This report examined the North Carolina news ecosystem by mapping news media locations, access and reporting in all 100 counties. Newspapers made up the largest proportion of news outlets meeting critical information needs. This is notable, as newspapers continue to diminish as a medium of disseminating news and information but play a pivotal role as an originator of local reporting.
Eastern North Carolina made up 96%, or 24 out of the 25 Tier One counties in Access and 65% of Tier One counties in Reporting Area. Eastern North Carolina, specifically Pamlico County, has been noted as an underserved area for news by “The Assembly,” a digital outlet covering the state. While not included here, the Pamlico county newsletter “Down in the County” is a recent addition to the local news landscape and is part of another portion of this project.
Central North Carolina claimed the highest proportion of Tier Four counties in both Access and Reporting, making up 52% of counties accessed by more than 28 outlets in Access and 57% of counties appearing in reporting by more than 14 outlets. Central North Carolina is home to some of the state’s largest metro areas and includes Mecklenburg and Wake counties (where Charlotte and Raleigh are located, respectively). This is consistent with analyses of local news ecosystems in other states.
A substantial number of counties in North Carolina are within the service area of commercial TV and radio stations in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, but many of those stations do not report about North Carolina counties within their broadcast area. On the one hand, we recognize that stations do not have complete control of how far their signal travels, and having a large service area does not necessarily require a station to cover the entire area. However, research indicates that residents in out-of-state media markets have access to less reporting about gubernatorial and senate races in their state, resulting in decreased knowledge about their state leaders and lower levels of split-ticket voting.
All but four counties in North Carolina were reported on by fewer outlets than residents have access to. In the median county, about half as many (53%) outlets report on the county as residents have access to. While we cannot generalize what causes a positive or negative reporting gap, it is clear that just because a news outlet reaches a specific county, it does not necessarily mean that it reports on that county.
Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research
This report provides a snapshot of the North Carolina local news ecosystem. One of the primary limitations of this study is that analyses were based on recent content rather than a random sample. For vetting content for critical information needs content, the most recent week of content (for digital and broadcast) of content, most recent month (for weekly publications), and most recent year (for magazines) was used. This was to maintain consistency with data from the U.S. News Deserts database, which formed the basis of this report.
For identifying what counties were being covered by news outlets, the past month of content was searched for most outlets; for magazines, the past year was searched. An outlet would have needed to mention the county (or a city in that county) at least two times within their respective time frames to be considered a reporting outlet on that county. In both cases, a constructed week of a specific time frame, such as the past six months, would have increased the representativeness of this snapshot of local news content.
Additionally, because our methods relied heavily on existing databases and datasets of local media, we know that our list of news media in the state is likely incomplete. Future research could also use methods such as survey or community listening to surface news sources that are not readily available through databases or online searches.
This report is somewhat limited because it does not account for the characteristics of counties, such as population, demographics, or socioeconomic dynamics. This makes comparisons difficult, but the goal of this particular report is to provide a snapshot of what local news North Carolinians have access to and the level of coverage counties in North Carolina are receiving. An upcoming analysis will examine and compare local news ecosystems across counties and their characteristics.
Additionally, although examining local news in North Carolina at the county level is generally appropriate and consistent with the population density of the state, outlets in larger metro areas in the state, particularly in the Charlotte metro area, were often tied to specific communities and even neighborhoods. More granular mapping, at the municipal or zip-code level, would improve our understanding of news media in those parts of the state.
This study did not examine the specifics of topics covered in reporting, but the differences in the number of outlets accessible to a county and reporting about a county and vice versa raise an important question for future research— what are the topics and critical information needs that are reported about a community versus the ones that are reported to a community?
Finally, future research should incorporate a broader view of news media, focused less on legacy media and more on the broader field of civic media. Civic media “delivers civic information, a necessary ingredient for responsive and effective democratic systems” and is an ecosystem consisting of practitioners, including journalists, but also including organizers, educators, product and platform facilitators, and networks across these components.
To that end, a future phase of this project will include newsletters, podcasts, social media, and influencers, and other future work in this area should seek to broaden our understanding of civic information providers beyond just the types of media we associate with “news.” Further, future news ecosystems research should seek to understand the relationship between legacy news media and broader civic information ecosystems with a particular focus on how to build and sustain civic information ecosystems in the face of losses of legacy media.