Laura Hazard Owen: Which of the findings were most surprising to you?
Philip Napoli: Because no one had tried this methodology before, I didn’t have strong expectation. But what probably surprised me the most was the low level of stories we found that fit our criteria for “local.” [From the paper: “We opted for a strict geographic definition of community, where we identified an item as about the community only if the subject was an issue/event oriented around the specific municipality.]
Owen: Fifty-six percent of the stories you looked at addressed what you defined as a critical information need. What was the other 44 percent?
Napoli: There’s a lot of reporting on Jay-Z’s latest tweet, for example. One thing we found was that even at the local media outlet level, Twitter and YouTube are fairly easy go-to sources of news. Celebrity news and information would come from various local news channels. The local reporters might write something up, or sometimes a story was literally just a YouTube video that they were linking to. We also excluded general sports scores and things like that from our critical information needs.
Owen: You found that a community being a county seat did not correlate with an increase in local reporting.
Napoli: We went in with the assumption that if a community is also a seat for the county government, that might be the kind of thing that would lead to a greater commitment of journalistic resources or reporting, given that there’s more government activity happening there. But we didn’t find any relationship in terms of the overall number of stories or in terms of the number of stories that were original, local, or addressed a critical information need. That presence of another layer of government didn’t seem to impact any of our measures of the robustness of local journalism. I’d thought it might.
Owen: Of the 100 communities you looked at, eight generated no news stories at all. Four of those eight had no media outlets at all; they were, as you write in the paper, “news deserts in the most extreme sense.” Were there any similarities between those communities?
Napoli: We haven’t really dug into that yet, but they tended to be among the smaller ones in the sample. We didn’t go any smaller than [population of] 20,000, though, so these are not tiny communities.The full paper is here.
Photo of newspaper in a driveway by Cory Brown used under a Creative Commons license.