This research has focused on developing and applying a set of scalable comparative performance metrics that can be used to assess the relative health of local journalism ecosystems. In designing and testing these metrics on three New Jersey communities, some consistent patterns of disparity were revealed between a small, relatively wealthy, suburban community such as Morristown and a larger, more urban, and significantly less wealthy community such as Newark (and, to a less extreme degree, New Brunswick).
It is important to note that the disparities across communities are a reflection of both the quantity and, to some extent, the “quality” of the journalistic output. From a quantity standpoint, the aggregate of Newark journalism sources lagged far behind Morristown and typically lagged behind New Brunswick in terms of the relative amount of journalistic output disseminated across both social media platforms and the home pages. New Brunswick tended to be positioned between Newark and Morristown across these measures. These differences are a reflection of the substantial disparities in the number of journalistic sources per 10,000 capita found in these communities. Newark has far fewer journalistic sources per 10,000 capita than either New Brunswick or Morristown, with Morristown also having substantially more journalistic sources per 10,000 capita than New Brunswick.
From a quality standpoint, a smaller proportion of the journalistic output in Newark and (to a lesser extent) New Brunswick tended to meet key qualitative criteria, such as originality, focus on the local community, and addressing critical information needs than was the case in Morristown. Thus, not only was there less journalism in the lower-income communities, 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.
These findings potentially point to specific types of problems in local journalism, in which lower-income communities are dramatically underserved relative to wealthier communities. We don’t see these patterns as a basis for critique of the performance of the journalism sources in these communities, but rather as indicators of the extent to which the characteristics of individual communities likely affect the health of their local journalism ecosystems.
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. At such a larger scale it would also be possible to conduct multivariate analyses that could identify with greater specificity the characteristics of individual communities (e.g., size, income, demographics, proximity to larger media markets) that are predictive of overall levels of journalistic infrastructure, output, and performance. Finally, it would also be possible to explore the ramifications of these disparities, in terms of their relationship to constructs that are fundamental to well-functioning local democracies such as voting behaviors and community engagement.
There are a number of possible explanations for the patterns we have observed. It may be that a methodology that relies (as ours does) on journalistic output available online (specifically, on home pages and social media) is missing a greater proportion of journalism output in lower-income communities, where broadband penetration tends to be lower. Under this logic, the journalism produced in lower-income communities is more likely to still be found exclusively on traditional media platforms (print, radio, etc.). Another possibility is that there is more unattributed duplication of journalistic output happening in wealthier communities (avoiding detection via our content coding process). For instance, in an interview with a Morristown journalist for a related research project, he noted a tendency of competing hyperlocal web sites to present his journalistic output in slightly modified forms, without attributing his site as the original source of the story. Such activities may also contribute to the magnitude of the differences found. It seems unlikely, however, that these factors could, in combination, fully account for the differences found here.
Geographic proximity to a major media market also may be a factor. For instance, the proportionally fewer journalistic sources (and thus lower levels of journalistic output) found in Newark could be a function of the city’s greater proximity to New York City (and its vast array of media outlets) than Morristown and New Brunswick. It is also possible that the quantity of Newark-focused journalism generated by these New York City-based outlets substantially reduces the quantity gap found here. However, previous research has shown that New York City-based media outlets devote relatively little attention to New Jersey (Hale, 2013); and presumably only some portion of this coverage would be Newark-focused. Moreover, this same research suggests that New Jersey-focused media coverage originating from New York-based journalism sources tends to focus far more on topics such as crime, fires, and disasters, and far less on topics such as the economy and government affairs than New Jersey-based journalism sources (Hale, 2013). Such differences suggest that journalism originating from outside of the community might not be an effective substitute for true local journalism.
Another possible explanation may be that the differences found are primarily a function of the economic differences across these communities. At one level, it may be simply that it is easier to monetize journalistic content and journalism audiences in wealthier communities. However, it may not simply be that the business of journalism is more economically viable in higher income communities. It may also be the case that the disparities we found are a function of the fact that the greater economic prosperity in these communities means that there are more individuals/organizations in the position financially to engage with journalism as a non-profit (or even money-losing) community service, and/or that are able to make a long- or short-term investment in a high-risk business venture such as a local journalism initiative. That is, 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. This is speculation that could presumably be verified in future research.