"NC News & Information Census" table of contents
Local News for Whom? A News Media Census of North Carolina
Callan Hazeldine, Graduate Researcher
Elizabeth Thompson, Local News Researcher
Clay Williams, Graduate Researcher
Jessica Mahone, Ph.D, Research Director
Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media,
UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media
As news ecosystems have vastly changed over the past two decades, mapping the location of news outlets has been crucial to understanding who and what regions get news and information.
This analysis of news media in North Carolina maps the state’s local news ecosystem beyond the location of outlet headquarters, focusing on the number of outlets counties have access to and the specific counties that appear in reporting. This study identified 378 news media outlets serving communities in the state, including 14 outlets serving a statewide audience. This analysis further finds that counties in the eastern part of the state have less access to and receive less coverage by news media than counties in other parts of the state.
A local news ecosystem is defined here as the complex network of news media, organizations, agencies, platforms, and people that combine to meet (or not meet) the critical information needs of a community. Understanding communities’ access to news and information is foundational to assessing whether or not their critical information needs are being met. Critical information needs are “forms of information that are necessary for citizens and community members to live safe and healthy lives; have full access to educational, employment, and business opportunities; and to fully participate in the civic and democratic lives of their communities should they choose.” Those needs can be broken down into the following eight categories: emergencies and public safety, health, education, transportation systems, environment and planning, economic development, civic information, and political life.
Previous research into news ecosystems and critical information needs have mostly examined either news loss via the closing and diminishing of newspapers or news gain via digital startups. Further, research has demonstrated that newspapers set the agenda for other news media, but as newspapers continue to shrink and shutter, that agenda-setting function, and the flows of information across news media, will undoubtedly change. This means our understanding of news ecosystems will require a more holistic approach, measured across different types of media or platforms and accounting for access and reporting, rather than simply headquarter location.
The rise of the internet and social media platforms has had devastating impacts on the local news industry. Many local news outlets have reported decreases in revenue over time, eventually causing some to shut down permanently. Concerns about these declines have led scholars to map local news access. Starting in 2010, Michelle Ferrier began work on the Media Deserts Project, mapping locales in the United States where residents lack access to “daily, local news and information.” Media deserts do not just include the presence or absence of news outlets and their content but also include things such as broadband access and algorithms that platforms such as Google use to determine what is “news.” Research on media deserts has found that between 2007-2014, 63% of all U.S. zip codes experienced a loss in newspaper circulation.
Perhaps the best-known mapping of local news ecosystems are Penny Abernathy’s series of reports documenting “news deserts,” starting in 2016 and most recently updated in 2022. A news desert is defined as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level,” typically measured as a community with one or no newspaper. She finds that more than one-fourth of newspaper outlets that existed in 2004 vanished by the beginning of 2020.
Other research has expanded analyses of news ecosystems beyond newspapers and beyond daily news to include multiple outlet types and their content. An analysis of local news in Newark, New Brunswick, and Montclair, New Jersey, used the infrastructure, output, and performance framework to understand the local news ecosystem of each community. This framework considers the number of outlets in the community (infrastructure), the amount of content distributed in each community (output), and the proportion of content that was about the local community, was original content produced by outlets and met a critical information need (performance). They found that communities with a lower population and a higher income had more journalism sources per 10,000 than communities with a higher population and lower income.
This work was expanded in an analysis of news ecosystems in 100 randomly sampled communities in the U.S. This study found that only 17% of news provided to a community was about that community, only 43% of stories distributed by local outlets were produced by them, and 56% of local news content meets a critical information need. Additional analysis of the same data found that newspapers, followed by digital outlets, make an outsized contribution in providing communities with local, original content that meets a critical information need. Newspapers made up approximately a quarter of outlets sampled but produced nearly 60% of local, original content meeting a critical information need in these communities.
As interest in news ecosystems has grown, researchers and advocates have sought to map news ecosystems in individual states. One of the most recent examples is the University of Oregon Agora Journalism Center’s map of the local news and information ecosystem in Oregon. The researchers found that newspapers predominantly made up the news ecosystem across the state even after closures and contractions. Furthermore, they found that residents of Oregon are unequally served by local news media as most of the sources originated from big urban epicenters like Portland and Eugene, leaving the eastern part of the state with little to no local news coverage.
In perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of a single state’s local news ecosystem, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has mapped the number of outlets serving each of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities. In addition to mapping news outlets, this research has also introduced the concept of “local news originators,” which are outlets that produce the most original content by a local news outlet, about the local community, and meets a critical information need.
Using a similar approach to the Center for Cooperative Media’s map and reports on local news provisions in New Jersey, this report focuses just on the news ecosystem in North Carolina, in part due to the time-consuming nature of collecting data about all (or as many as possible) news media in a state. In total, even with the head start of existing databases, data collection required roughly a full year to complete.
Although it would be inaccurate to say that North Carolina’s news ecosystem is necessarily representative of those in other states, findings from this report are in line with some other analyses and indicate that there are some commonalities to news ecosystems across states. For example, newspapers make up similar proportions of the news media ecosystems in North Carolina, New Jersey, and Oregon. Additionally, rural areas have less access to news media than urban and suburban areas, something seen in previous analyses.
The approach used in this study was initially modeled after the Center for Cooperative Media’s analysis, but there are some important distinctions to highlight. First, we opted to map news media at the county level due to North Carolina’s substantially lower population density. Second, we did not incorporate the full infrastructure, output, and performance framework into our study; we used the critical information needs framework to determine which outlets would be included in our data as news sources. To be included in our data as a news source, an outlet needed to have a minimum of four pieces of content meeting at least one critical information needs category within its last four issues. We then determined the number of outlets a county had access to, based on the geographic reach of qualifying outlets, and identified which counties they are reporting on. The methods used in this study are described fully in the appendix.
This report is part of a larger project that seeks to collect data on the wide variety of local news sources in North Carolina. The first phase is focused on data about the types of outlets most commonly thought of as news media: newspaper, TV, radio, and digital. The second phase is focused on less traditional sources: newsletters, podcasts, Facebook groups and pages, and influencers.
This report is the first of two reports on the news media ecosystem in North Carolina, providing descriptive information on access to news media in each county and which counties are covered in reporting by news media. Our next report will examine differences in access and reporting across demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of counties.
Some highlights from this report:
- Eastern North Carolina had access to the fewest outlets and was reported on the least of all North Carolina regions.
- Newspapers made up the largest proportion of news outlets serving North Carolinians.
- A majority of local news in the state of North Carolina originated from city centers and was disseminated to neighboring counties, leaving counties further away from larger urban populations with less options for local news.
- In all but four North Carolina counties, residents had access to more news outlets that did not report on their communities than access to outlets that did.
- The median county was reported on by about half as many outlets as residents had access to. For example, if a county had access to 10 outlets, only five provided reporting about the county.
- All counties within North Carolina were reported on by at least one public radio station and one commercial television station.
- The median number of outlets that reported on a county was 11.