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Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 9

Who/What/Where Is The Local “Us”?: The reciprocation between proximity, feelings of closeness and shared interests in relation with the local press.

While today’s press is undergoing change, intersecting regions, it is important not to overlook the readers – who is the local “us”? This paper investigates how readers generate the relational sense of an “us” in a locality by engaging with the press. The study offers a framework built around three key dynamic concepts: proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests – which readers form clusters around, thereby reinforcing the notion of an “us.” Furthermore, local journalists strengthen the notion of an “us” by addressing the readers as a single collective with common features.

Introduction

In today’s changing media climate, newspapers are concerned with issues of increased transmediality, how to retain and increase circulation figures, sell advertising space, and keep distributing papers in their established areas. In this context, it is important not to overlook the readers. What do they engage with? Who comprises “us”1 in a locality?
This paper aims to identify the dynamics around who reads local newspapers and how the readers identify themselves, as well as who the journalists and editors are targeting their content at. This paper focuses on shared associations, intersubjectivity, and engagement in a local vicinity which – together with the local newspaper – may enable readers to perceive themselves as part of something bigger. By sharing their understandings and feelings about what is reported in the newspapers, readers can construct a sense of “us” in interrelation with their locality.

This paper investigates if and how this “us” is formed, what the dynamics and dimensions of this are, and the clusters that readers create around themselves and those who share common characteristics. Furthermore, this includes journalists’ and editors’ viewpoints of these factors.
This paper investigates how the readers share intersubjectivity, association, and engagement through their local press and, thereby, become part of a cluster with shared features, to create a common “us”. We assert that this identity formation in community settings is dynamic and variable along three dimensions: proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests – which each require some kind of mediation. These concepts will be explained further later on in this paper, but to summarize it. Proximity, in this context, solely focuses on the sense of geographic or physical nearness. While feelings of closeness focuses on the sense of relational or emotional nearness. Shared interests, focuses around issues or concerns between people who share a proximity or an affectional nearness.

The context: RegPress and Sweden

This paper was produced by the RegPress project team, which investigated what the regional means in a global media culture, in the context of southern Sweden. With the main research question: “What is the role and value of regional media in a global media age?”
RegPress was a cooperative project between Linnaeus University, Sweden; Newcastle University, UK; FOJO2 (Sweden’s leading media development center for professional journalists); and the Barometern Foundation.3
Sweden has some of the highest newspaper readerships in the world, along with state subsidies for the media.4 There are healthy regional and local de-centralized papers. Today, though, local newspapers are facing several new challenges, such as increasing print, broadcast and online media transmediality, declining circulation figures, and difficulties selling advertising space. However, in later years it has proven difficult to provide a complete measure of circulation since some of the largest newspapers have left the common measurement system.
According to Media Landscapes – Expert analyses of the state of media5 there are about 55 percent who read a subscribed morning paper on an average day in Sweden, but this does not show the general household coverage.
The information which follows below in this section is gathered from the TS Media6 website, Kantar Sifo 7 website and the Nordicom website.8
RegPress’s research area comprised the counties of Kalmar (population 237,027), Kronoberg (190,916), and Blekinge (155,733), and the west coast region around Borås (108,083).9 These areas have been well-served by the press for a long period of time dating back to 1841;10 along with a dominant and successful media group that has experienced a low decline of circulation and in some cases even a rise in readership numbers. In these areas, there are about 84 newspapers, including daily press, free newspapers, and newspapers which exist solely on the web. In each area, one paper dominates (circulation-wise), and commonly a secondary paper holds a prominent position. All of the newspapers below have a high subscription level (90 % or above) seen to those who buy the paper.
The main newspapers and their household coverage are:
– Barometern Oskarshamns-Tidningen (54%, 2019)
– Smålandsposten (54%, 2019)
– Blekinge Läns Tidning (50%, 2019)
– Borås Tidning (43.9%, 2016; last updated information)

Each newspaper has a strong local attachment, focusing particularly on its immediate vicinity (nearby towns and cities). Our desk research11 revealed that the local newspapers cover a range of topics, including urban development, events, healthcare, sport, and culture, complemented with broader domestic and international news.
Figures from the SOM Institute show that the subscription rates nationally are in decline, in the 1990s, 81% of the respondents had a daily newspaper subscription, 2014 it was 57 percent, and today 55 %. However, most people in this region still use printed newspapers as their main source of news.13
When it comes to the area’s homogeneity and socioeconomics, there are more similarities than differences. All of the areas have close to half/half male/female population, the greatest variation was 49% to 51%. Kalmar County and Blekinge County have a somewhat older population than the other areas, while the area around Borås has the youngest population.
In regards to secondary education, the areas had a slightly higher percentage (48%) than the national average (47%).
Secondary education:
– Kalmar County (51%)
– Blekinge County (48%)
– Kronoberg County (48%)
– The west coast region around Borås (45%)

However, in regards of post-secondary education, it was slightly lower than the national average (40%). Whilst here it differed between 32% (Kalmar County) to 39% (The Borås area).
Professions, political affiliations, and wages, were all similar in these areas.

Conceptualizing the reader

This paper seeks to understand how geographically-situated newspapers connect with readers in specific localities. Through this, there has also been an increased sense of community in relation to how geographically-situated newspapers connect with readers in specific localities (Hess, 2013). This investigates if and how shared associations and intersubjectivities are formed within the locales and regions covered by local newspapers.
There are efforts today by the press to explore local imagined societies and community traditions to receive and reinforce coherence from the readers (Wenzel, 2019).

It has been established that local media use individual as well as community factors when it comes to constructing the news, which can lead to community participation and solidarity within the community (Paek et al.). Which increases the likelihood of a sense of community with common ties between the readers, a perception of a shared community. Discussions have however been made during later years if this is reinforced by addressing the readers as part of an “us” or a “me.” There have been tendencies which show a shift from “we” to “me” in the construction of journalism (Conboy & Steel, 2010). As people are most concerned with aspects close to themselves.
The conceptual framework we devised to investigate this derives from three aspects:

  • Proximity, the sense of geographic or physical nearness,
  • Feelings of closeness, the sense of relational or emotional nearness,
  • Shared interests, around issues, or concerns where there is an affectional nearness.

These dimensions are interrelated with the notions of community, the local, and local journalism; which are all valuable in order to conceptualize and analyze our data. These concepts are discussed below.

Senses of community

The notion of interpreted senses of an relational and abstract “us” with familiar features has commonly been investigated through the lens of the word “community.” However, the notion of community is difficult to conceptualize, because it lacks any specific analytical characteristics (Hess, 2013).

Scholars and industry are yet to agree on a universal definition to describe small commercial newspapers and they are most commonly referred to as “community media”, “country newspapers”, “rural/regional” or the “local” press (Hess, 2013).

The terms “communities” and “local communities” have frequently been used when discussing journalism in local settings. In more recent research, however, these terms have proven problematic for describing the complexity of a local setting (Hess & Waller, 2013), and the ways that people engage with each other and the media. Hess & Waller (2013) assert that “community” is a layman’s term which lacks analytical clarity. Nonetheless, the concept of community has been preeminent in discussions around newspapers.
Issues around the theoretical concept of “community” have mainly been discussed in terms of newspapers’ online ventures and globalization trends (Hess & Waller, 2017). Hess (2013) offers the term “geo-social” as an alternative to “community,” as it derives from a “sense of place,” geography, space and flows. In understanding our data, we acknowledge the importance of a relational sense of place as well as an actual geographic space, which emerges through the dynamic dimensions of proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests. Each of these concepts is discussed in the findings and discussion sections of this paper. The areas we have chosen to look at are served by newspapers which focus on smaller towns and regions, where community newspapers provide connotations of familiarity, shared interests, and collectivity, as well as special interest groups, common values, and links to certain geographic areas (Hess & Waller, 2013).

Based on the notions of constructed communities, there are other aspects to consider as well, particularly from a sociological perspective, where the concept still is prominent (Goe & Noonan, 2007). This is relevant in order to understand shared associations and how the sense of a mutual “us” is created in local proximity.
The idea of community has been around for a long time and is derived from developments of society structures, where secluded rural localities of homogenous social groups developed into urban societies, alongside the issues that affected them as a group interacting in that context (Tichenor et al., 1980). Most areas are not isolated in that way today, because of the changes brought about by globalization, technology, and infrastructure developments.
Nevertheless, certain issues still affect people living in close proximity to each other. One key aspect that enhances a sense of community is the physical environment which enables and/or enhances opportunities for interaction, such as walkable streets (French et al., 2014). However, local newspapers could also be perceived as tangible factors that are shared and discussed by people who live in close proximity to each other.

One thing that has not changed since the days of relatively secluded communities is the fact that everybody is constantly interpreting the world around us. This is something we all do on a daily basis, constructing and reconstructing our impressions. Through these subjective practices, people create intersubjective interplays and, thus, a shared world (Berger, 1991).
Intersubjectivity develops through continuous interactions so that, through interrelation with society, the perceived reality is formed and reinforced through social processes and institutions (Berger & Luckmann, 1991). Journalism and local newspapers can be seen as one such institution (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009) that helps to form a proximity-based intersubjectivity.

It is the journalists’ stories that construct and maintain our shared realities. Because of this, news can become a singularly important form of social glue; our consumption of stories about current events large and small binds us
together in an “imagined community” of co-readers (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009).

Therefore, earlier research has concluded that the world we all perceive and share an intersubjectivity of is, in fact, constructed through our interactions with each other (in close surroundings) and our interrelations with wider society, which are reinforced through institutions such as the local news media. However, in order to understand how local newspapers connect with people at a regional level, it is important to examine how the readers perceive this connection – for example, which issues they share an affinity with. This is conceptualized through the dimensions of proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests, to further investigate how the sense of connection is enacted within a local setting.
From a sociological perspective, the concept of community is twofold – including both a common physical and geographic area – for instance, the area where people live or work – and the characteristics of the social relationships people form with each other (Geo & Noonan, 2007). In addition, it has been recognized that community is based on a specific place, with Tönnies and Harris (2001) asserting that community centers around a geographic area and the people who live there, in close proximity to each other (Tönnies & Harries, 2001). Both of these matters are discussed in this paper. Firstly, our study takes place in a specific geographic area, where many of the people we interviewed lived and worked within that same area. Secondly, the relationships they form with others – as mentioned above, their constructed reality – is formed through their interrelations with others and society, including the media.

In 1955 Hillery (1955) pinpointed three key aspects that had been identified through previous research into community, defining it as a group of people who:
– engage in social interactions,
– have ties to a geographic area,
– have ties to each other (like lifestyle, culture, work, beliefs, interests, or more loose ties).

This overview shows that there has been continuous discussion among sociologists about what the concept means and entails. However, “community” can be summed up as a geographic space, a social network, and a type of relationship (Day, 2006). We are aware that a sense of space cannot solely be centered on a geographic space.
Flows within the digital world must also be taken into consideration when discussing community (Hess & Waller, 2013) since many people engage in the digital sphere as well as the non-digital aspects of life. For instance, individuals who no longer live in the geographic proximity that a local newspaper covers may still feel a connection to that place, so engage with the news through a digital platform (Robinson, 2015). This is something we will investigate further in our findings and discussion, particularly in regard to the conceptual dimension “feelings of closeness.”

Senses of the “local” and local journalism

This paper aims to contribute to the debate about geographically-situated newspapers and the relationship between those who read it and the area it is circulated in. It is therefore crucial to understand what comprises a sense of the “local.” Since journalists in the local proximity is not just watchers of the community, but a part of it (Batsell, 2015).
It has been argued that “local”, as in local media, is another ambiguous and problematic term, like “community”; because vast amounts of local media today are only really local in name, being actually based at a central point somewhere outside the immediate area (Hess & Waller, 2017). However, in this paper, local newspapers are identified as news providers that serve a specific geographic area (not nationally) and exist in that locality, are regularly circulated, and contain news and information which meets the definitions used in Key concepts in journalism studies (Franklin, 2005).

Local media has been identified as a tool to emphasize the connection between people, and as a platform to express matters of importance for the population of an area (Hess &Waller, 2017; Franklin, 2005; Lauterer, 2006). The local news media try to attract the people who live within a specific area, by providing them with news which is relevant to that group. People who live in small towns and rural areas depend on their local paper to connect with each other and the locality (Lauterer, 2006). To create this sense of community – both from a sociological and a media perspective, as discussed above – the newspapers attempt to target their content at a specific group and, through that practice, assist in shaping and creating a sense of “us-ness,” a shared intersubjectivity, associations, and engagement, within the local vicinity.

The local and regional press play a dual role in their localities. Firstly, they are actors in the life of the local area. Secondly, they co-create a sense of the local and regional. Local and regional press is an under-researched area (Hanusch, 2015), so this study makes an important contribution to the knowledge of local media and its relation to the public, the public’s relation to local media, and through this, to each other.

We argue that the conceptual dimensions we introduced at the beginning of this paper – proximity, feelings of closeness and shared interests – are dynamic and change during the course of reporting news. Different readers are interested in different kinds of news.

Earlier research has established that journalism has a role to play in communities (here defined as people who live in close proximity to each other and share (at least partly) interests and values) (Goe & Noonan, 2007). This consists of informing the public, reporting citizens and their representatives about matters of public interest, and leading advocacy and debate (Bartzen Culver, 2014). Local press is rooted within the lived experience of those who live close by in the locality, which helps in constructing their realities (Howley, 2005). Readers who feel a connection to news stories or a part of the locality that the stories affect believe that the news affects them and has meaning for them (Hartley, 2009).
Hatcher and Haavik (2015) found that Norwegian local journalists’ news values depended on their relationships with the community and their place as members of the community. This concurs with research conducted in the mid-1900s (Janowitz, 1951), which proclaimed that press in a community setting acts as a system that aims to maintain a consensus based on common values.

“Proximity” is a key term in this paper. This includes news and events which are geographically close to the readers and so are seen as important and valuable for both readers and journalists. Moreover, proximity can be perceived in an emotional sense as well (Hess & Waller, 2013).

Research has shown (Hatcher and Haavik, 2015; Yamamoto, 2011; Hartley, 2009) that people who read a local newspaper feel a connection to the locality, so local newspapers are one important way to engage with the community. In this paper, we argue that there is a connection between attachment, involvement, and participation in a community, and reading the local newspaper. There is a sense of social coherence in the area that is covered by a newspaper and is defined by that. The locality shares common values, which support social networks and help to form a collective identity (Yamamoto, 2011). This brings us back to our study’s key research questions – who comprises “us” in the local setting? How is the sense of “us-ness” formed?

Methodology

This research applies a mixed methods research design, which offers a complementary pluralistic strategy (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). The data is based upon empirical data obtained from 65 semi-structured interviews intersecting these three regions in South East and South West Sweden, involving 9,413 survey respondents, 8 focus groups, and 9 elite/expert interviews (with journalists and editors), during 2016.

This study mainly used snowball sampling when it comes to the semi-structured interviews (across our regions), since this enabled us to gain more respondents through the potential sample members (Everitt, 2002). The survey14 covered all three regions (with some additional respondents living outside them) and was distributed by Linnaeus University and Gota Media.15 The content of the survey was designed upon the information gathered by the qualitative interviews with readers. The survey consisted of an online questionnaire which asked newspaper readers about their media use, as well as their socioeconomic circumstances, to ensure a diversity of respondents. The survey provides descriptive statistics (Ostle, 2012) in our empirical data.
This paper discusses data from reader interviews, surveys and interviews with journalists and editors, not from the focus groups.

Findings

General trends. The data confirmed that most respondents read their local newspapers (about 96 percent), while only 43% read the national news; showing that the proximity matters in their choice of news outlets. Through the practice of reading a paper, the reader forms mutual, dynamic patterns of association, gaining a sense of connectedness, and shared understandings. These patterns of association and engagement vary in accordance with the factors of proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests. Readers create relational and dynamic clusters of perceived importance around these, some of which are shared with others living in close proximity. This kind of intersubjectivity is also important from the journalists’ point of view, which is why this section of our paper includes journalists’ responses.

The most important of our three theoretical concepts is proximity – firstly the immediate area around an individual, their hometown or city, followed by the municipality, and then the county. The local society can also be considered an active participant, not just an area division, because it impacts on the local setting.

Proximity. The issues that matter most to readers are those that happen the closest. “Closest” here can be specific to an area or to an issue. For some readers, the closest proximity means their immediate circle, such as their neighborhood. For other readers, proximity is a wider concept which branches out to places where they work or have some other relationship to – for instance, their children’s school, or the store where they buy their groceries.

With the local news, I feel I am a part of the local community; they talk about issues that are relevant for me (RP1:16 Man, over 60, post-secondary education). The newspaper is an important tool for finding out what is happening in the local proximity, according to 78% of our survey respondents, while 45% believed that the local paper helped them feel part of the local “community” – at least sometimes. Only about 4 percent of respondents never felt that the local paper helped them feel part of local society. The local press acts as a social glue which holds areas together by reporting current events which the reader perceives to be important – according to both the literature (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009) and our respondents.
The readers perceive, define and talk about themselves as members of a group, and a sense of shared realities is vital for this. This varies in accordance with issues and areas. People living in close proximity to each other perceive a shared intersubjectivity, which is constructed and reinforced through interacting with each other, but also through interacting with institutions (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009), such as the local newspaper.

It is fairly typical for the local newspapers to follow local politicians and decision making in the city, mixed with family news, organizations’ news, and trivial things that are happening. And all of it is the glue between people and creates a collective “yes that’s right, it was in the newspaper.” So, I think the local newspapers have a social function, it’s only local news media that can do it… But also as a social glue, a reinforced feeling of “us,” especially where I live among the people in my neighborhood, but also where I work (RP2: Woman, 41-60, masters-level education).

The Swedish word “närområde,” meaning “immediate area” was used frequently and prominently by interviewees discussing close proximities. As Goe and Noonan (2007) assert, physical and geographic spaces are still extremely important for forming a sense of community. People who live and work in a certain locality want to know what is happening in the immediate area because it matters to them and affects them. It has high relevance for them, as individuals and as a group; through shared associations and interactions with members of the locality, they become members of a collective. Some participants used the word “gemenskap,” or “community” to describe this attribute, as well as mentioning their collective engagement.
People within a locality engage in social interactions and share ties to the local proximity and each other, through mutual interests and values (Hillery, 1955).

Local newspapers are really important to me. I want to keep track of what is happening in my immediate area, in politics, culture, and everything else that is important for a society. With the help of newspapers, we bind together to form a whole and not as fragmented, all of us who live in […] are affected by what is happening here and, with the newspapers’ help, we are woven together and merge into a larger collective than those you would otherwise be close to – your neighbors and your colleagues. With the newspapers, we become part of a greater whole (RP3: Woman, 26-40, bachelors-level education).

The “närhetsfaktorn” or “closeness factor” was also prevalent when discussing proximity, being defined as the dynamic relationship between the closeness of something and its importance. It was notable that individuals did not consider everything in close proximity to be relevant to them, but this dynamic enables people to form a cluster around what does – or does not – matter. The “closeness factor” also provides a tool for readers to navigate through all the material in a newspaper and offers a pathway into shared associations in the immediate vicinity.

…they report the news so that it will be interesting for me as a reader, mainly with the proximity factor that I mentioned earlier… It might be good to start reading the newspaper to get into the community, I had not really thought about that before… (RP4: Woman, 18-25, bachelors-level education).

Everything that happens locally is very interesting, of course. Everything that happens in […] is very interesting to me because I live here. Even trivial news is interesting. If a garden shed burns down somewhere, I want to know. I would not care if it happened in Halland [other part of Sweden] (RP5: Man, 26-40, post-secondary education).

Journalists described proximity as both a geographically-demarcated area and a connection between people living near to each other. Existing shared associations are enhanced by tangible factors such as a newspaper’s geographic orientation and ambition to reinforce intersubjectivity, which creates group feelings of “us-ness,” or senses of community, as French et al. (2014) observe. Thus, understandings of what is local can be formed through a symbiotic relationship between local journalists and their readers (Lauterer, 2006).

Well, local community is a group of people geographically, but above all sociological demarcated, therefore that you somehow feel that you have a community that interacts together. I think that’s a bit more important than the geographical; the geographical can be divided in any way (RP6: Editor).

As mentioned above, local media has traditionally been identified as a tool to emphasize the connections between people and a place, through its tendency to publish things of importance for the locality (Hess & Waller, 2017; Franklin, 2005; Lauterer, 2006). Local journalists and editors live and work in close proximity to their readers, while people depend on the local paper to connect with the area and each other, and to gain information that interests and affects them (Lauterer, 2006). Journalists discussed their interactions with local society as both relevant and unavoidable, since they depend on this connection with others to do their job. Furthermore, they talked about these exchanges as being essential for gaining ideas from, and initiating discussions in, the locality.

As a journalist, I think I’d rather not write about things that concern the area nearest to where I live. I think that’s too close to me, so it can be difficult for me to be objective, like when it’s as close as my children’s schools, or nursery. Therefore, I would rather not cover that. I think it’s better as a journalist to monitor other areas of the slightly wider local community, like issues at large in the region. But I would prefer not to write about things related to those very closest to me (RP7: Journalist).

Feelings of closeness. Feelings of closeness are, in some respects, linked to proximity, although where proximity denotes an actual physical closeness, feelings of closeness derive more from an emotional sense of how a person perceives closeness and what they feel as close to them. An important term in discussing feelings of closeness is “lokalanknytnig,” that is, “local attachment.” Readers explained that they felt a sense of closeness, or local attachment, to a certain area and what went on there. This attachment forms when a reader feels a connection to stories which contain something that affects them personally and, therefore, has meanings for them Hartley (2009).

For some, this local attachment came from the close physical proximity mentioned above but, for others, it was a connection to a place they had once lived, where their parents lived, or something they felt an affinity to. As Hess (2013) remarks about the “geo-social,” it comes from a “sense of place,” which might not necessarily be a physical space, but could also be a relational one.
Even those who report the news can make use of local attachment by adapting broader news articles to fit a local level, making them more relevant for their readers. Newspapers contain different sections to guide their readers to certain subject matters, and reinforce the feeling of closeness.

[…] is good at covering what’s happening locally, I really get the feeling that I know what is happening in […] by reading the newspaper. What they write about tends to be relevant to us who live in the city and not just meaningless chatter to fill the newspaper, I think that is good. Sometimes I see a news story that I read about in the DN [a national newspaper in Sweden] and SvD [a national newspaper in Sweden] that has been taken down to a local level in […] and I think that’s good because it gives a perspective on its significance locally. I really think they are good at making a local connection in the news and I think that means that it feels more like the news affects me; it makes the news more interesting for me as a reader (RP3: Woman, 26-40, bachelors-level education).

This local attachment creates a bond of intimacy between the news and the reader, as well as producing a sense of connectedness to the locality. This was noticeable in both the survey and the interviews. This feeling of closeness also generates ties of association in the places where people live and work, and those they share common experiences with (such as reading the same reports and being affected by them). Thus, it serves a social function by connecting people who read the same news stories. They become part of a mutual understanding in a shared context, which creates a common “us.”
The journalists and editors interviewed said that the most important thing local journalists should do was make their readers believe that the paper had a local affinity with them. The goal was to be perceived as being close to the readers, so they felt the coverage was meant for them and would feel close to the things reported. They said it was difficult for the news they reported to affect everyone who read it, but they tried to reach those people who were personally impacted by stories. They aimed to provide diverse content, to appeal to the wider public.

The best news is that kind that concerns lots of people (RP8: Journalist).

The practitioners stated that your immediate locality is the place where you are interested in the smaller issues and, within which a sense of belonging, “us,” is developed. This “us” has similar interests as a group and is (at least partly) affected by the same things. Local journalism also contributes towards creating the sense of local and regional because their choice of what to report or omit defines the boundaries of a perceived locality (Hanusch, 2015).

Shared interests. Events that occur in a person’s immediate vicinity are perceived by them as the most important (however, the definition of an “immediate vicinity” varies). The close locality, where an individual feels a sense of connectedness, a sense of engagement and a shared intersubjectivity, is the area they are most affected by in relation to smaller issues (such as the school their family members attend or local healthcare). These are examples of the elements the papers cover which influence people’s constructions of their perceived realities (Howley, 2005) People in the immediate area have some kind of fundamental common interests, including issues that are important to them, both as individuals and as group members. The more nearby the issues were, the more important they were perceived as.

For me, local journalism is important. It is important to be informed about events both in the world, in Sweden but also in my city […]. I believe that, as a citizen, I have a duty to be aware of what’s happening in my community locally, nationally, and worldwide. I also need to be informed because of my role as a teacher, in order to participate in discussions about what is happening, with both the children and my colleagues (RP9: Woman, 18-25, bachelors-level education).

Issues in the close locality, mediated through local media, offer a regional context, providing shared knowledge and conversation points. People get the information they feel they need, about the things they perceive to be relevant to them.

The local press is absolutely vital. Because you need to have a local attachment that makes it interesting for the individual. There are many big newspapers who write about things that are national and international, but I think it’s important to have the local perspective also and not to drop it (RP10: Woman, 26-40, masters-level education).

The practitioners asserted that journalism takes place in relation to the public and, therefore, the articles must have relevance for them. They said that a reporter’s purpose is to cover relevant and important issues – both those that are being talked about, and others – to help readers orient themselves in society.

I think if you read the local newspaper you expect it to be written for the readers at a close level. We are out where they are and we write about their schools, homes for the elderly, in a very close way, not only do we describe it in great detail, but we actually are out where they are. I definitely think the readers want us to be as involved as possible. If it’s something at an individual school we write about it, and perhaps it’s just the people who live there, in that particular area, who are really interested in it, but we write it for them and the next time we are in another area (RP6: Journalist).

The issues reported should be close to the readers and must resonate with them personally, according to the professionals. However, a recurrent theme that emerged in the interviews was a journalistic ambition to cover as much as possible of what was relevant to the people living in the local area. Two factors they considered in this were space and time, along with how many people were affected. The goal was to have a mix of these, since nothing would interest everybody, but some things interested some people. Above all, they felt there was a need to ensure local attachment, to make the news seem relevant.

Discussion

This paper explores notions of shared intersubjectivity and engagement, in order to develop a deeper understanding of people who read their local newspapers (in the context of south Sweden), and how they create a sense of a dynamic “us” through that practice. This perception changes depending on the clusters formed around proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests.

The findings showed a sense of clusters forming around these concepts, both at an individual level, but also as group members, in people’s local areas. This point became apparent in earlier research which found that a shared sense of “us” was formed through dynamic relationships between people living within close proximity to each other and local news (French et al., 2014; Day 2006; Robinson, 2015; Hillery, 1955; Goe & Noonan, 2007; Tichenor et al., 1980). Some common elements of this sense of community and the notion of an “us” (for both consumers and producers) were shared values, ties to a geographic area, ties to each other, and social interactions.

These “us-ness” clusters are also generated by other key factors which were evident in both the literature and our interviews – common interests or issues, things that affect people as individuals, and as members of a group. Respondents felt that this created a sense of “us” and a dynamic cluster, where they could share patterns of association and engagement with other people in that same local proximity and context. This shows similarities with other researchers’ results – for instance, Tichenor et al. (1980) stated that shared associations interact when issues affect people as a group, while Hess (2013) asserted that news channels have an influential position on social flows in a local context.

Both proximity and a feeling of closeness were vital from the readers’ and the journalist’ points of view, as was a desire to connect. Readers want to read about things within close proximity that affect them, and journalists want to write about things that affect the readers in their own vicinity. This finding is supported by previous research about local and community newspapers (e.g. Hess &Waller, 2017; Franklin, 2005; Lauterer, 2006). Respondents explained that they felt this sense of connection through their engagement with, and links to, a geographic area; ties to each other through shared interests, work, lifestyle, culture etcetera.; and social interactions with each other within a group. These are the same criteria that Hillery (1955) considered necessary in order to have and reinforce a community – what we refer to as a dynamic cluster – and, through this, create a common “us.”
This creates connectedness to a locality, which aligns with the journalists’ belief that their task is to connect with the readers. News articles must be relevant for those who read them, but papers should still cover as many topics as possible, because not all the readers feel a connection to all the stories published, resulting in more generalist reporting.

By being part of the same news space and, particularly, reading news that affects them personally, readers form their own notion of a cluster or a group, a distinct “us,” while journalists must make assumptions about their intended public which help to create these clusters, by setting the agenda of what comprises a “newsworthy” story. In order to reinforce a successful community, it is important to know your audience and to choose which information to disseminate based upon that insight (Safko, 2012). People who read their local newspaper feel a connection to the locality, so these papers are important for engaging with and in the community, as Yamamoto (2011) notes. It helps people to form a collective around common values.

The sense of “us” and the clusters which arise from this, are dynamic and fluid, depending on proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests. It is also important to recognize that not all the people who read local news feel this way. However, the result is still significant, because many people who read the newspaper do see themselves as part of a collective, contributors to an “us.”
Similarly, journalists help to create the sense of a common “us” through their attempts to communicate with their readers as members of a group with common characteristics, such as shared interests. In this way, the journalists reinforce intersubjectivity, engagement, associations and the sense of a local “us.”

Conclusion

In this media-saturated, globalized world, journalists and newspapers need to understand how their readers cluster around particular interests in a local setting and how this creates a sense of “us-ness” in relation to others nearby. Since the focus here is local newspapers, there’s a given sense of content density. Because the media content must, in some way, relate to its audience. A local audience wants to learn about local news. However, relating to the news can create a sense of an “us.” Not only by publishing news of a certain local content density but how the news was presented and perceived.

In today’s media climate there is a lot to be said in regards of reader engagement, however this article strived to investigate how the reader perceives themselves and their community.

This study has identified the three dynamic key factors of local newspaper readership – proximity, feelings of closeness and shared interests. We have developed a conceptual

framework from this to understand the dynamic clustering of interests and feelings of closeness which are enacted by people living in the local community and through the relations between local newspapers, local journalists, and citizens. Local journalists and their journalistic practice can be seen as a catalyst in creating a sense of “us-ness.”

However, it is important to recognize that our findings were generated in a context where there is a strong and influential press, with high rates of newspaper subscriptions, in one area of Sweden. This represents an active readership, which the local press work hard to sustain. Not only by publishing news, the local press is also present in the society in other ways than just as a publisher, such as sponsoring events and cooperating actively with the municipalities and the other organizers in public events – which they use as part of sustaining their trademark and publicistic values.

It is still uncertain whether community is the right word to use in this context, due to the lack of clarity. We have chosen to include it mainly because it was the term readers used when describing themselves, and it matches previous research about what constitutes community.

Either way, there is a clear sense of an “us-ness,” or a dynamic clustering, which forms around the three dimensions described.
In order to develop this research further, one idea would be to use the same research design to discover how this interplay occurs in other parts of Sweden or within other Nordic countries, using this study as a basis. Another potential future line of inquiry would be to include younger people (aged 15-18), to ascertain how their use of local media differs in terms of engagement, intersubjectivity, and shared associations. In that case, it might be beneficial to adapt the research design according to the geo-social concept discussed by Hess and Waller (2013), because this might be even more relevant for young audiences’ media engagement in the digital world.

End Notes

  1. “Us”, from the Swedish word “vi”, here means the sense of belonging to a community of like-minded people.
  2. http://fojo.se/om-fojo/om-fojo
  3. https://stiftelsenbarometern.se/
  4. https://medialandscapes.org/country/sweden
  5. https://medialandscapes.org/country/sweden
  6. TS Media is an impartial media audit, which examines Swedish media and the media market. https://ts.se/
  7. Kantar Sifo is a Swedish company that conducts market research, media and opinion polls. https://www.kantarsifo.se/
  8. Nordicom is a Nordic knowledge center for media and communication, and it’s an institution within the Nordic council of ministers (Nordiska Ministerrådet).
  9. SCB, 2015.
  10. https://kundcenter.barometern.se/om-var-historia/
  11. 11 Regpress, LNU. https://lnu.se/globalassets/dokument—gemensamma/regpress/regpress_preliminary-content-analysis-1.pdf
  12. https://medialandscapes.org/country/sweden
  13. The SOM Institute: https://som.gu.se/
  14. through SurveyMonkey.
  15. The dominant regional media group.
  16. To ensure anonymity, survey, interview and focus group respondents are referred to as a numbered ‘RP’ instead of their name, and some socioeconomic details about them are provided for context.

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About the Authors

Emelie Kempe (main author) (Linnaeus University) can be reached at Emelie.kempe@lnu.se.

Annelie Ekelin (Senior Lecture, Linnaeus University) can be reached at Annelie.ekelin@lnu.se.

Anette Forsberg (Senior Lecture, Linnaeus University) can be reached at Anette.forsberg@lnu.se.

Britt-Marie Ringfjord (Linnaus University) can be reached at Brittmarie.ringfjord@lnu.se.

Mats Wahlberg (Linnaeus University) can be reached at Mats.wahlberg@lnu.se.

Bridgette Wessels (Professor, Glasgow University) can be reached at Bridgette.Wessels@glasgow.ac.uk.

Categories
Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 9

The Reddit Oasis: Analyzing the potential role of location-based subreddits in the alleviation of news deserts

This mixed-method qualitative-quantitative content analysis examined if content posted to location-based pages on Reddit could alleviate the impact of news deserts. News deserts are areas where, due to newspaper closures and a lack of attention from television stations, a community has no regular news source. Six hundred posts across 20 location-based subreddits were coded based on FCC criteria for information needs. The results indicate content is primarily focused on emergencies and civic information.  

Many communities in the United States have been, and still are, experiencing a journalistic crisis in the form of news deserts (Abernathy, 2016). The term is used to define areas where, due to closures of newspapers and a lack of attention from television stations, a community is left with no regular publication of “credible and comprehensive news and information” as defined by the book The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts (Abernathy, 2016). The Southeastern U.S. has been hit the hardest by this phenomenon, with a total of 91 counties without any newspaper. The next-closest region is the Mountain West, with only 28 counties without a newspaper. No Southern state has been hit harder than Georgia. Georgia has 28 counties without a newspaper. That is more counties without a newspaper, either daily or weekly, than all of the West Coast, Mid-Atlantic, and New England states combined (Abernathy, 2018). From 2009 to 2018, the number of newspapers in Georgia decreased 21%, newspaper circulation declined 48%, all while the overall population of Georgia increased about 9.5%. The news deserts are often seen as the result of the chaotic, shifting nature of the modern news economy, one where newspapers have seen their traditional ways of making money shrink due to competition from the Internet and a changing reader base (Napoli et. al., 2019). As newspapers run out of money and close or become shells of their former selves, the areas they cover lose access to vital information.

The Federal Communications Commission and the University of Southern California released a report called “Review of Literature Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public” (Friedland et. al., 2012). In the report, the FCC and USC detail eight key needs that communities have that are fulfilled by local news outlets. Those are: access to clear and credible information during emergencies; access to health information; information about local schools and educational possibilities; information about transportation; short-term and long-term information about the environment and planning; economic information concerning development and opportunities; information about local civic institutions and interaction; and information about the local impact of state and federal-level political decisions. As local newspapers close and news deserts form, those key eight needs are left unfulfilled for millions of Americans (Abernathy, 2016). This has left many mass communication researchers searching for a solution to the news desert problem.

This is where Reddit comes into play. Reddit is one of the biggest digital spaces in the United States. As of March 2020, it is the sixth most-visited website in the U.S. (Alexa, 2020). The site, which might be most-accurately called a “social link aggregator,” is not one single thing, but rather a huge network of smaller topic-specific pages called “subreddits,” where people can post content, comment on other people’s content, and vote positively if they like that content and negatively if they do not (Widman, 2020). There are subreddits for any conceivable topic, from identifying insects to finding friends for table-top games to swimming pool maintenance. And, on Reddit, there are subreddits that have been made to represent geographic areas. Each of the 50 states within the U.S. has its own subreddit, many of which have more than 10 million subscribers. Within each state, there are anywhere from dozens to hundreds of subreddits made for cities, towns, and communities, and many of those subreddits are active hubs where users post about concerns they have in their local area, share stories, announce new restaurants, advertise garage sales, and post photos of lost pets. Within larger cities, there are subreddits dedicated just to specific neighborhoods. There is a ribbon of digital highway crossing the U.S. in the form of these location-based subreddits.

This study analyzed 30 of the top posts in 20 location-based subreddits in Georgia to see if the eight needs identified by the FCC and USC via Friedland et. al. (2012) are potentially being fulfilled by the content posted to those location-based subreddits. The study examined if the subreddits could organically create enough of the right kinds of information, not simply reposted from a local or regional newspapers, but original to the subreddit itself, to alleviate some of the lapses in critical information caused by news deserts.

Literature Review

Uses and Gratification Theory

From a theoretical standpoint, it is important to establish that there are specific needs associated with consuming local news. This study, which looks at the eight needs identified by the FCC and USC (Friedland, et. al., 2012), uses Uses and Gratifications Theory to support the concept of information as a human need. As it was articulated by Katz and Blumler (1974), Uses and Gratifications Theory outlines the reasons people consume media. Among the reasons are cognitive needs, affective needs, personal integrative needs, social integrative needs, and tension-free or entertainment needs. This study focuses on the cognitive, or informational, needs that are associated with news media.

Key to Uses and Gratification Theory is the idea of the active audience (Kaye & Johnson, 2002). Understanding the audience as a self-aware consumer was a departure from the media-effects focus of the 1940s. At that time, a person’s motivations were of less interest to researchers than the impact of media interaction. The shift to emphasizing individual’s goals and needs makes the theory uniquely suited for internet-based research. Uses and Gratifications research is adapting to the changing media landscape. Sundar and Limperos (2013) argue that the not all gratifications are the direct result of need and that technology can change a person’s needs. They point out that the type of engagement used with online media requires more active interaction and selection of content than traditional media. Ruggiero (2000) said that while the question remains the same – why do people use one form of communication over another – there are new concepts that need consideration in our understanding of Uses and Gratification. He introduced these additional concepts: interactivity, demassification, hypertextuality, asynchroneity and interpersonal aspects of mediated communication. He also pointed out that Uses and Gratifications Theory provided a “cutting edge” theoretical approach for new media (27). Use of the internet, and by extension a location-based subreddit, may therefore be best interpreted through a Uses and Gratifications lens.

News Deserts

News deserts are geographic areas where key issues and events are no longer covered journalistically in daily or weekly newspapers or via dedicated professional news websites (Abernathy, 2016). From 2008 to 2018, more than one in five newspapers ceased operation. The newspaper closures have disproportionately been in areas not typically serviced by either larger metro daily newspapers or local TV news stations.

As Abernathy (2018) describes it, the news deserts are expanding quickly in areas that may have vastly different demographics from one another, from inner-city neighborhoods to affluent suburbs on the periphery of metro areas to rural agricultural towns. Those areas were once serviced by smaller local publications, but since 2004, almost 1,800 local newspapers have shut down. The reasons for this sharp decline are primarily economic. Newspaper circulation over the last 15 years has decreased from 122 million to 73 million, and decreasing circulation means less advertising revenue. Demographically, people who live in the counties that are considered either total news deserts or emerging news deserts have a five percentage-point higher rate of poverty, have a medium income $14,000 lower, and have a 14 percentage-point lower rate of people with a college degree. The lower income also means less advertising revenue for a newspaper or news product wishing to operate within that area. The period of growth for news deserts also correlates with the trend of newspapers being purchased by larger and larger chains that consolidate, and to make up for the cost of consolidation, tend to cut reporters, editors and photographers, along with shutting down bureau offices and constricting coverage area (Fox, 2019).

The shutdown of thousands of local papers has left 3,143 counties in the U.S. without a single newspaper or dedicated news website devoted to specifically covering issues within that county (Abernathy, 2018). That is not to say that every area noted in the data on news deserts is without a newspaper. One of the newest areas of analysis in studying news deserts is that of the “ghost paper.” A ghost paper is defined as a small weekly or daily newspaper that still publishes, but whose budget is no longer big enough to perform proper journalistic coverage (Abernathy, 2018). Ghost papers often carry an excess of wire copy and may be limited to only one or two stories written by local reporters per edition.

Abernathy (2018) points out that television news does not combat the problem of news deserts. Although local television news does cover stories from news desert areas, there are two problems. One is that TV content from news desert areas tends to be limited to only one or two stories per broadcast, as TV news stations tend to keep their reporters close to their main metro area. The other is that the few stories they cover from news desert areas are almost always limited to four topics: crime, weather, sports, and soft features.

The way news deserts impact society is still being actively researched. The growth of news deserts is impacting the entire “news ecosystem” (Miller, 2018). Miller (2018), through a series of interviews with editors and journalists, notes that important investigative reporting often begins with otherwise mundane city council meetings, school board meetings, and zoning meetings. This is reflective of the role of journalists as watchdogs and journalism as having a key role in democracy (Roughton, 2019). News deserts tend to have lower voter turnout, leading to questions about the press and the long-term health of an informed electorate (Abernathy, 2016). Areas where news coverage declines tend to see an increase in government inefficiency and municipal borrowing (Gao, Lee & Murphy, 2018). Even physical health is affected. Health researchers and epidemiologists often study local news content when analyzing areas at risk of serious health outbreaks, which means those very same epidemiologists are less able to quickly target said outbreaks (Branswell, 2018).

There is compelling research on inventive ways to “fix” the problem of news deserts. Some work has focused on the need to better assess the nature of local journalism, focusing on infrastructure of news production, the output of news, and the quality of said news coverage (Napoli, et. al., 2016). Some researchers have attempted to more clearly understand the informational need gaps when news in an area is lacking by assessing different models of need (Watson & Cavanah, 2015). Dedicated online news sites have been a hopeful solution, but many are short-lived, and those that survive tend to be clustered close to metro areas already serviced by a larger daily newspaper or TV news (Abernathy, 2018; Nygren, Leckner & Tenor, 2018). This study is a continuation of the work into what options may exist to “fix” news deserts, as it examined the potential of Reddit, with its myriad location-based subreddits and democratic system of posting content, to act as a method of fulfillment of the needs of communities that were once filled by local newspapers.

This research also shares some commonalities with researching examining user-generated content, which is sometimes referred to as citizen journalism or participatory journalism. User-generated content is the processing and distribution of news-related content that was originally created not by a professional, trained journalist, but instead by someone from the audience (Paulussen & Ugille, 2008; Lewis, Kaufhold & Lasorsa, 2010). User-generated content could be anything from a photograph of storm damage posted to a news outlet’s Facebook page to a full solicited article of a city council meeting. Professional reaction to user-generated content is inconsistent. Lewis et al. (2010) found that editors who disapprove of user-generated content did so on two differing grounds: theoretical and practical. For theoretical, the issue was a concern over amateurization of the industry, and for the practical, it would take too much work to make sure the content met professional standards.

However, one important distinction between this research, which looked at Reddit, and pure user-generated content, is that UGC involves a central, controlled organizational structure. The question of community news publications relying on UGC, by default, involves a conversation about the centralized structure and what it chooses to distribute. With Reddit, there is no central authority beyond the moderators and site administrators, neither of which approach the centralized role of an editor.

Reddit

Reddit is neither a social media platform nor a forum, neither a news website nor a message board. There is no single, central “Reddit.” Instead, the website is constructed out of more than 500,000 “subreddits,” or smaller sites dedicated to specific topics (Widman, 2020). Each “subreddit” is identified in the URL of the website by the notation “/r/,” which has led to the popular nomenclature of including the “/r/” in the name of the overall subreddit. Each subreddit can be subscribed to by people who have signed up and made an account with Reddit. Once they have subscribed to that subreddit, they will see content from that subreddit in their main feed, like the “wall” of a social media site. The subreddits range in size from the gigantic /r/funny, a very general subreddit made for posting funny photos with about 30 million subscribers as of April 2020, to /r/slowcooking, where people share Crock Pot recipes, with about 2 million subscribers, to smaller subreddits of increasingly niche topics with fewer subscribers.

The uniqueness of Reddit comes from the way users interact with it. Users have the option to post items to subreddits of their choosing, with the options being a text post, an image post, or a link. A text post is like a blog. The content will show up with a headline for others to read and a body of text written by whoever posted it. An image post is an uploaded photograph or video clip, or one linked from an independent hosting site like Imgur, where other users can click a small icon and make the image or video itself appear without having to go to another page. A link post is a hyperlink to another, outside website.

Reddit is very popular. According to Alexa (2020), Reddit is the sixth most-visited website in the U.S. based on unique page views. According to their own internal data, Reddit regularly averages 234 million unique users and 8 billion page views a month (Smith, 2018). The numbers alone indicate that Reddit has the potential to act as a powerful digital space. It has more people visiting, sharing, clicking, and reading than any news site. Yet there have been comparatively few academic studies examining Reddit, using it as a basis for an online, digital space in the same way sites like Facebook and Twitter have been examined.

Research Questions

The study progressed with two research questions:

RQ1: Do location-based subreddits contain user-created information in ways that fulfills the needs that community newspapers once did?

RQ2: What needs and sub-needs, as categorized by the FCC and USC (Friedland, 2012), are being fulfilled by location-based subreddits?

Methods

This study was conducted as a mixed-method quantitative and qualitative content analysis. First, a sample was formed. This study focused on Georgia because of the research that shows the Peach State has more news deserts than any other state both in raw number and per-capita (Abernathy, 2018). A list of all location-based subreddits was found on the subreddit called “/r/LocationReddits.” Each subreddit listed as being in Georgia was checked, and if there had been at least one post made to the subreddit within the last week, the Georgian subreddit was included in the sample. Having at least one new post within a week showed that the subreddit was at least somewhat active. Twenty subreddits qualified to be included. They are: /r/Alpharetta, /r/Athens, /r/Augusta, /r/CarrolltonGeorgia, /r/Cartersville, /r/CherokeeCountyGA, /r/ColumbusGA, /r/DaltonGA, /r/DecaturGA, /r/Gwinnett, /r/JohnsCreek, /r/Macon, /r/Marietta, /r/Pooler, /r/Newnan, /r/RomeGA, /r/Roswell, /r/Savannah, /r/Smyrna, and /r/Valdosta. The number of posts made in the last week during the period of time where these subreddits were evaluated on their activity level ranged from a single post on five of the subreddits, to Savannah, with 37 new posts in the previous week.

There was one large subreddit that was not used in this study: /r/Atlanta. When examined, /r/Atlanta had more than 300 posts in the previous week, making it quite active. But the intention of this study is to examine the potential for geographically based subreddits to potentially alleviate the problem of news deserts. Atlanta, as a major metropolitan hub, is the center of a large TV market, and has plenty of available news media. It was therefore excluded from the sample. The Atlanta subreddit lists other neighborhood-specific subreddits like /r/Midtown and /r/BuckheadGA, but none of them except /r/DecaturGA met the criteria of having at least one new post in the previous week.

Once the 20 subreddits were picked, the top-30 most-upvoted posts in the history of the subreddit were screen-captured in order to save and analyze. One post was considered one unit of measure. The screen-capturing occurred in January 2020. It is important to note that while coding and analysis was occurring in March and April 2020, a cursory look at the subreddits in the sample revealed that some posts about that city or county’s response to COVID-19 had made their way into the top-30 posts by upvote. If analyzed in April 2020, the sample would likely result in more items coded in the “health” category. The top-30 all-time posts were picked instead of the 30 most-recent posts in order to get a better sense of the kinds of content that the subreddit values the most and potentially sees the most importance in. It also helps avoid issues where a single recent news event dominates the entire subreddit. Each of the 20 subreddits in the sample were assigned a “desert score.” This was based on the UNC county-by-county data and was a number of how many newspapers, both daily and weekly, exist in the county (Abernathy, 2018). Five of the subreddits scored a 1 on the “desert score,” indicating they had only one newspaper left serving the whole county, something the UNC data notes as being high risk for becoming a total news desert. Three of the subreddits in the sample, /r/Alpharetta, /r/JohnsCreek, and /r/Roswell, had a desert score of 11, meaning there are 11 different newspapers within that county, the highest in the entire state of Georgia. That was because they are geographically within Fulton County, which is also one of the main counties Atlanta is in, and most of those 11 publications within the data are based in Atlanta.

Another important distinction with the sample involves the geography of Atlanta’s suburban sprawl. The Atlanta Regional Commission (2021) recognizes 10 counties that together compose the Atlanta metropolitan area: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale. Some subreddits in the sample come from areas that are designated as existing within the Atlanta metro area, such as /r/Gwinnett in Gwinnett County, and /r/Marietta and /r/Smyrna in Cobb County. Those areas are within the coverage area of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, however because the AJC is not located within Cobb County, it does not register as a news outlet in the news desert data.

Information about the subreddits in the sample, as well as their desert scores and population, can be found in Table 1.

 

Table 1

 

Subreddits used in the sample of this study and information about the real-world location and subreddit activity.

Subreddit name Real-world county News desert status Subreddit subscribers County population Posts to subreddit in week before data collection
/r/Alpharetta Fulton 11 1,696 57,551 6
/r/Athens Clarke 2 6,511 125,964 25
/r/Augusta Richmond 3 3,471 195,844 18
/r/Carrollton Carroll 2 205 24,388 1
/r/Catersville Bartow 3 244 19,731 2
/r/CherokeeCountyGA Cherokee 2 465 254,149 1
/r/Columbus Muscogee 2 1,376 189,885 6
/r/DaltonGA Whitfield 1 369 33,500 2
/r/DecaturGA DeKalb 1 1,230 19,335 1
/r/Gwinnett Gwinnett 1 3,547 927,781 14
/r/JohnsCreek Fulton 11 238 76,738 2
/r/Macon Bibb 1 1,030 153,095 3
/r/Marietta Cobb 1 1,983 60,806 3
/r/Pooler Chatham 4 208 19,414 3
/r/Newnan Coweta 2 428 33,039 1
/r/RomeGA Floyd 1 448 36,303 2
/r/Roswell Fulton 11 1,227 88,346 1
/r/Savannah Chatham 4 7,100 136,286 37
/r/Smyrna Cobb 1 677 51,265 2
/r/Valdosta Lowndes 1 460 54,518 2

 

It is important to note that the Columbia Journalism Review has collected their own data on how many newspapers exist in each county, but they only have data on daily newspapers, not weekly newspapers (Applegate & Hoffman, 2017). Since smaller rural communities are disproportionately impacted by expanding news deserts (Abernathy, 2014), and many of the subreddits in the sample are for smaller rural areas, data on the number of weekly newspapers that often operate in these areas was needed for comparison. Another important note is that there are recorded criticisms of Abernathy’s (2008) news desert data. One of the more prominent concerns shared by the Georgia Press Association is that Abernathy (2008) does not include newspapers that exist to publish government-mandated legal notices (Williams, 2020). Abernathy has responded that those publications do not meet the FCC’s criteria for a newspaper. This study used the same FCC criteria, and as such, would not have included those publications as functioning news outlets.

Next, a codebook was developed to help shape the qualitative assessment at the individual post level. First, it was noted if each post on the given subreddit was a text post, an image post, or a hyperlink. If the post was a hyperlink, it was noted if the hyperlink went to a news website or not. If the post went to a news website, it was noted what kind of news was being linked, namely to determine if the news outlet being linked to the subreddit was from a local source, a regional source, or a national source. This determination was important, because if a geographical subreddit is only acting as a conduit for what a local newspaper is publishing, it is not really acting to alleviate the problem of news deserts. This study was fundamentally examining if these subreddits were acting as their own generators of news and information that could fulfill the needs noted by the Friedland et. al., (2012) study. Finally, the needs and sub-needs from that report were noted. Coders were asked to identify if the post contained information pertaining to: emergencies and public safety, health, education, transportation, environment and planning, economic development, civic information, or political life. Each one of those eight needs also had a list of sub-needs as noted in the FCC and USC research (Friedland et. al., 2012), and coders were asked to pick the sub-need that best applied or note “other” when necessary. Coders were told they could select more than one need being fulfilled by the same post, but they were asked to explain their decision in the codebook. Coders were asked to write a short description explaining the topic of the post and how it fit within the sub-need, or if it did not fit within a listed sub-need, why it still should be considered as fulfilling a need.

Intercoder reliability was tested using two trained independent coders who cross-coded three posts from each subreddit, for a total of 60 posts. First, the numeric overlap was scored as if it were a quantitative content analysis. Those numbers indicated agreement at 93%. The justifications for noting a sub-need were also compared. Although this qualitative component was not calculated mathematically, the coders agreed in their justifications in 56 of the 60 tested posts.

Results

A total of 600 posts were coded, 30 from each of the 20 subreddits. Of the 600 coded posts, 201 (33.5%) were text posts, 224 (37.3%) were image posts, and 175 (29.1%) were hyperlinks. Although the proportion of type of post appears even when looking at the dataset as a whole, once broken down into individual location-based subreddit, differences do appear. Of the 30 coded posts from /r/Savannah, 27 (90%) were image posts. And, of those image posts, most fulfilled no informational need. Almost all of them were either memes containing inside jokes about the area or were simple photographs showing off the beauty of the historic areas of the city. The same trend is seen is some of the other location-based subreddits in more populated areas. In /r/Augusta, 24 (80%) of the posts were image posts, and in /r/Athens, 21 (70%) were image posts. In general, the more populated subreddits relied more on image posts, while smaller subreddits had an even split, and the smallest subreddits tended to have more text posts. This appears to be more connected to the given location being one with a higher volume of tourism in a more tightly centered metro area than any other variable, as Savannah is known for its history and architecture, Augusta for the Masters Tournament, and Athens for the University of Georgia and its music scene.

First, some of the quantitative components of the content analysis will be addressed. Of the eight needs examined from Friedland et al. (2012), there was a divide between four needs that were popular on the subreddits, and four that were not. Of the 600 total coded posts, 338 were identified as fulfilling the eight needs. Breaking that down, 101 posts (16.8%) contained information that could be identified as fulfilling the need for information on emergencies and public safety, followed by 69 (11.5%) that fulfilled the need for civic information, 48 (8%) that fulfilled the need for economic information, and 40 (6.6%) that fulfilled the need for political information. Those four needs represent the most popular. The four needs that were less fulfilled were transportation information with 24 posts (4%), information on education and schools with 20 posts (3.3%), health information with 19 posts (3.1%), and environmental information with 17 posts (2.8%).

However, it is important to note that some of those posts which were coded as fulfilling one of Friedland et. al.’s (2012) needs were posts that were hyperlinks back to existing news websites. For the purposes of this study, those must be accounted for, as they do not represent a subreddit organically fulfilling the role that either a closed community newspaper or a ghost newspaper once filled. At that point, the subreddit is acting as a conduit for existing news coverage, meaning they are not alleviating the problem of news deserts. Of the 600 coded posts, 163 (27%) were identified as coming from existing news sites. Of the 163 linked news sites 40 (24.5%) went to local newspapers, 30 (18.4%) went to local news websites, 37 (22.6%) went to local TV stations, 25 (15.3%) went to regional newspapers, 19 (11.6%) went to regional news websites, and 12 (7.3%) went to national news websites. None of the 600 coded posts linked to national newspapers or national TV news outlets. The most prominent single news source was the Atlanta Journal Constitution, even in southern areas of the state such as Valdosta and Macon, which are 228 miles and 83 miles from the Atlanta metropolitan area respectively.

The goal of this study was not just to count how many posts qualified as fulfilling the needs defined by Friedland et. al. (2012), but to qualitatively examine how qualifying posts are potentially fulfilling the sub-topics of those needs defined in the same research. To do this, the results will now be broken up by need, with sub-needs analyzed within. They will be ordered from most-fulfilled need to least-fulfilled need.

Emergencies and Public Safety. Information on emergencies and public safety was by-far the most-posted form of information fulfillment. Of the 101 coded posts, 49 were posted organically from non-news sources. Breaking the sub-topics down further, of the 101 posts that fulfilled the need for information on emergencies and public safety, 53 (52.4%) involved policing and crime, 11 (10.8%) involved outbreaks, 7 (6.9%) involved Amber Alerts, 6 (5.9%) involved dangerous weather, 1 (0.9%) involved terrorism, and 21 (20.7%) were counted as “other.” Many of the reported “others” were people upset over a run-away pet, often posting photos and contact information and asking if anyone has seen it to let them know.

The most common context for policing and crime was people reporting crimes or posting evidence of crimes. The nature of these crimes ranged from car burglaries to shootings. This follows one of the norms of traditional journalistic coverage, where crime is often disproportionately covered. Ironically, the subreddits, despite not being traditional news, followed those same trends. There was also an element of breaking news and usefulness to the reader in some of the posts, as can be seen below in Figure 1, where a user is warning others who might live in the Blanton Street neighborhood of Valdosta to stay indoors because of a shooting.

Figure 1

This is the same kind of content, with the same applicability, that one might find on the website of a local news website, however the information was reported organically by a Reddit user. The language is less professional, as a trained professional reporter would not likely say victims are “probably dead,” but if the end goal is to keep people away from a dangerous area, then the post is fulfilling that need.

Civic Information. Of the 69 posts that fulfilled the need for civic information, 50 (72.4%) were posted organically from non-news sources, making it one of the most organic categories in information sharing. Of the 69 posts, 42 (60.8%) were coded as recreational opportunities, 8 (11.5%) were coded as culture and arts, 4 (5.7%) involved non-profit organizations, 4 (5.7%) involved social service programs, and 10 (14.4%) were coded as “other.” There were no posts about libraries, churches, or other religious institutions. The vast majority of information fulfillment in this was people posting things to do, and most of that involved real-world meet-ups or events of some kind. And along with that, most of the coded “others” were people inquiring about non-specific recreational opportunities, which was not enough to qualify it as describing a recreational activity but is still similar. An example of a recreational opportunity post can be seen below in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Although there are clear holes in how location-based subreddits are conveying civic information, the kinds of content that is being posted in regard to recreational opportunities mimics the kinds of coverage one might see in an “events calendar” section of a community or newspaper. The posts contained information about who will be there, what the event is, where it is, and when it will start.

Economic Development. Economic development was the first of the coded Friedland et. al. (2012) topics to be diverse in the qualification of sub-needs. Of the 48 posts that fulfilled the need for information on economic development, 22 (45.8%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 48 posts, 24 (50%) were coded as “other,” 15 (31.2%) were coded as economic development, 5 (10.4%) were coded as job opportunities, and 3 (6.2%) were coded as small business information. None were coded as information on job training or retraining. The “other” categorization required a deeper look. There were two distinct themes in the posts coded “other.” The first were announcements of new businesses opening that did not specify that they were hiring, because if they were hiring, they would have been coded as “job opportunities.” The second were posts about local established vendors who set up during art festivals, parades, farmer’s markets, etc. An example of this can be seen in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3

Political Life. The political information category was also diverse. Of the 40 posts that fulfilled the need for information about political life, 20 (50%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 40 posts, 10 (25%) were coded as being about voting and elections, 7 (17.5%) were about public meetings and outcomes, 6 (15%) were about city council or council elections, 3 (7.5%) were about state-level issues, 2 (5%) were about county government, 1 (2.5%) was about neighborhood councils, 1 (2.5%) was about political regions within a city, and 9 (22.5%) were coded “other.”

One of the most popular topics posted about in this sub-need that were not from existing news sources was how to register to vote, where to look up your voting location, and where to check if your voter’s registration is still valid. This represents a utility use, users of these location-based subreddits posting this information are providing crucial information to potential voters. There may likely be people who have participated in elections for the first time because they saw information on how to register, or were reminded about upcoming elections. This can be seen in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4

Transportation Systems. Of the 24 posts that fulfilled the need for information on transportation systems, 19 (79.1%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of those 24 posts, 9 (37.5%) were coded as traffic and road conditions, 4 (16.6%) were coded as mass transportation, 3 (12.5%) were coded as debate over growth, and 7 (29.1%) were coded as “other.”

The most common topic in this sub-need was complaining about traffic backups, potholes, speeders, and flooding roadways. There were more posts about these complaints than were officially coded as such, because many of the posts were memes joking about falling into potholes or people who ignore riders in bike lanes. These posts that were purely jokes and memes were not coded as information fulfillment, as they are not informative. However, if they contained either some form of geographic-based warning, such as a joke about how much longer it will take someone to get to work now that so-and-so road is closed for repair, then it was included. Figure 5 represents one of these posts. The language of the headline is pointed and joking, implying that drivers in Alpharetta do not know how to properly use a roundabout. However, the linked image itself is a non-joking informational graphic about the etiquette of entering and exiting a roundabout. Despite the joking headline, this could clearly be seen as fulfilling an informational need for some.

Figure 5

Education. One of the most difficult categories to code was the education category. Of the 20 posts that fulfilled the need for information on education, 6 (30%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 20 posts, 5 (25%) were coded on the quality of schools, and each of the following were coded with 1 (5%) post each: teacher performance, student academic achievement, school curricula, job training, and higher education. The criteria of school funding and school choice were not selected, and 9 (45%) posts were coded “other.” This represents one of the highest percentages of “other” within the sample.

All five of the posts on school quality came from existing local news sources, and all five were simple news stories about the “grades” of local high schools. Despite Reddit being popular with college-aged people, there was almost nothing about higher education. This is interesting, as the sample included subreddits with prominent universities within their geographic area, such as the University of Georgia, Augusta University, Georgia Southern University, the Savannah College of Art and Design, the University of West Georgia, and Valdosta State University, among others. One interpretation of this is that those universities have their own subreddits dedicated to them. The kinds of content organically posted was scattered and hard to find any useful commonalities besides posting about training sessions and community classes. This can be seen below in Figure 6.

Figure 6

Health. Health, despite not coming up very often, was also one of the more diverse categories. Of the 19 posts that fulfilled the need for information on health, 7 (36.8%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 19 posts, 5 (26.3%) were coded as the spread of disease and vaccinations, 4 (21%) were coded as local health campaigns, 2 (10%) were coded as health programs and services, 2 (10%) were coded as availability of care, 1 (5.2%) was coded as family and public health, and 5 (26.3%) were coded as “other.”

Although information about diseases and vaccinations was the most-coded sub-need, all of the posts in that category went back to existing news websites. It was the “other” where this category showed its potential as a form of information spread. The “others” were often in the form of warnings, such as someone eating at a restaurant and falling ill. One example of useful organic information in this category can be seen in Figure 7 below, where a Reddit user has gone to the Cherokee County’s department of health website, collected public data on restaurants with failing health inspection grades, compiled it into a single document, converted that document into an image, and posted it to /r/CherokeeCountyGA. This is important, as it represents a user of this subreddit’s willingness to take action to share crucial information that otherwise sits on a government website. It is this user acting almost as a journalist.

Figure 7

Environment and Planning. Information on the environment and planning was the least-posted form of information fulfillment. Of the 17 posts that fulfilled the need for information on the environment and planning, 7 (41.1%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 17 posts, 5 (29.4%) were coded as environmental problems, 5 (29.4%) were coded as natural habitats for recreation, 2 (11.7%) were coded as natural resource development, 1 (5.8%) was coded as water and air quality, and 1 (5.8%) was coded as environmental hazards, while only 2 (11.7%) were coded as “other.”

The categorization of these sub-needs posed a similar challenge to the sub-need of transportation. Many of the organic posts were photographs of walking trails or parks with a headline talking about how nice of a day it was. Those were not coded as being informative. However, if a post contained a photo of a walking trail and had information about where to access the trial, or how much access costs, or the conditions of the trail, that was coded as fulfilling a need. An important example of this information fulfillment can be seen in Figure 8, where someone has posted a video on how to maneuver hydraulic currents in a kayak after two kayakers died at a popular area known as “Redneck Beach” in Athens.

Figure 8

Discussion and Conclusions

R1: Do location-based subreddits contain user-created information in ways that fulfills the needs that community newspapers once did?

The results of this study indicate that although location-based subreddits are not functioning in a way to act as a one-for-one replacement for local newspapers, they do show potential to serve as a way for people to share important information about happenings in their communities, and some people are already using them in this way. There was a particular emphasis on utility. From health information about which restaurants to avoid, to how to properly maneuver a roundabout, to warnings about avoid an area after a shooting, there was content posted that a reporter for a local newspaper could easily have crafted into a news story, vetted through sources and written in newswriting style. However, the subreddits also have an issue of over-emphasis on certain topics. This will be discussed with R2.

R2: What needs and sub-needs, as categorized by the FCC and USC (Friedland, 2012), are being fulfilled by location-based subreddits?

In the same way that television news has been identified as not alleviating news deserts because they focus on crime, weather, sports and soft stories too often, perhaps the same criticism can be leveled at these location-based subreddits for focusing so much on two main topics – emergencies and civic information. And within those needs, there were very clear trends in the sub-needs. For emergencies, it was crime. What constitutes “crime” coverage was more nuanced, however. The content ranged from someone asking for help finding a stolen bike, to warning others that people are breaking into cars on a specific street, to something as serious as warning others to stay away from an area where a shooting has occurred and an armed suspect is still on the loose. The latter was likely covered by journalists in the area, but the timing on the post in Figure 1 indicates that this was a breaking event, and the post was made before journalists had the time to report on it. For civic information, it was recreational opportunities – things to do around the community. Although some may see this as “soft news,” as our society grows more and more alienated, location-based subreddits acting as the events calendar in place of a shuttered or ghost local newspaper can possibly help alleviate at least some of that problem.

Some needs and sub-needs are clearly not being met by these location-based subreddits. Environmental issues were barely discussed, and the ones that were tended to be lighthearted information about local outdoors recreation. As our society faces the impact of climate change and global warming, people in smaller communities are going to need access to credible, vetted information. Health was also barely covered. One common element of both health and environment as topics that perhaps explains why they were posted about less is that they are difficult topics that require some scientific knowledge to be able to convey the seriousness of the issues. Although this was stated earlier, the researchers would like to reiterate that the data for this study was collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic taking full hold in the United States, and they recognize that if the data were collected today, coronavirus alone would likely be enough to increase the number of health articles.

The topic areas that were lacking in the sample also represent one of the issues that other researchers have found with user-generated content: some journalism requires access or knowledge that tends to only be bestowed to journalists (Lewis, Kaufhold & Lasorsa, 2010). Although Georgia’s robust public record laws allow all citizens access to government records, few are trained in the procedure to procure them in the way journalists are taught. That means that someone might post that a shooting has just occurred down the street and people should stay away from that area on a community subreddit, but that person is less likely to go and request an arrest report, or record interviews with police or neighbors about what happened, or go cover the ensuing criminal trial. The results indicate that community Reddit have enormous potential for fulfilling an overall “witness,” role of journalism, but less potential for the “watchdog” role without training or incentive for follow-up. The content that was the most prevalent tended to be the content that could be obtained and posted with little effort. However, there was one post that bucked that trend: the post by the individual in /r/CherokeeCountyGA who collected the failed health inspection reports of local restaurants and posted them together as one homemade database.

This research area needs to be continued in two directions. One is on the audience side. A survey should be conducted of the users of these location-based subreddits to better understand how and why they use them. That would not only help people studying news deserts get a better sense of what people are doing in areas of emerging news deserts, but would also help expand our understanding of Uses and Gratification Theory in the wider world of mass communication. The second is using the setup for this study and applying it to larger cities with established media environments to be able to compare and contrast the differences in location-based subreddits in areas with plentiful media versus areas without.

There are several important limitations that should be noted aside from the standard limitations of content analysis – the sample could always be larger. One important limitation to the long-term implication of the findings is that the researchers did not attempt to vet the information in the sample. Whereas a professional journalist working for a local newspaper will assumedly be working under professional norms and ethical guidelines, someone posting information to the location-based subreddits might be plagiarizing or fabricating the information they post. Such actions would mean that the location-based subreddits are not actually fulfilling the duty needed to act as replacement form of news within a news desert.

As news deserts continue to expand, mass communication researchers must get ahead of the problem and be able to not just assess the impact they have on communities, but also understand ways of reversing and healing those impacts. The results of this study could very well help guide the development of a training program for citizen journalists to use location-based subreddits as a platform for their work.

 

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About the Authors

Jeffrey K. Riley is an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University

Holly S. Cowart is a lecturer at Georgia Southern University

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