Often, conversations around news impact focus on outcomes. But what if the first step for making a difference in a community is simply having viable, diverse outlets?
A recent study from the Rutgers School of Communication and Information’s News Measures Research Project examines the health of “local journalism ecosystems” in three New Jersey communities — and finds that lower-income communities are likely to receive both less and lower-quality news from fewer sources.

The Assessing the Health of Local Journalism Ecosystems report, funded by the Democracy Fund, the Dodge Foundation and the Knight Foundation, aims to lay the groundwork for “reliable, scalable performance metrics” to gauge how local news coverage supports democratic participation.

Led by Rutgers Professor Phil Napoli, the research team analyzed a one-week sample of news stories and social media posts in Newark, New Brunswick and Morristown. They assessed these communities across three dimensions of news ecosystem health:

  • the journalistic infrastructure: the number of news sources per capita as well as the social media presence of each source
  •  journalistic output: the number of stories and social media posts across those sources over a set period of time
  • journalistic performance: the extent to which local news content is addressing communities’ information needs, as indicated by both originality of reporting and a content analysis determining if the stories addressed one of eight topics identified through research by Lew Friedland of the University of Wisconsin as “critical”—i.e., emergencies/risks, health, education, transportation systems, environment/planning, economic development, civic information and political life.

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“[N]ot only was there less journalism in the lower-income communities,” the researchers concluded, “but also a smaller proportion of this journalism output in these communities met basic criteria for quality when compared to a wealthier community such as Morristown.… The obvious question raised by this research is whether these patterns would persist if this analytical approach were scaled up and applied to a larger sample of communities.”
The report notes that prioritizing analysis of online news might miss reporting that appears only in print or radio, as could be the case in low-income communities with lower broadband penetration. This chasm might deepen further, given that “the economic infrastructure to support a public service model of journalism is likely stronger in wealthier communities. This may ultimately exacerbate what appears to be a journalism gap between wealthier and poorer communities as the traditional economic models of journalism continue to erode.”
These findings feed into a larger philanthropic collaboration that’s seeking multiple new methods for bolstering news coverage in New Jersey.
“These gaps are not simple in their cause or their impact,” write Molly de Aguiar and Josh Sterns in a post for The Dodge Foundation’s Local News Lab, produced with support from Knight.
“They [are] structural, cultural and political and need to be addressed at many levels. But, what we are learning through our journalism sustainability work is that many of the solutions to closing these gaps exist in the creativity, passion and expertise of the local communities themselves.”
We’ll hear more from Media and Communications Program Director de Aguiar on what the foundation is learning from news collaboration and sustainability experiments at our September 26 event, Emerging Strategies for Supporting Local and Ethnic Reporting.
This funders-only discussion will take place alongside the Online News Association conference at the Annenberg Foundation’s Skylight Studios, where we’ll also hear from:

  • Jennifer Choi of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, who will reveal new grantmaking strategies designed to reinvigorate journalism’s democratic role;
  • Mary Lou Fulton of the California endowment, who will share how ethnic media is becoming the “new mainstream,” and what that means for funders;
  • Bill Davis and Edgar Aguirre  from LA-based public radio station KPCC, who will offer strategies for better serving America’s rapidly growing Latino populations.

Register today to learn from your peers, and to join an afternoon networking session where you can share your own work and questions about supporting local news that makes an impact.

About the Author
Jessica Clark

Jessica Clark

Research Consultant

Jessica is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders, and the founder and director of media production/strategy firm Dot Connector Studio. She is also currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. Previously, she served as the media strategist for AIR’s groundbreaking Localore project, the director of the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at D.C.-based think tank the New America Foundation. Over the past decade, she has led research and convenings with high-profile universities and national media networks, including NPR, PBS, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, MIT, and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (The New Press, 2010), and a longtime independent journalist.