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Aug. 6, 2015, 6 a.m.
Reporting & Production
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The rich/poor divide extends to local news, a new report suggests

Rich communities have better access to high-quality local news than poor communities do, a new Rutgers report finds.

Add “access to quality local news” to the list of advantages that wealthy communities have over poor ones: A new Rutgers analysis of news sources in three New Jersey towns suggests that richer towns have more local news sources, creating more original content and posting more of it to social media, than do poorer communities.

“If journalism and access to information are pillars of self-government, then these findings suggest those tools of democracy are not being distributed evenly, and that should be cause for concern,” said Philip M. Napoli, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and the report’s lead author.

The report, released Thursday, examined local news sources in Morristown, New Brunswick, and Newark. Of these, “Newark is the largest, poorest, and most ethnically diverse of the three communities, while Morristown is the smallest, wealthiest, and least ethnically diverse.” New Brunswick, home of Rutgers, falls in between.

town:population

Here are the journalistic outlets counted in each community:

Newark: WGBO, Newark TV 78, Luso Americano, Newark Star Ledger, Glocally Newark, Brick City Live, Newark Pulse, El Especial, Transformation Newark, Newark USA, Rutgers Observer, Vector – NJIT, Policy Options, WRNU, Patch Newark, El Nuevo Coqui

New Brunswick: Rutgers TV, Rutgers Radio, WCTC 1450, Magic 98.3, La Costena 103.9, My Central Jersey, Daily Targum, Ru Screwd, Muckgers, New Brunswick Today, Patch New Brunswick, NJ.com New Brunswick, WNJB-TV

Morristown: WMTR AM, WJSV, Tap into Morristown, Morris News Bee, Patch Morristown, NJ.com Morristown, Morristown Green, Morristown 411, Morristown High School Broadcaster, The Daily Record

After counting outlets, the report’s authors — Professor Napoli, Sarah Stonbely, Kathleen McCollough, and Bryce Renninger — looked at how often each outlet published: “A one-week sample of home pages and social media accounts (Twitter and Facebook) for each journalistic source was content analyzed to determine the overall volume of journalistic outputs available on these platforms.”

They found that “Morristown journalistic sources presented nearly 200 stories per 10,000 capita in the sample week, compared with less than ten for Newark and approximately 80 for New Brunswick.”

table 1

Next, the report looked at how much of that content is original (rather than linked or aggregated), about the local community, and in service of communities’ “critical information needs” (covering topics such as emergencies and risks, health, transportation, and politics).

In Morristown, for instance, more than 30 percent of news stories “addressed critical information needs,” compared to less than 20 percent in New Brunswick and less than 10 percent in Newark.

table 2

These trends extended to social media posts.

social media table

As Napoli wrote for Nieman Lab in March, more research will be needed to determine how or if these patterns apply on a larger scale:

By figuring out a way to scale this kind of research so that we can analyze 100, or even 200, communities, we can gain a broader, more generalizable sense of what makes for healthy — and unhealthy — local journalism ecosystems in this country, and what this health — or lack thereof — means for how well these communities function.

The report presents a variety of explanations for the finding that “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.”

For example, it’s possible that in lower-income communities, “where broadband penetration tends to be lower,” more journalism may be produced exclusively offline (for print or radio), so it wasn’t counted by this report. In addition, because Newark is closer to New York City than Morristown or New Brunswick, New York sources could be serving some of Newark’s news needs.

However, “journalism originating from outside of the community might not be an effective substitute for true local journalism” — in part because earlier studies have found that New Jersey-focused media coverage coming from New York tends to focus on “crime, fires, and disasters.”

The report was produced for Rutgers’ Media and the Public Interest Initiative, and was supported by the Democracy Fund, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Knight Foundation. The full report is here.

Photo of New Jersey from space by NASA.

POSTED     Aug. 6, 2015, 6 a.m.
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