Why a holistic approach to measuring news access matters

By Erica Beshears Perel

We talk a lot about the local news ecosystem here at the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Like engagement or sustainability, it’s a future of journalism term that can mean different things to different people. 

For us, it’s the complex system of media outlets, civic organizations, agencies, individuals and platforms that combine to meet the information needs of a community. (Or, alternatively, not to meet the full community’s needs.) In short: no one gets the information they need to live a civically engaged life from just one source. 

In the legacy ecosystem, newspapers and tv news dominated, with newspapers originating news that was often “followed” by other sources. In the emerging system, legacy and new forms of media combine with nontraditional and civic sources to provide a patchwork of information. The journalism that emerges from this new system has the opportunity to be more innovative, inclusive and diverse. But without strong economic and audience models, it has the potential to fail altogether, leaving communities without access to news and information that promotes civic life and vulnerable to misinformation and poor-quality news.  

That is why our newest research report, a census of North Carolina’s news and information sources, takes a holistic approach at measuring the news and information a community can access. Instead of just counting newspapers, or just digital start-ups or tv news, we wanted to understand how they might all work together to inform a community. It is a foundational first step to understanding whether a community’s information needs are being met.  

A few toplines from the study: 

  • 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. The rural-urban divide also emerged as a theme in the Diversity Audit of NC Newsrooms published in December. 
  • Newspapers made up the largest proportion of news outlets serving North Carolinians. 
  • All counties within North Carolina received coverage by at least one public radio station and one commercial television station. This is an important insight, considering recent research from the National Trust for Local News and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the opportunities of public radio in the emerging news ecosystem. 
  • The median number of outlets that reported on a county was 10.5. 
  • 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. This report looked at the difference between a news outlet’s reach and its coverage to determine this gap. 
  • 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. 
  • Eastern North Carolina had access to the fewest outlets and was reported on the least of all North Carolina regions. 

Future phases of this work will also analyze local newsletters, podcasts, influencers and other organizations that provide critical information. We’re also planning more analysis that uses census data to look for demographic indicators in areas that get the most and least coverage. Of note: Our database of news sources doesn’t include everything that might be considered “media” in a community. The research team screened outlets to determine whether they were filling critical information needs, and that process is outlined in the methods section. 

A key thing we measured in this report is the gap between a news outlet’s “reach,” or, a community’s access to a news outlet, and that news outlet’s reporting. For example, people in a number of counties outside a city can access that city’s TV news, but those stations may not regularly cover news in those counties.  

Residents of those communities can access those outlets to get regional and statewide news or critical safety information in a hurricane or other emergency — an important piece of the information infrastructure, to be sure — but they can’t count on them as a provider of civic information on a day-to-day basis.  

Communities and their needs are a key constituency in the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Media’s work to help build a more sustainable and equitable future for local news. Through the intersection of research, education and practice, the center also works to support journalists and news outlets in serving community needs and reaching sustainability. 

The UNC Knight Table Stakes program, for example, has worked with more than 40 emerging and legacy news outlets in the Southeast to provide their journalists and leaders with tools they need to focus on audience needs as they transition to new economic and journalism models. The result has been to strengthen the news ecosystem for communities and create deeper understanding, cooperation and learning between legacy and emerging news outlets. 

From our research team, look for more work understanding what sustainability means across different media types, and more about the relationship between community information gaps and sustainability.  

There is much work to do on this front, and a diverse group of academics, journalists and industry researchers are working to meet the challenge. This week, our team is cohosting with Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy a Local Journalism Researchers Workshop. More than 50 researchers will be gathering in Chapel Hill to share ideas, collaborate and discuss a research agenda that will help answer the biggest questions facing the future of local news. 

 Stay tuned for more. And send us your comments at CISLM@unc.edu.


For researchers: You may access the underlying data sets here. This database is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for non-commercial use, with attribution. Note on limitations: 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. We hope to continually improve the accuracy and completeness of the datasets in future phases.

NC News Census database files