What Communities are at Risk of Becoming News Deserts? Questions with Phil Napoli

Philip Napoli, Professor, Duke Sanford School of Public Policy

While the economic challenges confronting news organizations are well documented, there is less research into how this affects the quality and quantity of local news. In an effort to better identify which communities are at risk of becoming news deserts, a Duke University team analyzed the digital news stories produced by local media outlets in 100 randomly selected communities throughout the country. In 20 communities – or one in five – there were no news stories on issues or events of local interest during a seven-day period in August and September 2016. Only 43 percent of the 16,000 news stories analyzed were produced by media outlets located in those communities, and only 17 percent were about local issues and events.  These findings raise concerns about the decline in local reporting and provide “some of the most comprehensive evidence to date of the magnitude of the news deserts problem confronting local communities,” according to the authors of the report.

As the James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy, Philip Napoli, who headed the Duke University team, focuses his research on assessing the health of local news ecosystems and understanding the importance of local media outlets to the communities where they are located.  He is the author of three books, including Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences, and has engaged in research collaborations with numerous agencies and organizations, including the Federal Communications Commission and National Association of Broadcasters.

Click here to read Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News.

How did this research advance our understanding of the issues?

Most research on local journalism has involved detailed case studies examining the state of local journalism in a single community, or a limited number of communities. What we wanted to do with this project was to conduct our analysis at a scale across multiple media outlets that would allow us to determine the robustness of local news across a large number of communities. We also wanted to determine if the news being provided to local communities involved original, locally produced journalism that addressed critical information needs such as articles focused on health, education, economic development or civic life. So, with this study we weren’t limited to analyzing a specific issue, a specific community, or a specific media type. My hope is that this aspect of the research helps the findings to resonate.  In terms of the specific findings, some things that struck me as important were:

  1.  the lack of stories about issues and events of interest to residents in the communities;
  2.  the fact that the location of a media outlet in a county seat had no impact on news output, which seems to support the contention that local government coverage is being neglected these days;
  3. communities with larger Hispanic/Latino populations are receiving less original, local journalism.
What did you learn about communities that are most at risk?

The two types of communities with the least amount of locally produced stories about relevant and important issues were those with large populations of Hispanic/Latino residents and those communities that were close to large metro media markets.  On the other hand, we found that communities with universities are better served than communities without universities, suggesting that universities make important contributions to a local news ecosystem.  Our plan is to try to drill down deeper into the communities at both the high and low end of our spectrum, to see what else we might be able to learn about how/why communities are served well or poorly by their local media outlets.

What lessons are there for non-journalists, including policy makers, philanthropists and community activists?

Personally, I think the biggest lesson is that we need to start having a more serious conversation in this country about non-commercial models for journalism.  I think the big picture takeaway from our study is that it shows how the economics of journalism today make it incredibly difficult for local new outlets to be able to really focus on the kind of reporting that serves communities’ information needs.

What sort of follow-up research would be most beneficial?

There are a couple of directions we’d like to go. One is to integrate characteristics of the ownership of media outlets into our analysis to see if ownership influences the quality and quantity of news and information provided to a community. Another (which we’re working on now) is to focus on different types of outlets, in order to provide a current investigation into the common assertion that it is still the local newspaper that is the primary source of original local reporting in most communities.  It would be interesting to know if this is still the case, or whether the newer digital outlets are making substantial contributions. And, finally, in many ways the real value of this work comes when you’re able to analyze trends over time. So we’re looking at possibly trying to do this type of data gathering and analysis at regular intervals. But to do that, we really need to figure how to make the process faster and less expensive. This means we’re exploring ways of possibly automating the coding process.