Tow Center

Does the media capital of the world have news deserts?

January 7, 2020
Depending on the topic, New York media can be a wasteland | Photo: Adobe Stock

New York City is the base from which many journalists cover the rest of the country and the globe. According to a recent Pew report, 12 percent of all US newsroom employees live in New York City, which is more than twice the share that live in Washington, DC, or Los Angeles. Yet despite its high number of reporters, media companies and its booming economy, the city’s local coverage has not been spared the challenges that plague the news industry in less prosperous areas. Severe layoffs at the New York Daily News, a move toward “less incremental coverage” at the New York Times’s metro desk, the closure of the Wall Street Journal’s “Greater New York” section, and the shuttering of the Village Voice, DNAinfo, and (temporarily) Gothamist are just some of the most prominent recent examples. 

The decline of the local news industry in New York City has not gone unreported. A number of news articles, reports, and studies have traced the reduction of resources at the city’s daily newspapers, the struggles of its upstart digital publications, and the challenges its ethnic media face in adopting technological innovations and accessing city government advertising. While even these few sample analyses clearly illustrate the breadth of problems for local news, their range also reflects how well-populated, relatively speaking, the media landscape remains. 

Recent research on the phenomenon of news deserts has largely focused on communities where the primary news outlets, often newspapers, have either closed or else barely still exist. New York City, by contrast, has 90 online news publications, according to a study by News Revenue Hub, and at least 270 ethnic and community media organizations, per CUNY’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media, in addition to the still comparatively robust legacy broadcast and print media. 

ICYMI: Hundreds of outlets disseminate conservative talking points ahead of 2020

As the national crisis for local news has gained more visibility in the past year, some of the more mainstream NYC outlets have renewed their focus on local coverage. The New York Times spotlighted its metro desk in advertising campaigns, and WNYC acquired and relaunched the shuttered Gothamist site. The City, an online nonprofit news outlet, launched in the spring of 2019 with 10 million dollars in funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and the Charles H. Revson Foundation, among other individual contributors.  Addressing what it classified as a “life-or-death moment for local news in New York City,” the organization focused on filling the increasing void in citywide beat coverage. 

But despite these efforts, hyperlocal and community-level local outlets in New York City are  struggling, and residents are still being deprived of critical information. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Taking this complexity into account, my new study for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Media Mecca or News Desert? Covering local news in New York City, seeks to understand the New York City media ecosystem by examining how news organizations—print, digital, broadcast, mainstream, community, and ethnic—prioritize beats, and where they see gaps in coverage, rather than counting or mapping publications, as other reports on the health of local news have. To do this, I, along with a research assistant,  interviewed journalism professionals at a wide range of news organizations in New York City about how they allocate resources when choosing editorial priorities; the challenges they face; where they see the gaps in coverage; and what they wish they could be doing better. These interviews also touched on questions related to the relationships between news outlets and their audiences, as well as with one another. All participants but one spoke on the record.

  • A consensus emerged that healthcare issues and courthouses are going underreported. Several news outlets also mentioned a need for better environmental and climate change reporting. Politics is the most widely-covered (and wide-ranging) beat in the city, but is still not comprehensive.
  • For the most part, citywide newsrooms have chosen to focus on thematic beats, such as education or transportation, rather than geographic-specific ones that were once covered by reporters based in particular boroughs or neighborhoods. In contrast, community and ethnic media outlets still mostly allocate resources and divide their reporters based on geography. Some of the best-resourced newsrooms now focus on investigative, “enterprise” journalism that can be shown, to audiences as well as funders, to deliver impact—for example, exposĂ©s of corruption or a failing city agency—in lieu of daily reporting that provides consistent coverage of developments in a particular beat.
  • Even within geographic beats, many news outlets acknowledged that some neighborhoods get better coverage than others. In some cases, such limitations are dictated by physical distance; in others, by where the subscription and advertising dollars reside.
  • Aside from the most widely-covered issues at the core of city life, thematic beats often develop in response to the interests of specific newsrooms and the communities they serve, and are sometimes tailored to fit grants or fellowships. Many of the interviewed newsrooms also adjust editorial priorities based on coverage by other media outlets in order to find those stories not covered by the competition.
  • While all newsrooms would like to hire more reporters and many would like to improve technological capacity, in many of the smaller newsrooms those in charge simply hope for a path toward sustainability and profit. In some such cases, the publications’ chief staffers are themselves part-time employees, or work from coffee shops or home. Any additional resources, they say, would first go toward covering basic overhead and administrative costs, such as office space and full-time salaries.
  • Many community and hyperlocal outlets would like the ability to pursue more in-depth investigative and accountability reporting. Most of the citywide organizations wish they could expand the reach of their reporting and deliver more consistent coverage across the boroughs.
  • While collaboration is flourishing between the better-resourced journalism organizations, particularly in the nonprofit space, there is an opportunity to develop partnerships between these sectors and the community and ethnic media. Some community and ethnic media outlets feel they are excluded from the journalism and grantmaking circles necessary to develop these kinds of programs; while they are eager for more collaboration, they also insist that any partnerships would have to be truly equitable.

READ: How do audiences really engage with the news?

  • As news outlets of all sizes seek to grow their audiences or attract investment, a tension exists between the desire for local stories that “transcend” their context and make greater impact, and the need to double down on and preserve hyperlocal reporting. A similar tension exists between those who emphasize the importance of community and ethnic journalism’s role in acting as an agent of community identity and providing “service journalism,” a term applied to reporting that offers an audience with useful, actionable information, and those who solely focus on the need for more local accountability reporting.
  • While comparatively better-resourced news organizations, and particularly the nonprofit ones, have carefully designed “community engagement” plans and strategies that often include events, surveys, and engaging audiences in conversations on multiple platforms, the popular journalism-industry term did not resonate with many of the smaller community-based news organizations. These organizations said they didn’t have the time or resources to devote to these kinds of initiatives, and were somewhat skeptical of the premise, but said they maintained deep links with their audience by living in the communities they served. 

Defining local news is complicated. This question is even less straightforward in New York, a city of international citizens that has always played an important role on the national and global stage. Many of the interviewees discussed the challenges in determining which stories, particularly political ones, were really local, and balancing such stories with attempts to “localize” hot-button national and international issues. This complexity gets at one of the central difficulties in developing methodologies that scale for an area of study whose subject is intended to be context- and location-specific. The New York City media ecosystem is unique, but the challenges its outlets face, and the extent to which they can surmount them, may have implications for the future of local news far beyond the five boroughs. 

Read the full report here


Sara Rafsky is a former senior research fellow at Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is a writer and researcher who has worked at the intersection of journalism, press freedom, human rights, and documentary film in the US and Latin America.