More Loss of Local News: Questions with April Lindgren

April Lindgren, Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson University and principal investigator for the Local News Research Project.

The widespread loss of local news isn’t just a U.S. problem. It’s an international one, affecting our neighbors to the north at nearly the same rapid rate. In Canada, 260 news outlets – including more than 200 newspapers, two dozen broadcast outlets and a dozen online news sites – have closed or merged within the past 10 years. And much like the United States, the closure of local news outlets is rapidly outpacing the launch of digital news sites to fill the void. More than one-fifth (225) of Canadian newspapers have closed since 2008. This includes the closure of 189 community weeklies and 36 daily papers. April Lindgren, the Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto, quantifies this disappearance as the head of the Local News Research Project.

The Local News Research Project’s investigation into the loss of local news includes the creation of the Local News Map, which tracks changes to news outlets across Canada. The crowd-sourced map, created by Lindgren and collaborator Jon Corbett from the University of British Columbia, documents the launch of new local news outlets, the closing of local news operations and service increases/decreases dating back to 2008. As of Oct. 1, 2018, there were more than 350 markers on the map indicating a loss or diminishment in news—such as closures, mergers, dailies shifting to weekly publication and decreases in TV stations and radio service. In contrast, there are only 93 markers on the map indicating new media outlets that have been created.

Lindgren coined the phrase “local news poverty” to describe the condition when the critical information needs of residents in a community are not being met. These critical information needs are related to issues traditionally covered by local newspapers, from health and transportation to education. Lindgren has also documented how local news is available unevenly across the country. Along with Jaigris Hodson from Royal Roads University, she analyzed how local news media in Canadian municipalities covered local races during Canada’s 2015 federal election. The results showed that the amount of news coverage and access to diverse sources of news varied significantly according to where people lived.

Read about the local news map’s strengths and weaknesses as a research tool here. A summary of the election study results is available here.

How did you become interested in this topic and research?

I was fascinated by the fact that Brampton, a large suburban municipality near Toronto with nearly 700,000 people, until recently had no local radio station, no local television station, no daily newspaper and no serious online news outlets. A new investigative online site launched recently, but until it came along, the city’s residents had only one local news source, a community newspaper that publishes once per week and its companion website. The extent to which this suburban center and others are underserved in terms of local news, combined with a steady stream of headlines about newsroom shutdowns and cutbacks across the country, raised a whole bunch of questions. Are local online sites springing up to replace the loss of traditional news sources? To what extent are the critical local information needs of citizens being met? It turned out there were no good answers to these questions in Canada, so I decided to try to fill in some of these gaps.

What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your findings?

As I began investigating the availability of local news in different communities, it became obvious that some were better served than others. I thought the idea of local news poverty would be a useful concept because it allows for comparisons – some places will suffer more from local news poverty than others. The work of Lewis Friedland, Philip Napoli, Katherine Ognyanova, Carola Weil and Ernest J. Wilson III identifying the critical information needs of communities provided a framework for measuring local news poverty. Relative levels of news poverty are determined based on the extent to which these information needs are being met. For the election study, we borrowed heavily from the methodology Philip Napoli developed for his comparison of local news ecosystems.

What did you learn?

Local News Map has become a go-to source in Canada for up-to-date data on what is happening to local news in large, small, urban and rural communities.  No comprehensive data were available on the disruption underway in local journalism and the map has helped address that need. Visually, and in terms of the data we can download, the map tells a powerful story of news outlet losses that are outpacing the launch of new ventures by a ratio of three to one. We’ve also noticed that only a limited number of online news operations are emerging to replace traditional news sources such as newspapers.

The election study examined eight municipalities—a mix of rural, urban and suburban communities—to determine how much coverage local media produced about their area’s race for members of Parliament during the 2015 federal election. We found major differences in the number of news outlets, the number of stories they produced and how active they were in making their content more widely available via Facebook. Federal election coverage was selected for the study because it was a natural experiment that allowed for direct comparisons, that is, the election happened everywhere at the same time. That meant we didn’t have to control for major local events (a massive fire or city hall political scandal) that would have caused a surge of local coverage in any one community.

What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

The map and the election study point to local news that is at risk and unevenly available across Canada. The loss of local news operations highlighted by the map has attracted the attention of politicians debating a potential public policy response. The differences in the availability of local news revealed by the election study raises concerns about whether citizens have access to the information they need to cast an informed vote. To the extent that the election coverage can be considered a proxy or indicator of the overall vibrancy of a local news ecosystem, the study results also suggest that some communities are better off overall than others when it comes to the availability of local news.

Detailed content analyses like the one we did for the election study are expensive and time-consuming, so we’re exploring the idea of creating a diagnostic checklist that can be used to identify whether communities are at risk of news poverty. If the CBC, the public broadcaster, has a newsroom in the community, does that mitigate against news poverty? Does proximity to a major media hub like Toronto make it more challenging for local news operations to survive? If we can answer these sorts of questions and identify what makes some communities more vulnerable than others to local news poverty, then we can create a checklist that citizens and others can use to assess whether or not they are at risk. It may be that our eight-municipality election study isn’t large enough for us to draw any conclusions, but I think we will gain some insights.

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.

How Can Public Broadcasters Become More Digitally Savvy? Questions with Annika Sehl

Public broadcasters such as the BBC have historically played an essential role in informing citizens, but many have struggled to adapt digitally.   Most recent studies focus on the external challenges confronting public broadcasters, such as funding sources, but fail to consider how internal factors can stymie or accelerate digital innovation. Dr. Annika Sehl, a trained newsbroadcaster and author of a book on digital journalism in Germany, tackles these questions as part of the “Digital News Project,” housed at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Sehl and her colleagues conducted 36 interviews across six European countries to probe for challenges and solutions facing organizations historically known as public service broadcasters, such as the BBC in the UK or ZDF in Germany. Sehl highlights differences across the European countries. The BBC reaches 68 percent of 18-24 year olds with news across online and offline platforms, compared to a paltry 24 percent of Germany’s ZDF.

Drawing on these observations, Sehl identifies four factors necessary for successful development of new forms of digital news creation and delivery.  Public broadcasting organizations must have strong support from senior leadership, buy-in from the wider newsroom, cross-functional, autonomous teams and an audience-centric approach. Sehl and her team argue that all four factors are crucial, not substitutable. An organization must have all of them to implement transformative change.

Beyond these factors, Sehl found that these organizations can bolster their chances of success by developing a department specifically for news, bringing in new talent and working with external partners. In the below interview, Sehl discusses how she grew interested in this topic, its implications and what’s next on her research agenda. In addition to her work on public service media, Sehl and her colleagues have just published a report applying the same framework to private sector news organizations.

 

  • How did you become interested in this topic and this research?

 

Public service media have enjoyed a strong position in European countries for decades but they are struggling to be online news providers. They face many external challenges such as funding, pressure from private sector media competitors, the rise of platform companies, and continued changes in media use.  I worked with Alessio Cornia and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen to address challenges and solutions to public media organizations in six European countries: Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Poland.

 

  • What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your study?

 

Our research builds on previous studies from the early 2000s on how both private sector and public service media organizations are adapting to digital media. Studies analyzing private sector media are largely focused on the interplay between internal organizational factors and external structural factors but studies on public service media tend to focus only on external changes in funding and governance, largely ignoring internal factors.

With our research, we aim to contribute to the field by examining both internal organizational and external institutional factors and their interplay for adapting to an increasingly digital media environment. We realize that public service media have similarities and differences from private sector media, which is why we have divided our studies into two separate reports. We offer a systematic analysis of more countries and public service media organizations than ever before.

 

  • What did you learn?

 

We learned that there are four external conditions and two internal conditions that relatively high performing organizations in our sample have in common. The four external conditions are: (1) they operate in technologically advanced media markets; (2) they are well-funded compared to many other public service media organizations; (3) they are integrated and centrally organized and work across all platforms; (4) they have a degree of insulation from direct political influence. The two internal conditions are a pro-digital culture where new media are seen as opportunities rather than threats and senior editorial leaders who have clearly and publicly underscored the need to continually change the organization.

 

In terms of specific news products, we learned that there are foundational and facilitating factors to develop new products. These are: (1) strong and public support from senior leadership; (2) buy-in from the wider newsroom; (3) the creation of cross-functional teams with the autonomy, skills, and resources to lead and deliver on projects; and (4) an audience-centric approach. We also found three facilitating factors: (1) having a development department specifically for news; (2) bringing in new talent; and (3) working with external partners. While the first four foundational factors cannot be substituted, the last three factors represent specific solutions.

 

  • What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

 

Our research shows that public service media, despite being dependent on external factors like funding, have a responsibility and opportunity to change their internal conditions to adapt to an increasingly digital media environment. To stay relevant, they have to change and to develop their digital offerings. They need to try new things, take risks and have the freedom to fail. Development is a process, not an end result.

In September 2017 we published a report on private sector media, led by my colleague Alessio Cornia. At the end of our Digital News Project we will be able to present a comprehensive cross-national and cross-organizational comparative analysis of news organizations' digital strategies, examining public service and private sector media across six European countries.