Assessing the Health of Local Journalism Ecosystems: Toward a Set of Reliable, Scalable Metrics
31 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2015 Last revised: 15 Dec 2015
Date Written: March 27, 2015
In 2009, The Knight Commission released a report identifying access to credible and relevant information as a key requisite for healthy communities (Knight Commission, 2009). This report subsequently led to a comprehensive assessment by the Federal Communications Commission of how community information needs are being met in the broadband era (Waldman, 2011), as well as further exploration by the Commission into how this issue could be researched in ways that could inform policymaking (Friedland et al., 2012). The present research seeks to continue this line of inquiry by developing and testing a set of scalable performance metrics that could serve as analytical tools for assessing variations in the health of local journalism ecosystems across communities or over time; or as components of more comprehensive assessments of the relationship between the health of local journalism and other vital measures of community health, engagement, and political participation.
This research compares online local news ouput for three communities that vary in important ways, such as their average household income, average level of education, and broadband penetration. To assess the health of the local journalism ecosystems, four researchers first identified all possible outlets for journalism (both digital and “traditional”) in each of the three communities. The online presence of each outlet – websites as well as social media – was then determined; virtually all outlets within each community had an online presence. Content from one constructed week of social media (Twitter and Facebook), and one continuous week of website news stories was then coded for several key variables, including: originality, whether it addressed a pre-determined “critical information need” (Friedland et al., 2012), and whether it was about the target community.
The quantity of information produced by these outlets was controlled for the size of the population, by calculating for each community the number of journalism stories and social media postings produced in the given week per 10,000 capita; per capita measurements (as well as strict percentages) were also used to assess the outputs according to the key normative criteria outlined above (originality, about community, addressing critical information needs). In addition, output concentration (the extent to which the production of stories/social media posts was concentrated within a limited number of local journalism sources) was computed for each community across all of these categories of journalistic output using the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index.
The results show drastic differences in the availability and quality of local online journalism, which seem to mirror existing structural inequalities. The community with higher household income, level of education, and broadband penetration was remarkably better served than the poorest and least educated community. The third community, which falls in the middle in terms of education and wealth, but is markedly more diverse, also fared poorly relative to the highest-income community. These findings point to the possibility of pronounced “digital divides” separating communities of different types in relation to the per capita output of local journalism. The authors recommend several specific ways in which further research could supplement and further validate these results, and discuss the implications for communications policy in the digital age.
Keywords: Metrics, Local journalism, journalism ecosystem, critical information needs
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