Despite Many New Local News Sites, ‘Media Deserts’ Are a Stubborn Reality

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Drought landMore than 120 newspapers have shut down in the U.S. since 2008. Surviving papers have been forced to cut their local news budgets in the implosion of old media ad revenue. Hundreds of digital community news sites have been launched in the meantime, but journalist and educator Dr. Michelle Ferrier says that millions of Americans have ended up in a “media desert.” She says this is especially true of those of low-income and low-education levels. Most community news — digital or print — she says, is focused on higher-end demographics.

Ferrier, who is associate dean for innovation, research/creative activity and graduate studies in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University and principal investigator in the Media Deserts Project, spoke with Street Fight recently about media deserts and how they can be reclaimed.

How extensive are media deserts nationally?
Our research shows that media deserts tend to form primarily in areas without a marketplace for goods and services, with high concentrations of people of low to lower income, who generally don’t have college educations. Using geographic information system technologies allows us to visualize these areas and monitor changes in the media ecosystem over time. Our goal is to identify the deserts and to find alternative and sustainable means for getting fresh news and information to residents. By pinpointing these communities, we hope to help foster media innovations.

What kind of important news is missing when there’s a media desert?
Residents miss news and information about jobs, economic development, local government, schools and other infrastructure that keeps local communities growing. The news gap may include environmental issues, like toxic waste, that often affect lower-income communities disproportionately.

Hundreds of new community blogs and websites have been created in recent years. Don’t these sites publish at least some news that’s important?
Yes, hyperlocal news sites have sprung up all over the country since 2007 to fill the voids left by legacy newspapers. They do provide access to breaking news, city government news and local happenings. But the Media Desert Project has looked at 120 digital community news sites and only 40% of them represent the full range of their demographics in a content analysis of their homepages. Left out of coverage too often are minorities and people of lower income and who don’t have a college education. I’m not going to beat up on a two-person news operation, but when your coverage isn’t reflective of all residents of your area, that’s a problem.

Michelle Ferrier
Michelle Ferrier

What kind of methodology did you use to map where media deserts exist?
We have started with newspaper circulation, both subscription and newsstand sales and mapped that against census demographics such as household income, education level, ethnicity and gender composition of an area. For the hyperlocal online news layer, which we are adding this summer, we did a content analysis of sites using their geotags, events and news coverage to determine the ZIP codes covered by an online media site. Our goal is to continue to add additional platforms such as legacy online news or alternative and community weeklies to the map.

Who are the main partners in the Media Desert Project?
Our current team for the Media Desert Project includes Dr. Ali Erkan, associate professor in the department of computer science at Ithaca College. We have a partnership with the faculty, including Erkan and Associate Prof. Dr. John Barr and students there to do cross-disciplinary research to provide the software behind our mapping of media deserts. You can check out there initial work covering print newspapers here.

It will likely take more editorial resources for “pure play” digital publications to meet the needs of all the community’s demographics. How do these publications pay for these resources?
We need to explore other nonprofit and cooperative media models that might work in this new media ecology. But publications should also try to get local businesses — especially big employers who are major funders of nonprofit groups — to consider sponsoring news that’s aimed at under-served segments of the community. Local and state governments that offer tax credits to new businesses that bring jobs to the community should consider creating such incentives for media entrepreneurs to help cover the cost of news the community needs.

Are there any initiatives underway that show promise in closing the gap between community needs and news resources?
Two new models are cropping up: nonprofit investigative news models and cooperative models being tried by the Banyan Project. Nonprofit news organizations have had difficulties in getting nonprofit status to operate, but they are beginning to organize in a way to share resources through the Investigative News Network. Some have been mildly successful like the Texas Tribune, but are not replicable everywhere. Cooperative models have yet to be fully realized, although residents in Haverhill, Mass., are working with the Banyan Project to launch Haverhill Matters, Banyan’s pilot site.

What about foundations and other nonprofit organizations whose mission is to fund sites providing the very kind of coverage you say is too often missing?
Competitions such as NewU through UNITY create limited start-up capital. But these programs are not producing near enough innovations to solve the problem of media deserts. A for-profit model can work, but takes multiple revenue streams beyond advertising to stay afloat because the consumer market isn’t strong enough in some media deserts.

The Media Deserts Project wants to help local communities find a model that works for them. It might be a combination of public/private partnerships, public-supported media or foundation support for a niche topic. But overall, I think these projects will need to be creative to be sustainable.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.