There has been no shortage of concern lately about the state of local news.
In books, research, and policy briefs, a number of key questions have emerged: Are people’s vital information needs being met at a time when news media in some communities are closing and others are retrenching? What are the impacts of “news deserts,” where people have little access to trusted sources of local information, and how are such gaps manifest in urban as well as rural places? How can we really know whether journalism, the kind believed to be essential to healthy communities and democratic well-being, is broadly available to the people who need it most?
At the same time, we’ve seen experimentation in producing and funding news through digital-only startups, nonprofit initiatives, and the like. To what extent might these efforts help make up for shortfalls in news on key issues as traditional media shrink or disappear? And how does the picture look when we consider how well such news reaches equitably across different types of audiences in a given community?
We get a rather interesting answer to these questions in a new study in the Journal of Communication. The authors — Timothy Neff, Pawel Popiel, and Victor Pickard — develop what they describe as a multi-dimensional approach for evaluating local media systems (i.e., discernible media markets like Chicago, Miami, etc.), with the goal of identifying “potential gaps in news provision, especially among socioeconomically marginalized communities.”
The authors do a deep dive into the greater Philadelphia media market. As the authors note, this is a market with ample experimentation with news models in recent years, but it’s also an area with news outlets that historically chased wealthy suburban residents at the expense of urban audiences.
In the Philly market, the researchers identified 89 print, television, radio, and digital-only outlets — a mixture of “mass-oriented outlets prominent across the city and niche-oriented outlets serving specific geographic or social groups.” To keep the data analysis more manageable and relevant, however, they dropped radio, low-power TV, and smaller affiliate stations, and focused on a final grouping of 38 outlets that represented a combination of ownership types that served a variety of mass and niche audiences. They analyzed these outlets on several dimensions: e.g., the size and socioeconomics of each outlet’s audience, the level of staffing at each news organization, and the nature of the outlet’s news platform (“more recent digital-only entrants in the media system vs. older, legacy outlets that generally combine platforms such as print, broadcast, and digital”).
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