Does New Jersey have a ‘media desert’ problem?

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Newark, NJ, is a city of about 300,000, the 67th most-populous city in the US. With its high murder rates (it ranked third in the nation in 2013) and nearly 30 percent of its population living below the poverty line, you might think there would be substantial news coverage and a variety of news outlets in the city paying attention.

Instead, Newark, the lowest-income New Jersey city in a new study put out by investigators at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, gets significantly less original news coverage and has far fewer news outlets in the city when compared with New Brunswick and Morristown, the two other communities in the report.

“Assessing the Health of Local Journalism Ecosystems: A Comparative Analysis of Three New Jersey Communities”–funded by the Democracy Fund, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the Knight Foundation–took on the ambitious task of trying to locate every single news source in the three cities (as found online) and then assessed their quality by actually reading them for a one-week period.

The report’s findings draw attention to a provocative idea: that lower income communities are drastically underserved when it comes to news, and have fewer news sources than wealthier ones to cover their concerns. The study also suggests that the fewer news sources in a community, the less likely there is to be news coverage of issues critical to informing that community. The report notes:

From a quality standpoint, a smaller proportion of the journalistic output in Newark and (to a lesser extent) New Brunswick tended to meet key qualitative criteria, such as originality, focus on the local community, and addressing critical information needs than was the case in Morristown. Thus, 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.

The three cities studied in New Jersey represent a good test case. New Jersey news is both intensely local (there are 565 municipalities in the state, each with its own governing body); at the same time, news coverage is dominated by two major outside media markets: Philadelphia and New York. It’s clear that local journalism is sorely needed, but the competition from bigger players often crowds it out.

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Moreover, comparing Newark, New Brunswick, and Morristown offered a range of types of communities, allowing researchers to look closely at how income level might be linked to the kind of coverage a place gets and the number of news sources operating there.

Morristown, with a population of just 18,000, had 10 times more local news sources per 10,000 people than Newark (a measure used to control for differences in population); sources there also produced 23 times more original news stories. The pattern continues, albeit in less stark ways, for New Brunswick, which has a slightly higher average income than Newark. Morristown, a bedroom community with a per capita income more than twice Newark’s or New Brunswick’s, ends up looking unexpectedly like a major news producer.

The report helps bring attention to the idea of “media deserts.” Like “food deserts” in urban areas where nothing healthy can be found, a media desert or news desert is essentially an uncovered geographical area that has few or no news outlets and receives little coverage. Media deserts can leave “massive unfilled gaps … that create tremendous opportunities for political and corporate corruption to flourish and that undermine effective democratic participation,” according to the report, whose lead author, Philip M. Napoli, teaches in Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information.

To gauge the quality and relevance of local news, the report relied on the FCC’s Community Critical Information Needs. The so-called CIN was formulated to help address what kinds of news needs should be met across coverage areas that include emergency and risks; health; education; transportation systems; environment and planning; economic development; and civic and political information.

When Newark, and to a slightly lesser extent, New Brunswick, were compared with a wealthier community, people simply weren’t getting as much information about their communities in ways considered critical to being informed about the world around them. The strange part of this, though, is that if you look at the news organizations serving each community, they look the same, at least initially. There are some hyperlocal sites (including Patch), some radio stations, a small TV presence, and a dedicated traditional print outlet. It’s hard to say what, exactly, makes the difference, why media outlets in Newark seem to do a worse job covering their own community. The report doesn’t definitively answer the question of whether wealthier communities are always better served. More work is needed.

But the Rutgers report might help us get there. Its intention was not just to tell us about New Jersey but to create a methodology for looking at communities across the country to assess the health of their media ecosystems. So a measure that combines the availability of journalistic sources, the quantity of journalism output from these sources, and the extent to which this output is original, as presented here, offers a way to begin looking more comprehensively into the concerns raised in the report. The team will next look at a broad range of communities, with the hope of examining 50 to 100 communities across the US.

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Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and a Tow Fellow at Columbia. She is the author of Making News at The New York Times.