystem.

Population Per capita income Infrastructure
Number of sources (per 10,000 capita)
Output
Number of stories (per 10,000 capita, approx.)
Performance
Number of original stories addressing community needs (per 10,000 capita, approx.)
Newark 277,000 $13,009 0.58 10 1
New Brunswick 55,000 $16,395 2.36 80 10
Morristown 18,000 $37,573 6.11 200 50

American Press Institute

Although more details about the method and calculations are available in the full paper, this blog post is intended to give newsrooms a starting point for conducting this analysis. By doing the assessment, news organizations will be able to determine how well their community is being served. The information then can be used to strategize about how to position a newsroom in the market. Creative newsrooms could partner with local universities or high schools to make this evaluation more attainable.

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate for deeper analysis:

  • Newsrooms could conduct this analysis and then share the results publicly. If researchers amassed a significant database of different communities, it would enable analysis of what types of communities tend to be information deserts — and that could provide a roadmap for intervening.
  • Research could analyze relationships among infrastructure, output, and performance metrics to identify examples of outliers. Are there communities that have little infrastructure and output, but are doing well on performance, for instance.
  • Scholars could evaluate how well the online news environment serves as a proxy for the health of the news ecosystem. This would involve an in-depth analysis of a subset of communities, focusing on the offline news sources that are missed when looking only online.

Citation

Philip M. Napoli, Sarah Stonbely, Kathleen McCollough, and Bryce Renninger. (2016). Local Journalism and the Information Needs of Local Communities. Journalism Practice. doi: 10.1080/17512786.2016.1146625

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