If you’re looking for clues about the economic vitality and well-being of a community, you might have a look at the quality and quantity of its local news. According to researchers at Rutgers University, there are “substantial differences” in the quality and quantity of local journalism produced in affluent communities compared to poorer ones, even after one accounts for population.
“If journalism and access to information are pillars of self-government, then these findings suggest those tools of democracy are not being distributed evenly,” Philip M. Napoli, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and the report’s lead author, told the Nieman Journalism Lab. “That should be cause for concern.”
The researchers came to this conclusion after gathering and analyzing a week’s worth of local journalism output from three communities in New Jersey: Newark, New Brunswick and Morristown. And by every measure they used, there were vast disparities in the kind and number of news articles produced in the three cities.
For example, the researchers found that Morristown, a small, affluent community where the median household income is over $70,000, produced 23 times more news stories per 10,000 people than Newark, a grittier city where median household income is about $34,000. Morristown also produced 2.5 times more news stories per 10,000 people than New Brunswick, a middle-class town where median household income is nearly $40,000.
This pattern appeared on social media as well. Morristown’s journalism sources produced 20 times more social media posts than Newark’s journalism sources and more than three times more social posts than New Brunswick’s.
“These findings potentially point to a problem in local journalism, in which lower-income communities may be underserved relative to wealthier communities,” the report’s authors wrote.
Quality As Well As Quantity
But volume of output was just one facet examined by the report’s authors. The researchers also looked at how many of the articles published addressed “critical information needs” -- that is, local health, civic and government issues -- and how many were the result of original reporting, rather than reblogging or repurposing information that had been reported elsewhere.
By those measures, the disparity between the wealthy communities and the less moneyed ones was even more pronounced. Morristown’s publications produced 35 times more “critical information” stories than Newark’s, and 2.5 times more than New Brunswick’s.
Squeeze In the Middle
About the only measure in which Newark fared better than the other two communities was in how evenly distributed that information was. Using something called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, which measures the size of businesses in a specific market and the amount of competition between them, the Rutgers researchers figured out where the news in these communities was coming from. By this measure, New Brunswick fared worst, with a high concentration of articles coming from a relatively small number of publications. That finding somewhat echoes statistics published late last month by the American Society of News Editors, which found that newspapers serving mid-sized markets were hit far harder than newspapers serving very small or very large markets.
The story of these three communities may not be applicable to every upper-, middle- and lower-class community in the United States. Both affluence and poverty come in many different shapes and sizes and Morristown, where the average asking price for a home is higher than $400,000, and Newark, which is just a short train ride away from New York City, might not be truly representative of either condition in the United States.
But the report’s findings were stark enough that its authors are curious about how applicable they are. “It would be very interesting to see,” the report’s executive summary reads, “if this research design were to be scaled up and applied to a larger sample of communities, the extent to which these patterns persist.”