Local news and media capture: a Q&A with Phil Napoli

For many years, the term “media capture” was used primarily by economists and political scientists who wanted to understand societies that were Democratic on paper but—in reality—had a captive media under soft control. Political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi described “media capture” as an environment in which news media are controlled “either directly by governments or by vested interests networked with politics.”

When Columbia University’s School of International Affairs held a conference on media capture in 2016, the term was not well known in the world of journalism; the first conference volume looked mostly at overseas occurrences. Since then, the problem has spread, and it faces countries all over the world, including the US. The decline of profitability—a prevalent problem in the local journalism world—puts outlets and local communities in danger of political influence.

Professor Phil M. Napoli, professor of public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, has done years of research on local newsrooms and the loss of quality local journalism. For Columbia University Press’s new book Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms and Governments Control the News, Napoli wrote about the increased danger of media capture in US local news markets. Napoli spoke to CJR’s Lauren Harris and the book’s editor, Anya Schiffrin, about the nature of local journalism in the US and the dangers of media capture. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

LH: In your work, how do you define “local journalism”?

PN: For us, it was trying to translate that concept into something that we could research: what are the most fundamental aspects of quality local journalism? First, it’s local: we really wanted to maintain a fairly strict geographic focus. So if we’re talking about analyzing the local journalism serving Morristown, New Jersey, we’re talking about content produced within and for the people of Morristown, New Jersey, not for the people in the next town over. We thought being very specific about what our unit of analysis was, and sticking to it, was very important. Quality local journalism is also original. It’s actually being produced and not being recycled or rehashed. To get a sense of how much journalism is actually serving a community, you don’t want to be double-counting: here’s the same story, and it showed up on this outlet and that outlet and that. And then the last part is, does it actually address a critical information need? That can vary quite a bit from community to community, but there are some core things that we could agree on that communities need. It was a process of trying to turn the concept into something that we could measure quantitatively.

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LH: What sorts of outlets did you look at in your analysis?

PN: We wanted to be inclusive in terms of all the different types of outlets that could be producing local news these days: television, radio, online only, print. When we developed our list of outlets that we were analyzing, that was the scope. We did have to make a concession, which was that for each outlet, we analyzed their homepage under the assumption—and the data bear that out—that whether you’re television, radio, or whatever, the odds are that you have an online presence that’s a viable window into how much and what type of local news you’re producing. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t do it that way. But if you want to analyze local TV newscasts from a year ago, it’s really hard to get a hold of that sort of thing. Radio, forget it! It’s really interesting how ethereal so much of our journalism actually is. Local newspapers are the most robustly archived local resource out there.

LH: How do you approach the idea of news quality from a data-driven perspective?

PN: When you see the term “quality” used, it is often used without a whole lot of precision. We tried to avoid that word. It’s so loaded, and so subjective, and so complex, and that really bumps right up against the challenge we were facing, which is to try to do this work at scale, to reanalyze lots and lots of content across so many outlets. And to do that, you inevitably have to take a complex concept and make it simple. So in terms of how to code this from a measurement standpoint, we relied on three dimensions: Is it local? Is it original? And does it address the critical information needs? And as people have pointed out, the notion of quality can mean so much more beyond that. What we did was take a fairly superficial stab at what we might mean by this notion of quality. I think these all should be considered core components, but we weren’t comprehensive.

LH: When you were trying to measure the quality of local journalism in the US, what did you find?

PN: When we analyzed at the community level, a relatively small percentage of the journalism that’s being produced by local news sources met our baseline definition of what quality local journalism is. It was an indicator of some of the realities about the economics of journalism. Journalism produced for larger audiences is fundamentally more economically appealing than journalism produced for smaller audiences. Information that specifically serves the needs of small communities and doesn’t have a broader appeal is a difficult thing to justify economically. There just aren’t economies of scale to be found in truly local journalism. As journalism tries to achieve economies of scale, it gets more regional, national, and something important gets lost.

We did a study very recently, where we looked at the rise of some of these hyper-partisan local news networks that are emerging around the country. And that was another kick in the pants. What types of new sources might be emerging to fill the gaps left by the old? How much or how little of what they’re producing is original or local? That provided some sort of renewed urgency to these questions.

AS: How much of a problem is media capture in the US local news market?  

PN: I think we are on the cusp of this becoming a significant problem at the local level.  As a number of recent reports have indicated, there is an emerging form of local news outlet that is filling the void left by the decline of traditional local news sources, that is operating under a very different model of journalism. This includes taking payment from political party operatives to produce stories designed to have a very specific political outcome.

AS: Do you see local outlets controlled by business interests tied to government, or is the problem different from that? What is different about US capture compared to other countries?

PN: What we’re seeing locally is the rise of networks of local outlets controlled by wealthy political party activists seeking to use these outlets as part of larger regional or national election strategies. This is something we’ve been studying recently. Something important that differentiates the situation in the U.S. from many other countries is the extent to which we have operated under a predominantly commercial model of journalism, in which our public service media sector has stayed quite under-developed. This has meant that the bottom has dropped out of local journalism in the U.S. to a comparatively greater degree, leaving news organizations more vulnerable to capture, and, as noted above, creating a vacuum that can be filled by news organizations that are more directly oriented toward trying to influence election outcomes in specific ways.

AS: In your chapter you talk about your research on local news and you examine the number of media outlets and media workers in each state, compared to the total population. Is this similar to the idea of news deserts? What does this kind of research tell us?

PN: Yes, this is similar to the idea of news deserts, though to really identify news deserts, you need to analyze at a more granular level than the individual states. We’re actually working on a replication of that research that looks not only at the state level, but at the county level. At both levels, this kind of research is useful for identifying areas in need of some kind of intervention. So, for instance, Report for America has used our state-level analysis to help them to decide where to station reporters. We’re partnering with them for the county level analysis as well, and that should be much more helpful to them.

AS: How do the false right-wing websites masquerading as local news outlets fit into your analysis? Are they included and do they skew the data? Or is their staff located in New York or somewhere else? 

PN: We’ve just published our first deep dive into these types of outlets. These outlets appeared only sporadically in the commercial database that served as the basis for the analysis in our chapter; though the reality, as our recent study shows, is that these outlets contribute very little in terms of actual news workers serving these communities. As our analysis shows, very few of the journalists working for these outlets are based in the communities that they are purportedly covering. Indeed, the bulk of the stories generated by these outlets are produced by algorithms, not reporters.

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent local news trends and changes in newsrooms:

  • “WHERE DARKNESS SURROUNDS VIOLENCE”: For CJR’s newest magazine issue, Brendan Fitzgerald reported on the intersection of rising domestic terrorism and declining local news. Too often, local domestic terrorism goes undercovered or is covered poorly by national outlets that don’t understand the local dynamics on the ground. “It’s not an easy subject to cover,” Chris Ingalls, an investigative reporter at KING 5, Seattle’s NBC affiliate, told Fitzgerald. “It takes some digging, and there just aren’t enough people with shovels.”
  • NEWSGUILD FILES CHARGES AGAINST GANNETT: The NewsGuild of New York has filed unfair labor practices charges against Gannett, Axios reported yesterday. Union members across Gannett’s papers alleged that company management attempted to undermine unionization efforts through threats to pay increases, resistance to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and a refusal to reinstate 401(k) matches after freezing them amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
  • CHERRYROAD MEDIA ACQUIRES TWENTY GANNETT PAPERS: CherryRoad Media, a subsidiary of a New Jersey-based technology company, has acquired twenty newspapers from Gannett in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri, Editor and Publisher reported. CherryRoad purchased its first newspaper, Minnesota’s Cook County News-Herald, in 2020 in addition to acquiring five more newspapers and launching one prior to its most recent purchase.
  • AXIOS LAUNCHES LOCAL NEWSLETTER NETWORK: Digiday reported on Axios’s foray into the local news market; the media company hired twenty reporters and three associate editors to launch newsletters in eight cities this fall. Each city in the network is assigned a two-person team of reporters based in the city they’re covering. Revenues come from both local advertisers and national advertisers who want to target a specific local market. Some industry leaders worry that Axios’s model might divert resources or attention from other local outlets that “have much larger staffs and are providing important accountability journalism, whereas Axios can really only skim the surface,” as Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northeastern University, told Digiday.
  • AS LOCAL NEWS DISAPPEARS, CORPORATE MISCONDUCT INCREASES: A study recently published in the Journal of Financial Economics found increased corporate misconduct in local communities in the three years following the closure of their local newspaper, PressGazette reported. Local accountability reporting plays a significant role in limiting employment discrimination, labor violations, and securities fraud, the paper suggests.
  • THE MISSISSIPPI FREE PRESS SEEKS SUSTAINABILITY THROUGH INCLUSION: The Mississippi Free Press, a nonprofit outlet launched early in March of 2020 to cover the pandemic, hopes to achieve 501(c)(3) status and secure sustainable funding to continue its coverage long into the future by reporting for underserved communities, Nieman Lab reported. “I think your donor base reflects your team and also reflects your coverage. If I don’t see you covering me, that’s not a news source for me,” publisher Kimberly Griffin told Sarah Scire.

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Anya Schiffrin and Lauren Harris