The economic challenges confronting local journalism as a result of the technological changes that have taken place in the media sector have been well documented (e.g. Downie & Schudson, 2009; Grueskin, Seave, & Graves, 2011; Waldman, 2011). Traditional business models have been undermined as advertisers have utilized alternative means of reaching audiences, and audiences have employed alternative means of accessing the news (Anderson, Bell, & Shirky, 2012). At the same time, however, these technological changes have created opportunities for new and different journalistic sources to develop (Fancher, 2011; Picard, 2014). The lower barriers to entry and minimal distribution costs afforded by the Internet, along with the associated opportunities to harness various forms of user generated content and to develop new tools for audience engagement, have created an environment for innovation and experimentation in the journalistic sphere that is perhaps unprecedented (e.g., New York Times, 2014).
The question of whether the net impact of these changes has been positive or negative in terms of the availability of journalism serving local communities’ critical information needs remains difficult to answer (Picard, 2014). Some argue that the breakdown of traditional journalistic organizations has been more than compensated for by the rise of various forms of citizen, participatory, and community journalism (Benkler, 2006; Gillmor, 2004; Shirky, 2008). Others contend that local journalism is essentially collapsing, with the decline and (in many cases) disappearance of traditional news outlets leaving massive unfilled gaps (what Stites  has termed “news deserts”; see also Ferrier’s  analysis of “media deserts”) that create tremendous opportunities for political and corporate corruption to flourish and that undermine effective democratic participation (Starr, 2009). And, of course, the nature of the net effect may vary according to the characteristics (demographic, economic, political, technological) of individual communities (e.g., Pew Research Center, 2015).
Into this complicated and uncertain environment, a few foundations have stepped in, in an effort to support and incubate new and innovate ways of producing and disseminating local journalism, with an eye toward identifying sustainable economic models (e.g., Duros, 2014; Fancher, 2011; Knight Commission, 2009). Similarly, policymakers have begun to recognize that the health of local journalism may merit policy interventions; or at the very least may require systematic monitoring and a more detailed understanding of the dynamics of how local journalism is produced, disseminated, and consumed (Hindman, 2011; Waldman, 2011; Friedland, et al., 2012). Underlying these interventions and inquiries is the recognition that local journalism is essential to well-functioning local democracies (e.g., Firmstone & Coleman, 2014).
What these decision-makers have been lacking, however, are analytical tools for assessing the health of local journalism in individual communities. Other areas of public interest, such as economic development, the environment, political participation, and community engagement have reasonably well developed tools for assessing the health of local communities (e.g., Community Health Status Indicators Project Working Group, 2009; Sustainable Jersey, 2013). The same level of tool development has not been the case, however, for journalism. As journalism researchers noted a decade ago, “our most pressing challenge is to provide comprehensive analyses of the current dynamics of news production, circulation and use in the digital public sphere” (Domingo, Masip, & Meijr, 2004, p. 1). This challenge remains largely unmet.
There have been some tools developed to help assess and address the information health of local communities. For instance, the Knight Foundation (2009) developed a Community Information Toolkit, which provided a methodology for community members to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their information environment. The scope of the Community Information Toolkit was quite broad; extending well beyond journalism to also facilitate the assessment of information provided by local government, health care, and public service providers, as well as an assessment of broadband infrastructure. At the same time, it was also somewhat superficial, in that much of the assessment process involved answering a series of yes or no questions. Along related lines, the FCC recently attempted to move forward with an effort to assess how well communities’ “critical information needs” were being met, only to have to scuttle the work under pressure from some members of Congress and various industry associations (Flint, 2014). More recently, the Pew Research Center (2015) has produced a thorough analysis of the local news ecosystems in three communities of different sizes; however, the scope and depth of the analyses would be difficult and costly to scale up to a degree that would allow for the analysis of a larger sample of markets, and more generalizable findings. Thus, there remains a gap in terms of a robust, but reasonably simple and scalable, analytical approach to assessing the health of local journalism that could be utilized by foundations, policymakers, researchers, and industry professionals to efficiently and cost effectively analyze large numbers of communities.
This research attempts to fill this gap, through the development and application of a multi-level conceptual and methodological framework for assessing the health of local journalism. The development of robust and reliable measures of the health of local journalism would provide a valuable analytical tool for news organizations, funders of journalism initiatives, and policymakers seeking to determine the effectiveness of existing policies or the need for additional policy interventions. Such measures could serve as a meaningful indicator of the extent to which local communities possess an adequate journalistic infrastructure to function effectively as a democracy. They could also serve as a baseline for additional research on the relationship between the health of local journalism and other aspects of community health, such as civic engagement, political participation, and effective local governments.
This report outlines a conceptual and methodological framework for assessing the health of local journalism ecosystems and presents the results of the application of this framework to three communities in New Jersey (Morristown, New Brunswick, and Newark). New Jersey is a state with geographic characteristics that make the provision of local news both particularly important and particularly challenging (McCollough & Anderson, 2013; Weingart, 2009). New Jersey is characterized by its large number of small municipalities – 565 in total – each with its own governing body and budget (Mulvaney, 2014). Thus, from a political standpoint, one could characterize New Jersey’s democratic structure as intensely local, and thus the need for robust local journalism is particularly pronounced. New Jersey therefore represents a particularly important context for trying to develop a means of gaining a deeper understanding of the health of local journalism.
However, the state is bordered on the north and south by large, out-of-state media markets (New York City and Philadelphia), and lacks a large media market of its own (Hale, 2013; Starr, Weingart & Joselow, 2010). As a result, most of the large commercial journalistic outlets available in the state are oriented primarily to out-of-state audiences; nonetheless, these outlets are capable of diverting audience attention and revenues away from local media, thereby undermining the support structure for New Jersey-based journalism (e.g., Starr, Weingart, & Joselow, 2010). Clearly, then, for the state of New Jersey, the health of local journalism is both particularly important and precarious.
This first section of this report describes the concept of “ecosystem analysis” in greater detail and describes the specific type of ecosystem that is the focus of analysis here. The second section describes the conceptual and methodological approach employed. The third section presents the findings. The final section discusses the implications of these findings.