Community Journalism Journal Volume 10

Locating the Media’s Role in Empathy for Immigration


The relationship between media consumption and attitudes about immigration is well established, but with a focus on national news outlets. The role of local media consumption is not as well understood. This study surveyed residents of Texas (N=316) which shares two-thirds of the United States’ border, and Ohio (N=322) which is less diverse and politically predictable. Reading Ohio newspapers predicted significantly less support for immigration; reading national newspapers, more support. Local TV viewing wasn’t significant.


There is a long body of scholarship on the relationship between contentious social issues (i.e., abortion, race relations, immigration), news consumption, and attitudes about those issues (Kellstedt, 2003; Watson & Riffe, 2012; Price & Kaufhold, 2019). The role of ideological media consumption in this relationship, like Fox News Channel and MSNBC, is especially well-researched (Garrett, Carnahan & Lynch, 2013; Jahng, 2018; Dahlgren, Shehata & Strömback, 2019). Lesser understood, and of particular interest to those with an interest in this publication, is the role of local and community journalism sources with regard to contentious issues. A particularly salient one in the current political environment is immigration.

Since at least the start of the Reagan administration (Cornelius, 1981) immigration has been a prominent national political issue in the United States. Donald J. Trump made immigration the centerpiece of his run for the White House (Newport, 2015; Felter, Renwick & Cheatham, 2020). At his campaign kickoff, in June, 2015, he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Trump talked throughout his campaign of building a border wall and instituting other, more rigorous measures to stem what he referred to as an “invasion” (Corasaniti, 2016; Reilly, 2016).

Despite polling data showing that immigration wasn’t a dominant issue to Republican voters that year, candidate Trump finished a close second to Senator Ted Cruz in the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucus Feb. 1, and on Feb. 9, Trump won the second race by a two-to-one margin – the first primary, in New Hampshire (NBC News, 2016; New York Times, 2016; Pew, 2016). Trump campaigned for a comprehensive border wall, large-scale removal of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. and tighter restrictions on travel from half a dozen primarily Muslim countries (Corasaniti, 2016). As President, Trump instituted policies to criminalize crossing the border without documentation, resulting in the controversial child separation policy (Rizzo, 2018).

Immigration reemerged as a major national issue in the second month of the Biden Administration as border crossings increased to the point that the Department of Homeland Security predicted a record year in 2021 for family immigration (Miroff & Sacchetti, 2021). Immigration detentions set records again in 2022 and 2023 and continued to grow into 2024 (TRAC Immigration, 2024). Both political parties made hay out of the issue as Republican and Democrat lawmakers paid separate visits to the border in March, 2021 – reporting very different perspectives of the same scene (Gamboa, Shabad & Gregorian, 2021; Phillips, 2021). In February 2024, both Biden and Trump visited the Texas border with Mexico, to argue for and against a Democrat-supported bill to secure the border (Despart & Melhado, 2024).

Of interest in this study is whether consuming local mainstream sources contrasts with the well-established pattern of ideological news consumption and attitudes on contentious issues. There is some divergence about the effect of exposure to ideological media sources. Some studies show that exposure to consonant media leads to ideological self-isolation and a reduction in exposure to opposing media (Stroud, 2007; Dahlgren, Shehata & Strömbäck, 2019). But other scholarship has found that exposure to agreeable positions fuels curiosity about opposing viewpoints, and that even consumers mostly practicing selective exposure are still often exposed to objective or dissonant media (Garrett, Carnahan & Lynch, 2013; Jahng, 2018; Dahlgren, Shehata & Strömback, 2019).

An important consideration is the outsized role of party identity in a host of variables relevant to this body of research: selective exposure to pro-attitudinal media; acceptance of, or skepticism toward, mainstream legacy media outlets; and cynicism about and distrust of science, including survey research. Most of the body of research on selective exposure and reinforcing ideology has focused on national partisan outlets, including conservative talk radio, ideological cable news outlets MSNBC and Fox News Channel, and social media echo chambers. But the role of local media consumption on ideological topics, like immigration, isn’t as well understood. Comparing, or contrasting, between local and partisan national media is the focus of this study.


Partisan Media

Partisan media, for more than a century, has had a national influence. Newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst reported with a conservative bent, especially against President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (Nasaw, 2001). Even before that, the Los Angeles Times, under Republican activist publisher Harrison Gray Otis, opposed organized labor and supported economic development. His son-in-law, Harry, established the Chandler family ownership of the Times, which continued to lean to the right until the social turmoil of the 1960s (Goldstein, 2009; McDougal, 2002). In the years during and after World War II, ideological conservatives established numerous outlets in an effort to influence public opinion and policy, including the Christian Nationalist The Cross and the Flag starting in 1942, Human Events in 1944, William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955, and the anticommunist Dan Smoot Report in 1957, and others (Hemmer, 2016; Nash, 1976). In more recent years, syndicated talk radio benefited from the demise of the longstanding Fairness Doctrine, which previously required equal treatment of opposing political viewpoints on public airways. The Federal Communications Commission abolished the doctrine in 1987; Rush Limbaugh’s radio show debuted in 1988 (Berry & Sobieraj, 2011; Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2021). But Limbaugh was not even close to being the first influential conservative voice on radio. He was preceded half a century earlier by Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin, who railed against communism and unions, and for Wall Street and capitalism, to his 90 million listeners (Krebs, 1979; Vultee, 2023).

The widespread dissemination of cable television and commensurate popularity of CNN in the early 1980s set the stage for ideological cable news outlets. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel launched in October, 1996, grew steadily to reach 17% of the U.S. audience by 2000, and became the top-rated cable news outlet in January of 2002, surpassing CNN (DellaVigna & Kaplan, 2007). As Fox News disseminated into new media markets, it was linked with an increase in Republican voter participation and GOP candidate success in those markets  (DellaVigna & Kaplan, 2007). Fox remained the top-rated cable news source for 19 years, falling again, to CNN in 2021; CNN, ironically, was aided by two new more conservative upstarts chipping away at Fox’s viewership: NewsMax and One America News Network (Beer, 2021).

Local News

After a period of partisan ownership from the founding of the United States through the Civil War, local media migrated away from partisan portrayals to more objective reporting through the 20th Century (Schweikart, 2014). That began to change over the last decade, again due to federal regulatory changes – this time, about media ownership. Aggregation of newspapers began in earnest in the 1970s and has accelerated dramatically in the last decade, with Gannett/Gatehouse now owning about 260 papers (Kaufhold, 2020; Pickard, 2018). FCC policy changed in 2017 to allow greater aggregation, including – for the first time – the ownership of newspapers and televisions in the same market (Shepardson, 2019). While aggregation did predict an increase in identical content across news outlets in an owner’s portfolio, in most cases it was objective or nonpolitical content (Kaufhold, 2020). But one television station group owner, Sinclair Broadcasting, disseminated partisan messages across dozens – perhaps more than 100 – local television newscasts from coast to coast. One, a conservative opinion script which warned viewers to not trust fake news – presumably, news outlets not owned by Sinclair (Fortin & Bromwich, 2018) received a lot of attention. At the time, Sinclair owned 193 local television stations – most of which broadcast local news. Sinclair’s portfolio of stations at that time, April of 2018, reached 40% of American households (Matthews, 2018).

Community Journalism

Reader (2012) argues that community journalism is defined as the relationship between journalists and the communities they report on. That civic connection runs through local newspapers and local television and radio, and local journalists have reported feeling a greater responsibility to serve their geographic community than those at larger news outlets (Reader, 2012). Local news, even in daily news outlets, has been linked with increased community involvement by those who consume that news (Lowery, 2008; Reader, 2012). Local newspapers have been shown to foster community building, which can create social capital and increase citizen agency in important community decisions (Nicodemus, 2004). Local news outlets have also been shown to increase accountability for local leaders, foster community by better connecting consumers to where they live, and often serve as the primary source for local information (Radcliffe & Ali, 2018).

Local Newspapers
and Local Television News

Local newspapers have long been established as leaders in providing audiences with local information and accountability (McCombs & Funk, 2011). Local papers have been associated with residents being more informed about their communities, but local television has been shown to be a better source to generate interest in local politics (McLeod, et al., 1996; Yanich, 2016). Also, intermedia agenda setting has, for decades, woven the same news stories throughout the fabric of a local news landscape as local television news outlets mimic coverage in their local papers, and vice versa (Dearing & Rogers, 1996; McCombs & Funk, 2011). Covering local stories has also been shown to be good for business, increasing the perceived value of a news outlet among residents, especially in local TV (Yanich, 2016). Distinctions between local newspapers and television news sources exist but, as far as story selection, they are often more alike than dissimilar.


Immigration is increasingly appearing as a contentious political topic among local lawmakers. State legislatures passed 90 percent more immigration bills in 2017 than in the year before (Felter, Renwick & Cheatham, 2020). California lawmakers passed a law allowing state identification cards, including California driver’s licenses, for undocumented immigrants – the latest in a years-long push to decriminalize undocumented migration in the Golden State (Eagly, 2017; Enriquez, Vera & Ramakrishnan, 2019). Texas lawmakers took the opposite tack, passing a law against “sanctuary cities” in 2017 and, in some years, leading the nation in generating subfederal, or state-level, immigration policies (Butz & Kehrberg, 2019; Matos, 2017). Arizona was found to have the most restrictive state-level immigration policies; California, the least. Ohio fell in-between (Wills & Commins, 2018).

News sources headquartered in states along the southern border have been shown to have two differences from more distant states: First, they’re more likely to cover the border; second, they tend to be more nuanced or supportive of immigration than states in the Midwest or South. (Branton & Dunaway, 2009). Consequently, public opinion among border-state residents has been found to be more accepting, or at least open-minded, when it comes to immigration (Dunaway, Branton, & Abrajano, 2010). With that in mind, the present study surveyed residents from two states in an effort to capture not only the differences of consuming national versus local media, but to identify whether there were distinctions between local media in different areas of the country. Texas leans conservative and shares the longest border with Mexico of any state – 1,254 miles; Ohio has been highly predictive in Presidential elections for decades, which makes it the ultimate predictive swing state.

The demographics of Texas and Ohio are also substantially different, especially concerning the number of Hispanics in each. Texas has the third-largest proportion of Hispanics in the country (39.1%; Census, 2018) and ranks second by actual population numbers. Ohio is home to fewer than one-tenth as many Hispanics, at 3.7% of the state’s population (Census, 2019). Texas also has a substantially more undocumented immigrants: 6.1% of the population, versus Ohio’s 0.8% (Pew Research Center, 2016).

Immigration attitudes and media habits are a well-established area of scholarship and studies have found a significant effect from consuming partisan media (Price & Kaufhold, 2019). Much contemporary research on media consumption and attitudes on contentious political issues, like immigration, focus on the effects of selective exposure to partisan media (Stroud, 2007; Garrett, Carnahan & Lynch, 2013). But the effect of local media consumption on partisan flashpoints, like immigration, hasn’t been as well studied, despite research showing that local and national media cover immigration differently, especially in border states (Branton & Dunaway, 2009; Dunaway, Branton, & Abrajano, 2010). This study examines the following research questions:

RQ1: How will local newspaper consumption relate to attitudes on immigration?

RQ2: How will local television news consumption relate to attitudes on immigration?

Conservative Cynicism

Conservatives – and to a lesser extent, progressives – have been shown to be distrustful of science and academia. A substantial longitudinal study found trust in science was stable for the last quarter of the 20th Century except among conservatives, whose trust in science faded from higher than progressives in 1975 to much lower by 2010 (Gauchat, 2012). The only other predictive independent variable was level of religious belief, which also predicted the same decline in trust in science (Gauchat, 2012). Religious belief and trust in science were also shown to be inversely related, with a belief that scientists’ perceived atheism made them a potential threat to those with religious beliefs (Simpson & Rios, 2019).

Message exposure matters, though. Partisans (both sides) express distrust of a science message after exposure to a media message with which they disagree; for example, anthropogenic global warming among conservatives or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas extraction among progressives, although conservatives were shown to be more reactive (Nisbet, Cooper & Garrett, 2015). The source of a message has also been shown to influence partisan resistance to or support of a message. Exhortations for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic were generally more palatable to those on the left but were made more palatable if the appeal to social distance came from a Republican source (Koetke, Schumann & Porter, 2021).

This distrust in science and, more so, in scientists, is increasingly reflected in public opinion polling since 2016 (Matthews, 2020). Fairly suddenly, poll results began over-predicting support for Democrats, and even adjustments for the 2018 and 2020 midterm and presidential elections didn’t correct what appears to be a reluctance by conservatives to participate in polling (Cohn, 2022; Ekins, 2020; Matthews, 2020). The possible implications here of this conservative reticence to respond to online surveys is discussed later in this study.

Conservatives also express distrust of legacy news outlets, especially those which lead intermedia agenda setting, the New York Times and Washington Post. Not only conservatives perceive that those newspapers lean left. Hawdon, et al. (2020) found, for example, that participants in their study reported CNN showed 57% more liberal polarization than a neutral position; Fox News was one-fifth as likely to show that lean to the left. But both the Washington Post and New York Times were perceived as being significantly liberally polarized. Consequently, conservative news consumers report being highly unlikely to trust and consume news from those two papers while showing strong favoritism for Fox News (Hawdon, et al., 2020; Price & Kaufhold, 2019). Based on this literature, the study will also examine the following research question:

RQ3: How will party identity relate to news consumption and attitudes on immigration?


A panel survey was executed online in the spring of 2018, opening March 26 and closing April 11; it captured valid responses from 638 participants. Respondents were represented about equally between the Ohio (N=322) and Texas (N=316). Respondents were presented with three matrix questions, two of which included topics around immigration which are detailed below. The third matrix used a 5-point scale to measure consumption (1 = Rarely/Never, 5 = Often) of 28 news sources (New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN. MSNBC, Fox News Channel, ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, local TV news, news radio, talk radio, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Daily Kos, Breitbart, other; and, in Ohio, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch; and in Texas, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News). The local papers were all selected because they were the three largest-circulation papers in each respective state, and served the three largest population centers in each state: Cincinnati Enquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, and San Antonio Express News.

In order to quantify the level of polarization on immigration issues, survey respondents were asked to select their support for a number of immigration-related topics on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = Not at all supportive; 5 = Very supportive). The 11 items in the matrix question were all drawn from contemporary news coverage to make them even more salient to the study of media choice and attitudes. They were: 1) Building a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; 2) DACA or Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals; 3) Pathway for citizenship for Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals; 4) Sanctuary cities; 5) Immigrant detention centers; 6) Deportation arrests at courthouses by immigration agents; 7) Raids at workplaces by immigration agents; 8) Fines for U.S. businesses that hire undocumented workers; 9) Increased deportations of undocumented immigrants; 10) Birthright citizenship; and 11) Increased border surveillance. A second matrix asked respondents to rate support for seven general immigration issues, and two specific to Syrian/Muslim immigrants, including: 1) Merit-based immigration; 2) Family reunification (“chain migration”); 3) Extreme vetting; 4) Temporary work visas (“guest workers”); 5) Temporary protected status for work; 6) Temporary protected status due to environmental disaster or ongoing armed conflict in a home country; 7) Diversity visa lottery system; 8) Trump administration travel ban from seven predominately Muslim countries; 9) Syrian refugees resettlement. A 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = Not at all supportive. 5 = Very supportive) asked how supportive respondents were of immigration from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Mexico/Latin America.

Texans in the survey were younger, more male, and had higher incomes (see Table 1) and levels of education than Ohioans. Respondents in both states leaned more toward the Democratic party, but Texans were significantly more likely than Ohioans to identify as Independent or Republican. U.S. Census data shows that Ohio’s population is 51% female; 12.9% black; 3.8% Hispanic Median household income is $52,407. Texas’s population is 50.3% female; 12.7% black; 39.4% Hispanic, and median household income is $57,051 (Census, 2018).

Table 1

Participants in 2016 CCES survey and 2018 Ohio/Texas survey
2018 2-state panel survey (Ohio, n=322; Texas, n=316)

2018 2-State survey




Average Age *



Gender (Female)***















Middle Eastern



Native American


















Education Mean (3=Some College; 4=2-year degree)



Household income Mean (5=$40,000-$49,999)



*** p=</001; ** p=<.01; * p=<.05; + p=<.10

Four conservative outlets emerged from Varimax component matrix factor analysis (Fox News, conservative talk radio, Drudge Report, Breitbart). These were scaled into a single Conservative Media variable (Cronbach’s =.736). National Public Radio (NPR) emerged with three openly liberal media outlets to form a Liberal Media variable (NPR, Daily Kos, MSNBC and Huffington Post; Cronbach’s =.803).

From the 2-state survey, two immigration scales were crafted to test partisan media use and attitudes on immigration. Varimax component matrix factor analysis identified 13 items which loaded high, all opposed to immigration (building a border wall; immigrant detention centers; deportation arrests at courthouses; raids at workplaces; fines for U.S. business which hire undocumented workers; increased deportations; increased border surveillance; the Trump Administration travel ban; immigrants are a burden on the country because they take our jobs, housing and health care; America is too open to people from all over the world; undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than American citizens; immigration increases America’s risk of a terrorist attack; and controlling and reducing illegal immigration is an important foreign policy tool). An Immigration Negative measure crafted from these items showed exceptionally high reliability (Cronbach’s =.950).

An Immigration Positive scale was crafted in the same way. Fourteen items (DACA; pathway to citizenship; sanctuary cities; birthright citizenship; family reunification/chain migration; temporary protected status due to natural or manmade disaster; sympathetic to undocumented immigrants; supportive of immigration from Africa, Asia, Middle East, Mexico/Latin America; America’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a people; the U.S. government should make it possible for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens; and the number of people allowed to legally move to the U.S. should be increased) Positive toward immigration showed good reliability (Cronbach’s =.931).


Geography clearly plays a role in audience attitudes about immigration. Reading Texas newspapers, despite – or perhaps because of – the state’s substantial border with Mexico didn’t significantly influence attitudes about immigration. Respondents reading national newspapers or watching partisan cable television news behaved in predictable ways, based on previous scholarship. And the effect wasn’t nearly as strong as the national news outlets – for example, reading Ohio newspapers didn’t relate to a negative relationship with support for immigration; only a significant relationship with opposition to immigration.

Regression analysis examined two scaled dependent variables: Support for immigration, based on 14 items in the Immigration Positive Scale; and opposition to immigration, comprised of 13 items against it. Independent variables were scales of different types of media consumption – especially readers of local newspapers in Ohio or Texas, but also partisan news consumers in each state (four items each comprising Conservative or Liberal news).

Living near the border in Texas, surrounded by a significant Hispanic population, seemed to soften the effect of conservative media consumption (see Table 2). Ohio conservatives (consumers of Conservative Media) were a little more opposed to immigration (Immigration Negative) than Texas conservatives; but Ohio liberals (consumers of Liberal Media) were also a little more supportive of immigration than Texas liberals. All the relationships yielded significant differences. Reading Ohio newspapers, or watching conservative cable TV news, predicted significant negative support for, or opposition to, immigration. Reading Texas newspapers didn’t relate significantly to support for or opposition to immigration; but reading Ohio newspapers does significantly predict opposition to immigration (Table 3).

Table 2

Linear Regression, Conservative/Liberal media, Immigration Positive/Negative, by state

Immigration positive+



Adjusted R2


Ohio Cons Media





Texas Cons Media





Ohio Liberal Media





Texas Liberal Media





Immigration negative-



Adjusted R2


Ohio Cons Media





Texas Cons Media





Ohio Liberal Media





Texas Liberal Media





Reading national newspapers, in both Ohio and Texas, predicted significantly more support for immigration, as did watching evening national broadcast TV news. (see Table 3).

Table 3

Linear Regression, Local versus National News Outlets, Immigration Positive/Negative

Immigration pos+



Adjusted R2


Ohio newspapers





National newspapers




Immigration pos+



Adjusted R2


Texas newspapers





National newspapers




Immigration neg-



Adjusted R2


Ohio newspapers





National newspapers




Immigration neg-



Adjusted R2


Texas newspapers





National newspapers




Immigration pos+



Adjusted R2


Local TV news





National TV news




Conservative cable




Immigration neg-



Adjusted R2


Local TV news





National TV news




Conservative cable




The Conservative and Liberal media scales are also predictive of support for, or opposition to, immigration and in predictable ways. Conservative media consumption (Fox News, conservative talk radio, Drudge Report, Breitbart) significantly predicted less support for immigration; more opposition to it. This was, as expected, a mirror image of consuming liberal media (NPR, Daily Kos, MSNBC and Huffington Post) which predicted significantly more support for immigration.


Local media consumption was partially predictive of attitudes about immigration: reading local newspapers in Ohio was linked with significantly more negative attitudes about immigration; there was no local newspaper effect in Texas. Reading national newspapers was predictive of significantly more positive attitudes about immigration. The local newspaper finding in Ohio may be an artifact of an intervening variable; for example, data from Pew (Shearer, 2018) and others has robustly shown that newspapers are increasingly read by older Americans, and older Americans – especially whites – have been shown to be less receptive to immigration. These are also the demographic members most likely to be in the audience for conservative media, such as Fox News Channel. At the same time, the average age of a television news viewer is now over 60 and climbing by the year (Shafer, 2024). Ohioans average about five years older than Texans, in both Census data and this sample, which may also independently predict less support for immigration.

The pedigree and editorial slant of each newspaper may also play a role. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a turbulent ideological history, starting in the 1840s and, for a brief period, becoming an outpost of Confederate opinion in a Union state (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, n.d.). From 1940 onward, though, the Plain Dealer endorsed the Republican candidate in every presidential election except two: Lyndon Johnson in 1964, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination; and Bill Clinton’s youthful run in 1992. The Columbus Dispatch also has a history of leaning right editorially. Editors endorsed Secretary Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 but had previously endorsed every Republican candidate for president going back a century (Anderson, 2004; Tate, 2016). Obviously, the substantial Hispanic population of Texas – more than five times higher than in Ohio, per capita – may have an outsized influence. With exposure comes empathy.

The local newspaper finding is a bit of a surprise. Local newspapers have long been shown to be more thorough and credible than local television news (Maier, 2010). Also, as noted earlier, some local television station owners’ groups have been linked with more ideological, conservative-leaning valence with their news presentation, presumably in a way that would be less supportive of immigration (Hedding, Miller, Abdenour & Blankenship, 2019). To use Sinclair as an example, the company recently owned 11 television stations in Ohio and 23 across Texas (Bryan, 2018). Yet, the presence of those stations showed no significant relationship for or against immigration. Likewise, the Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board also endorsed the Republican candidate for president in every single presidential election from 1920 until it endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Bhatia, 2016). Clearly, the political legacy of these top three Ohio newspapers may attract more right-leaning readers. These papers may also play a role in intermedia agenda setting, influencing what appears in local television newscasts.

Local news – newspaper and television – is also likely to be more reflective of local political sentiments than national media (McCombs & Funk, 2011; Yanich, 2016). Local news consumption didn’t predict widespread changes in immigration attitudes, but it may be important to understand that local news may serve as an alternative pathway to the well-established role of national newspapers and partisan cable news in opinion formation.

The intervening role of geography also clearly plays a role. Were Ohio newspapers more likely than their Texas counterparts to cover immigration in an “Ohio way” – less supportive of immigration than those living much closer to the border and with a substantially larger Hispanic population? Or does it only reflect what polling data shows – less support for immigration among Ohioans than Texans, which reveals itself in the newspaper audience?

Is local news community journalism? One could argue, in an era of hedge-fund and aggregate ownership, that it isn’t – but respondents in this study viewed it that way, as indicated by their different perspectives on immigration, predicted by local vs. other news sources. Consumers of Ohio local media viewed immigration more negatively than did consumers of Texas local media. In both states, local news consumers viewed immigration more sympathetically than those who reported being more likely to consumer conservative national media, like Fox News Channel. Getting news from a local source, whether near the border or not, yielded more tolerance for immigration than did consumption of conservative news outlets; and even more so in Texas, near the border. Diverse news consumption is shown here, as in previous scholarship, to moderate views on contentious issues like immigration but the findings here support the important role of local media sources to be part of that conversation.

A final consideration is that Texas is now home to an enormous diaspora of people from other places, drawn to the Lone Star State by rapid expansion of the job market in the decade after the Great Recession. This influx of new “Texans,” including nearly 9,000 Ohioans who moved to Texas in 2019 alone (Census, 2019), couldn’t help but be exposed to a ubiquitous Hispanic population in the U.S.’s largest border state. Migrants who left the Buckeye State also reported higher incomes than those who remained (Hanauer, 2019). Ohio, by comparison, was much slower to recover, saw falling incomes and home prices, and suffered a net out-migration after the Great Recession (Hanauer, 2019). Ohio ranked sixth among all states for out-migration in 2018, up from seventh the year before and continuing a pattern dating to the recession in 2008 (Merritt, 2019). The search for employment was cited by 60.75% of those leaving Ohio, and those under 35 were most likely to leave.

This economic malaise may inform political inclinations much differently in Ohio than Texas. For example, after 20 years as a closely divided swing state (Bill Clinton won Ohio by 6% in 1996; every subsequent election through 2012 was closer), Ohio twice went for Republican Donald Trump by 8-point margins (FEC, 2020). Trump, obviously ran aggressively against immigration and instituted provocative policies like criminalizing undocumented immigration, leading to the separation of migrant children from their parents. Ohioans seemed more supportive of that immigration position than Texans, as told by Trumps’ vote margins.

Local News

There will be assertions that “local news” isn’t the same thing as “community journalism” which is understandable but, in this case, that assertion is misguided. Earlier literature establishes the important role of local news in community building, including informing and linking neighbors, informing them, and contributing to the development of social capital. Also, the outlets most often thought of as community journalism – small hyper-local weeklies – serve an essential role in their communities but are less likely to be able to invest time and money in covering a national issue like immigration – especially in a non-border state like Ohio. Finally, compared to partisan cable news outlets, like Fox News Channel and MSNBC, local television and newspaper newsrooms were shown here to make have a unique and valuable contribution to attitudes about this contentious issue.

This study captures an effect of local news consumption which is worthy of future study. Subsequent research should consider adding content analysis of local media in the comparative states and continue to drill down in a survey into voter attitudes about immigration policies and issues. This study administered the survey during the midterm election season. Administering it during a presidential election year would be much more likely to capture McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) “need for orientation” which would probably yield more stark relationships. Undecided voters who intended to vote in the highly contested 2016 and 2020 campaigns would likely have felt more strongly about the issue of immigration, increasing the likelihood of us capturing significant differences by media use and geographic location.

There would also be value to considering a third or even a fourth state of different ideology and demographic makeup – perhaps a much smaller border state, like New Mexico; or a Midwestern state with a significant Hispanic population, like Illinois. That diversity of respondents would likely offer some nuance to issue of immigration.

Also, the well-documented bias by conservatives against participating in survey research, and distrust of scientists and their motives, may have reduced their representation in this sample. This data was collected well into the window of conservative survey resistance which began, abruptly, in 2016. The topic of study here is controversial. It was, and still is, the central issue of consecutive presidential campaigns. In addition, this IRB-approved study was distributed with clear labeling that it was from an academic institution. Any, or all, of these factors could be expected to trigger conservative resistance to participation. There is evidence, based on the frequencies in both states showing party identification (Table 1, p. 10) suggesting that Republicans were underrepresented in this survey sample, although voter registration data from the Ohio Secretary of State in 2021 showed 11% more Democrats than Republicans (OhioSOS, 2021); Gallup data showed, in 2017 (the year before this survey), Texas registrations showed the state was 41% Republican, 38% Democrat (Gallup, 2017). Ohio respondents in this sample align nicely with state registrations but the data from Texas suggests an undercount of Republicans – perhaps due to conservative resistance to surveys and scientists. This could have minimized the effect of local news consumption by conservatives in Texas in this data.

Finally, this study chose immigration because it was a central issue to the current political milieu but scholars targeting these relationships in the future should design a study around the issue du jour of that contemporary political campaign. Regardless, the role of local media in opinion formation on national issues isn’t adequately studied and this scholarship found some small but important role in that relationship with Ohio newspapers. Media scholars and practitioners would both be well served by having a better understanding of that relationship.


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About the Author

Kelly Kaufhold is an associate professor of digital media innovation in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University.

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Community Journalism Journal Volume 10

“COVID guidelines? Or are we just wingin’ it?”: An analysis of pandemic-related public health content posted to location-based digital spaces


This is a mixed-method content analysis of posts made to geographically based community pages on the social link aggregation site Reddit. It examines the posts through the lens of the United States Federal Communication Commission’s identified community informational needs as defined by Friedland et al. (2012). Previous research on the topic found that the general information posted to those pages often fulfilled the community-based information needs, although not in a pure one-to-one analog for the traditional, centralized community news outlet. One of the shortcomings was a lack of public health information. However, no study has since been conducted on this content since the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped most of the world since early 2020. This study is a continuation of that line of research, examining if the content posted about COVID-19, masking, social distancing, and vaccinations to geographically based digital spaces has the potential to alleviate some of the information-flow problems caused by the collapse of traditional community journalism infrastructure in the U.S.


This study was a mixed-method content analysis of posts made to 13 location-based digital communities on the social link aggregation website Reddit. This study examined how users used those subreddits to share community-based public health information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The content was examined along the lines of the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s identified community informational needs. Of those needs, one is the need for health-based information, divided up into these sub-categories: access to information about basic public health; the availability, quality, and cost of local health care; information on health-based programs and services; timely information in accessible language on the spread of disease and vaccination; and timely access to information about local health campaigns and intervention (Friedland et al., 2012).

This research follows in the footsteps of previous work suggesting Reddit’s geographically based subreddits contain the potential to alleviate some of the informational losses caused by the growing news desert problem (Riley & Cowart, 2021). As of April 2024, Reddit is listed by Similarweb as being the 10th-most-visited website by traffic in the United States (Top Websites Ranking, 2024). Previous research on Reddit found that the originally generated content posted to geographically based subreddits carries many of the same attributes as the eight community informational needs noted by the FCC (Friedland et al., 2012).

The potential was at its highest level for emergency or breaking-news based information, civic-based political information, and event-based community calendar information, all of which mimic the content that would otherwise exist in traditionally structured community newspapers and outlets (Riley & Cowart, 2021). However, not all of the eight community-based information needs were highly represented. Health-based information was one of the least-present informational areas identified in Riley & Cowart’s (2021) results, with only 19 coded posts out of a total sample of 600.

When health-based information was found in the data, it tended to take the shape of reminders of free health clinics or inquiries about recommendations for local physicians and dentists, but rarely did the results indicate a deeper presence of community health-based information. In terms of more traditional, centralized news production, there was little in the way of non-event based health information sharing. In terms of the special dynamics social media can bring to the table, there was very little health-based information-seeking behavior.

However, the results of that study carried a very serious limitation: the work was completed using data collected from a period of time that ended mere weeks before the coronavirus pandemic that would eventually kill more than 1 million Americans and disrupt the entire world entered the mass consciousness of most citizens in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not issued a public health declaration for municipalities to brace for community spread until Feb. 25, 2020 (CDC Media Telebriefing, 2020).

The World Health Organization had not declared COVID-19 an official pandemic until March 11 (WHO Director-General’s opening remarks, 2020). Although we now know the first death on U.S. soil from the virus happened on February 6, 2020, in Santa Clara, California (Allday & Gafni, 2020), that information was not made public until April 24, 2020, two months after data collection for Riley & Cowart’s (2021) study ended. At the time, the then-understood first death from the virus came on Feb. 28, 2020, in a nursing home in Washington State (Acevedo & Burke, 2020). This study explored Riley & Cowart’s (2021) serious limitation by focusing specifically on posts concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent control measures of masking, social distancing, and vaccinations to see if and how the subreddits could fulfill the public-health-based informational needs noted by the FCC (Friedland et al., 2012).

The results of this study indicate that many of the geographically based subreddits were used to equally share public health information, as well as request public health information. Requests for businesses and locations that followed masking and social-distancing protocols were the most-common information requested, and warnings about businesses and locations that did not follow masking and social-distancing protocols were the second-most volunteered form of information. The most common form of volunteered information was regular updates on the number of positive cases in the community; however that came with a compelling twist. The majority of those posts were made by “bots,” or computer scripts that would grab the case number information from the Georgia Department of Public Health and post it on the subreddit at a regular interval. That action, while simple, demonstrates that the subreddits began to figure out how to create their own decentralized forms of regularly updated community health information.

The results also demonstrated an active push-and-pull between users requesting information and volunteering information, which helps expand our understanding of the applicability of interactive components of Uses & Gratifications Theory, namely aspects of sociality as a guiding motivator for interaction in digital spaces.

As more community news outlets close, and as community news deserts in the United States continue to expand, it is important for scholarly research on community journalism to examine not just the impacts of community news closure, but also what is coming after to fill the void as humans continue to seek answers to questions related to public health – such as which local businesses are following safety protocols during a viral pandemic. Aside from the obvious benefit that proper information flow for public health information brings to a community, community reporting on outbreaks has been used by epidemiologists for decades to track and analyze community responses to disease spread (Branswell, 2018).


Literature Review

Uses & Gratification Theory

This study utilized Uses & Gratification Theory as its foundational theoretical framework. At its most basic, the audience-centered theory presupposes that people make active decisions in their mass-media consumption habits in order to satisfy specific internal needs (Blumler & Katz, 1974; Ruggiero, 2000).

Modern work examining the overlap of digital communities and Uses & Gratifications Theory has suggested that there are five active motivations specific to activity in digital spaces, including social media: Sociality and affection, the need to express negative feelings for catharsis, recognition of opinion or belief, entertainment, and cognitive needs (Leung, 2013; Menon, 2022). This study recognizes that the very nature of Reddit as a digital space means the way people interact with it as a platform will be fundamentally different from the ways they interact with a printed community newspaper, or even that community newspaper’s website, as there is a potentially a higher level for participatory interaction and two-way sharing of information. While there is the capacity for interaction with a community newspaper or community news website in the form of guest columns, letters-to-the-editor, and comment sections, the information flow is much more one sided. On Reddit, there is much more potential for what Lowrey (2012) referred to in community news as a “Listening and Changing Dimension,” (pg. 96, in Reader, 2012), wherein more voices are allowed to have a say. In turn, that increases the bond between the “community” and the people gathering and presenting the information. In the case of Reddit, those are the same groups, without a delineated difference between “community journalist” and “community member.”

There are also noted overlaps in the specific uses of community journalism and the gratification of those in the community, and some researchers have found that there are distinctly different patterns of consumption and assumptions of trustworthiness behind community news when it shifts into an online platform (Gulyas, O’Hara & Eilenberg, 2019). Echoing other work on Uses & Gratification Theory in digital spaces, Obot (2013) found there were consistencies of audience expectation within the gratification of independence in the reporting, quality of the reporting, and reach of the message.

Community Journalism

Even the scholars whose entire research agenda is “community journalism” have struggled at times to give it a simple, short working definition in a way that clearly differentiates it from “local journalism” or other vague possible titles for packaged information that relies heavily on proximity as the primary element of newsworthiness (Reader, 2012). Yet there is a sense of understanding about what the term actually means: news that has a “narrower closeness” (pg. 15) to the audience it serves. That closeness can come in the form of geographic closeness, as in a community newspaper publishing news articles about issues that are newsworthy to the smaller town, suburb or neighborhood from which it is located that might not be newsworthy to a larger, or neighboring, area.

The sense of closeness can also come in the form of familiarity, where a reader might recognize the reporter’s byline as someone who attends their church or social club, who they can comfortably approach to ask about the news. This study also recognizes that the closeness might also take the form of a connection that, instead of being geographic, is instead based on demographics, ideology, or general interest. From online forums for LGBTQ+ youths to printed newspapers for the Amish and Mennonites in the U.S., a considerable amount of research has found that the idea of “community” expands far beyond physical proximity (Davis, Elin & Reeher, 2002; Carey, 2012; Carey, 2016; Hawkins & Watson, 2017). However, this study progressed using physical proximity as its primary focus of “community.”

The world of community journalism has undergone a drastic change in the last two decades, despite still making up a large percentage of the overall volume of printed news in the U.S. (Reader, 2018). That change has been almost entirely economical (Abernathy, 2014; Abernathy, 2018; Lenz, 2020). Decreased circulation has caused a plummeting of advertising revenue rates and cash from lost subscriptions. The decrease in earnings has caused many community news outlets to close down, leaving many areas without consistent information-sharing outlets, which causes noticeable negative changes in a community.

News Deserts & Ghost Papers

News deserts, referred to by some researchers as media deserts, are geographic areas that do not contain regularly updated news from outlets dedicated to covering only that specific area (Ferrier, Sinha & Outrich, 2016; Abernathy, 2018). The term is used to refer to areas that once contained dedicated daily or weekly print newspapers, often with corresponding websites, that have since shuttered due to the impact of the Internet and social media on the traditional business model of community news (Abernathy, 2016). While news deserts are often conceptualized as dusty rural towns, large urban centers often have smaller designated neighborhoods with unique issues that are without regular coverage as well (Rafsky, 2020). Many times these news-desert neighborhoods within metropolitan areas carry a bigger population than the rural towns. Both metropolitan and rural news deserts carry a common issue where the news desert’s reach tends to sprawl further when the community in question is not predominantly white, not Christian, not within traditional sexual and gender norms, and at least middle class or lower (Ferrier, Sinha & Outrich, 2016).

Although news deserts are caused by economic issues, their impact reaches far beyond the pocketbook. Previous research on the impact of news deserts has found that expansion of news deserts correlates with a decline in civic information flow (Miller, 2018), a decline in voter turnout and engagement with local government (Watson & Cavanah, 2015; Abernathy, 2016), and higher levels of government inefficiency, likely caused by persistent lack of a watchdog (Gao, Lee & Murphy, 2018).

This study follows a slightly different path than the research studying the impact of news desert expansion. Instead of studying the negative impacts to people in a community and the community itself when the local community newspaper runs out of money and closes, this study is part of a growing body of work studying the continued information-seeking behavior of those people and communities. The assumption this work progresses with, based on established community journalism research, is that the closure of community news outlets is primarily driven by economic factors inherent in the collapse of subscription-based and advertisement-based revenues, not the publics’s aadeclining interest in community information . Experiments and analysis have demonstrated that people within a community still seek information about that community, but they are increasingly seeking the information on blogs, social media, and other digital spaces (Belair-Gagnon at al., 2019; Sukmono & Junaedi, 2019; Cardillo, 2021)

Another important note, specific to this study, is the decline in community news has also caused a decline in the available data for public health researchers and epidemiologists, who have traditionally relied on the output of information from community news outlets for studying disease outbreaks and providing communities with information needed to combat outbreaks (Branswell, 2018).

Television is often excluded from the news desert conversation because local television stations tend to be centralized in an urban area within a given market, where the majority of their reporters only extend journalistic coverage to smaller outlying communities in three predictable news frames: crime, disaster, and sports (Abernathy, 2016). Even though a television station’s coverage area might contain upwards of 20 counties in Georgia, for example, that station is less likely to send a reporter to the counties farthest away from the station’s home base unless there was a murder, a tornado, or a regional-level high-school sports championship. Thus, in terms of relief from the problems caused by news deserts, television lacks the capacity to fulfill most of the “closeness-based” community news obligations via its primary delivery system.

The increasingly common phenomenon of “ghost papers” has made the collection of analyzable news desert data difficult (Abernathy, 2020). “Ghost papers” are smaller community-based printed newspapers that, in the literal sense, still exist, but without the ability to perform core journalistic functions. They still publish at regular intervals, they still carry legally required governmental records and statements, and they still print community obituaries and birth announcements. What defines a ghost paper is that they no longer carry meaningful independent reporting by either professional or participatory community journalists. They often no longer pay for a regular staff of reporters, no longer regularly cover the social functions required of a community news outlet, and rarely if ever report on the actions of city councils, county commissions, school boards, or other political bodies. Because of the lack of journalistic personnel, they also tend to lack the manpower needed for proactive, anticipatory entrepreneurial reporting. Instead, ghost papers rely on unvetted press releases for most written copy. Ghost papers are the journalistic equivalent of empty calories: They exist, and you can read them, but you’re not getting much of anything educationally nutritious from them. Data from Abernathy (2020) suggests that the number of ghost papers in the U.S. is indeed increasing, caused by the same dynamics behind news deserts: A decline in the traditional revenue system of printed news.


This study focused on Reddit as a potential alleviation for the problem of news deserts. Reddit is best defined as a social link aggregation system, making it somewhat more complex than a social networking service like Facebook or a microblogging platform like Twitter. Instead of there being a single thing called “Reddit,” the website is composed of thousands of individual topics-based pages known as “subreddits.” Subreddits are denoted by the use of “/r/” in front of their names, as that is what appears in the URL. According to Reddit, there are about 140,000 “active” subreddits out of 1.2 million total subreddits, although Reddit has not been clear about how it classifies “active” (Marotti, 2018). At the time of data collection, web data aggregation site Similarweb ranked Reddit in the top-20 of most-visited websites on Earth and is the 9th-most-visited in the U.S. (Similarweb Top Websites Ranking, 2022). Subsequent data lists it at 10th-most-visited in the U.S. as of May 2024 (Similarweb Top Websites Ranking, 2024)

Reddit functions differently than many other forms of social media. Users can create profiles, but they are not as closely linked to one’s central identity in the same way users tend to approach more traditional social networking sites like Facebook. Users can make three kinds of “posts” within a subreddit: A self-post, which is like typing in text as a blog post; an image-post, where the user submits an uploaded photograph that automatically loads within Reddit’s page; and a link-post, where users submit URLs to websites outside of Reddit. All content, regardless of the kind of post, will then appear on the subreddit’s page with a set of arrows next to it: an orange one pointed upwards and a blue one pointed downward. All users can then “upvote” or “downvote” the content by clicking on either arrow to signal either agreement or disagreement. Although official “Reddiquette” dictates that the voting should be done along lines of usefulness, it is accepted among Reddit users that the voting is primarily done as a form of showcasing agreement and disagreement (Reddiquette, 2021). The ratio of upvotes-to-downvotes is used by Reddit, along with the number of comments, the number of hours since it was posted, and other undisclosed components in their proprietary system for ranking the order of content on a subreddit. Reddit has never fully released their ranking algorithm out of fear advertisers would learn how to manipulate it (Coldewey, 2016).

Reddit has been the subject of a considerable amount of mass communication research over the last decade, especially in the last five years. The research has taken many forms, from studying general hoaxes and misinformation spread (Achimescu & Chachev, 2020; Tasnik, Hossain & Mazumder, 2020; Mamie, Ribeiro & West, 2021) to more specifically examining the use of Reddit among radicalizers (Grover & Mark, 2019; Raemdonck, 2019) to studying the way information flows from traditional news into Reddit (Funk, 2018; Riley & Cowart, 2018).

Research Questions

Based on the existing literature that has examined the impact and importance of informational needs at the community level, the study progressed with the following two research questions.

 R1) How have geographically based digital communities shared information related to the COVID-19 pandemic?

R2) Does content posted to geographically based digital communities fulfill the FCC’s identified community-based health informational needs?


This study was conducted as a mixed-method content analysis. First, a sample was made using qualifying geographically based subreddits. This study started with the same list of subreddits used by Riley & Cowart (2021), but reexamination of the subreddits revealed that seven of those subreddits no longer qualified as “active,” in that they did not have at least one active post in the previous week as measured on July 1, 2022. Each subreddit was assigned a news desert score, which was determined using the number of dedicated news outlets within the given county as collected by Abernathy (2018).

For the purposes of this analysis, a lower number represents a harsher news desert climate, while a larger number would mean more news outlets in that county. This study recognizes that some do disagree with the metrics Abernathy (2018) used to determine the existence of what would qualify for local and community news (Williams, 2020). However, Abernathy’s (2018) data is the most robust available determination of news desert status, and as such, this study progressed with that as a noted limitation. Georgia-based subreddits were chosen because of Georgia’s unique dynamic within news desert data. Georgia contains more counties without a dedicated news outlet, either daily or weekly, print or digital, than all of the other regions of the U.S. combined. The subreddits included in the sample and their corresponding population data are below in Table 1.

Table 1

The subreddits selected, their subscriber numbers, and the real-life population of those geographic areas.

Subreddit: Real population of geographic area: Number of subreddit subscribers: News score: Number of posts in previous week as of July 1, 2022:
/r/Alpharetta 65,818 26,068 11 8
/r/Athens 127,315 28,004 2 54
/r/Augusta 202,081 17,582 3 16
/r/ColumbusGA 206,922 10,246 2 17
/r/DaltonGA 34,417 2,491 1 3
/r/Gwinnett* 942,627 30,583 1 13
/r/Macon 157,346 9,346 1 3
/r/Marietta 60,972 14,600 1 6
/r/Newnan 42,549 4,518 1 2
/r/RomeGA 37,713 2,773 1 2
/r/Roswell 92,833 8,093 11 2
/r/Savannah 147,780 30,445 3 4
/r/Valdosta 55,378 4,154 1 3

*NOTE: /r/Gwinnett is a subreddit created to represent Gwinnett County, Georgia, and as such is the only subreddit not representing a single municipality.  

It should be noted that there are geographic areas examined as a part of this study that might not immediately conjure up the idea of a “news desert.” Athens, Savannah, and Macon are all used in this sample, and are serviced by daily newspapers and are the centralized hub for TV news stations in their given markets. However, this study is looking at the capacity for digital spaces to act as a conduit for both information-sharing and information-seeking behavior, and as such those places were included because they allow for comparison of those behaviors. This also allows for examination of user-created information that is entirely bypassing the traditional community journalism infrastructure, even in places that still have a functioning form of traditional, centralized news media.

Another important note is the exclusion of /r/Atlanta, which is the subreddit for the entire Atlanta metropolitan area. While existing research on community journalism does recognize that community news needs to exist within sub-areas of larger metros, the rules of the /r/Atlanta subreddit indicate it is to be used for information for the entire metropolitan area, and as such causes an overlap one level above the “community” level of news and more into the “local” level of news. As such, it does not make epistemological sense to include /r/Atlanta within the sample. There are no comparative sub-areas within any of the three larger cities of Athens, Savannah and Macon in the same way there are for Atlanta.

After the subreddit list was created, the study progressed by searching four key informational groupings using the internal search system in each subreddit. First was the disease itself, using the terms “coronavirus” and “COVID-19”; then were three earlier prevention elements of “social distancing,” “masks” or “mask mandate”; and finally the late prevention elements of  “vaccine” or “vaccination.”  After searching for those key terms, all results were screen-captured and saved for further analysis on July 1, 2022, making the effective date range of the sample January 1, 2020 to July 1, 2022. Results that matched the key terms but were irrelevant to the framework of community-based public health information were discarded. An example of an irrelevant post would be someone posting “I haven’t had good Thai food since before the COVID-19 mess, where is the best place to get a bowl of take-out curry around here?” COVID-19 is not the primary topic of the information-seeking request, nor is it a public-health-based request at all. However, if someone asked for a recommendation for a Thai restaurant that was following masking and social distancing protocols, that would be saved and analyzed, as public health is a part of the information-seeking request. Also, results before January 2020 were discarded, as they were not about the pandemic, despite the fact that the pandemic began in late 2019 in other parts of the world. Results prior to January 2020 contained no information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

A general, grounded codebook was developed using the FCC’s (Friedland et al., 2012) community informational needs, focusing just on the health-based sub-needs. The options for primary frames based on the Friedland et al. (2012) work were: access to information about basic public health; the availability, quality, and cost of local health care; information on health-based programs, and services; timely information in accessible language on the spread of disease and vaccination; and timely access to information about local health campaigns and intervention.

Posts were then read and analyzed for common phrasing, common structure, and common informational framing to determine if they fit within any of those health-based informational categories, with the final determination made by the coder. The initial sorting of the content was solely looking for if the information provided in the post met any of the criteria listed by Friedland et al. (2012).

After the primary informational frame was determined, posts were then re-read by the coder to determine if there were deeper patterns at play in the way information was being posted, where two differences emerged. If a Reddit user was seeking information from the other users of the subreddit, that was coded “Asking.” If the Reddit user was posting information for others to have, that was “Volunteering.” Posts that contained pandemic-related information, but not in a way that would qualify as health information, were saved and re-analyzed into their own subframes of information flow. That initial grouping allowed for deeper analysis into patterns, and possible intent, of both the information-sharing and information-seeking behaviors.

The study was completed using a single coder; however intercoder reliability was assessed using the study’s primary coder and one other independently trained coder. A 10% chunk of the sample, or about 60 posts, were independently coded for intercoder reliability tests, which were performed using ReCal2. Because of the more grounded, thematic-based approach to coding, simple percent agreement tests were used with an 80% threshold. All coded options passed with at least 86% as the lowest percent agreement.


Three strata of activeness commonality appeared in the volume of COVID-related public health information posted to the subreddits. The top strata included /r/Savannah with 168 total posts, followed by /r/Athens at 125 and /r/Augusta at 116. Those three were the only subreddits with posts in the triple-digit range. Below that was a second strata of /r/Gwinnett with 85, /r/ColumbusGA with 42, /r/Roswell with 38, /r/Alpharetta with 24, and /r/Marietta with 19. The lowest-volume strata included /r/Macon with nine, /r/RomeGA with eight, /r/Valdosta with five, and /r/DaltonGA and /r/Newnan with one post each. That added up to a total sample of 641 posts about COVID-19 in the selected subreddits from the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 until July 2022. Posts within that sample were not subsampled – all qualifying posts that were collected were included for analysis. The breakdown of posts compared to news desert score can be seen below in Table 2.

Table 2

The frequency of number of posts in the sample from each subreddit compared to the news desert score.

Subreddit Number of qualifying posts News desert score
/r/Savannah 168 3
/r/Athens 125 2
/r/Augusta 116 3
/r/Gwinnett 85 1
/r/ColumbusGA 42 2
/r/Roswell 38 11
/r/Alpharetta 24 11
/r/Marietta 19 1
/r/Macon 9 1
/r/RomeGA 8 1
/r/Valdosta 5 1
/r/DaltonGA 1 1
/r/Newnan 1 1
Total 641

Four distinct top-level groupings appeared within the information flow of the interactions of content within the thematic-based frame coding. The first will be referred to as “Asking.” These were public-health-based questions asked by a user to the rest of the users in the subreddit about one or multiple issues involving the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 641 total coded posts, 189 were coded as “Asking”. The second will be referred to as “Volunteering.” These were pieces of public health-based information posted by a user for the apparent good of everyone else. Of the 641 total coded posts, 190 were coded as “Volunteering.” Both the Asking and the Volunteering categories of content almost entirely took the form of self-posts, which are the text-based blog–style posts, instead of posting photos or outside hyperlinks. The “Asking” and “Volunteering” content were all organically or semi-organically produced, meaning they were not direct hyperlinks to content from existing news outlets. That organic and semi-organic content represents the capacity for these subreddits to act as a supplement for decreases in community-level coverage and will be explored further later in this study.

The third grouping was content that led to an article or video from an existing news outlet. Of the 641 total coded posts, 141 were coded as “Linking.” Of those 141, 125 were links to basic news articles, video packages, or podcasts that included information about COVID-19, although many of those aligned with political arguments and fights over safety policy. Sixteen of the 141 were links to feature stories, with the most-common form of feature story being a personality profile of a prominent local figure who had died from the virus. In all, this whole grouping was almost exclusively news articles from the websites of local and regional newspapers, state-wide news outlets, or local TV stations. A few upstart digital-based community news outlets were represented in the sample, and although those do indicate another path for alleviating the problems caused by the collapse of community journalism in the U.S., they are not within the scope of this study’s analysis.

The fourth grouping was organic content, similar in nature to the “Asking” and “Volunteering” groups, but about issues that were only tangentially related to COVID-19. This group was coded as “Discussing.” These were points of conversation that involved COVID-19 and prevention methods but were not explicitly about public health. There were 121 posts in this grouping. Unlike the “Asking” and “Volunteering” groups, which were almost entirely self-posts, the “Discussing” group was a mixture of self-posts and image-posts, although there were still very few hyperlinks sending the reader away from Reddit.

A breakdown of the frequencies of the four top-level groupings can be seen below in Table 3.

Table 3

Frequencies of the top-level groupings found across the geographically based subreddits.

Grouping Number of posts
Volunteering information 190
Asking for information 189
Linking to information 141
Discussing information 121
Total 641

After the sample was sorted into the four basic categories, the content was then reexamined using thematic-based analysis to discover information-flow patterns within both the “Asking” and “Volunteering” sub-groupings. This looked for common frames, common tone, and common structure in the volunteering process.


Of the 190 posts coded as organic forms of “Volunteering,” the most-common category of information was posts volunteering how many positive cases were in the community. However, this comes with a bit of a caveat. The majority of those posts were automatically generated by a computer script. They were text-posts, so they were not direct hyperlinks, but the text posts tended to include links back to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website that contained the official report of cases. They tended to be set to update once per-week on a regular interval of some . The language used was the same each time, indicating a template creation. The creators of those auto-posting computer scripts either included language in the posts themselves that indicated they were created by a bot, they were posted by accounts with “Bot” in the name, or the creator of the account, using a separate account, would clarify they had made the account to automatically post updates. The use of bots does not appear to be deceptive, and commentors were often thankful that someone went to the trouble to make something to keep the community updated.

Some of the automatic posts gathered community sources, and some had custom-created content. For example, for six months in 2021, a member of /r/Augusta posted the weekly podcast-style update on the number of cases in the area. The update podcasts were made by medical students at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, not the Reddit account using a script to automatically post the content to Reddit. That user also updated the safety protocols based on the ever-changing CDC guidance and included community assistance information. An example can be seen below in Figure 1:

A screenshot of an automatically generated COVID-19 update post made to /r/Augusta

Some went even further. In /r/Savannah, the main active moderator of the subreddit posted hand-curated weekly updates for the first eight months of the pandemic in 2020. The updates, nicknamed “Megathreads,” included an updated count of cases, a list of resources, news updates, school, churches, and business closure updates. An example of that can be seen below in Figure 2:

Figure 2

A screenshot of a hand-curated COVID-19 “Megathread” posted to /r/Savannah

Either automatically generated or hand-curated, the existence of these posts shows a sense of participatory entrepreneurship among the members of the community-based subreddits. Even the “bots” and the computer scripts that manage them had to be created by someone with coding skills, and instead of linking to established news outlets, they often linked directly to the Georgia Department of Public Health. In the most literal sense, this was members of a community creating their own micro version of a regular news publication in a way that mimics small hyperlocal news production.

After the semi-automatically posted updates, the second-most-common grouping of “Volunteered” information was 25 posts volunteering that people in a certain place or area were not adhering to calls to socially distance and not wearing masks. Essentially, these were posts that intended to warn others who tried to follow COVID-19 safety protocols that these were not safe locations. There were 10 different sub-groupings of these kinds of posts: eight warnings about specific restaurants, seven warnings about general areas of town, such as “downtown” or “midtown,” that did not mention any specific business, two warnings about bars or clubs, two warnings about doctors’ offices wherein the doctors and nurses had claimed they didn’t believe COVID-19 was real, and one warning each about a shopping mall, a mechanic’s shop, a catering business, a hardware store, and a grocery store. There was one post specifically warning that management at Plant Votgle, a nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Georgia, was not requiring employees to wear masks and socially distance. It can be seen below in Figure 3:

Figure 3

A screenshot of a volunteered warning posted to /r/Augusta

After warnings about specific businesses or locations, the next-most-common form of “Volunteered” information was 23 posts about vaccines. These posts did not have any sub-groups, and were entirely people posting the locations, times, dates, and availability of vaccine distribution. Next, 23 posts volunteered information about changes in protocol in a given community, broken down into 10 sub-groups. Six of those posts volunteered changes in public school protocols, and six volunteered general changes in indoor masking protocols. Two each were about changes in stay-at-home orders, general public policy, and canceled community events. One each were about emergency government meetings that had been called to discuss changes in protocol, about changes in the community’s Animal Control office, about a new smartphone app to track changes in protocol, about policies at the local public pool, and about changes in the state’s legal liability rules for COVID in private businesses.

The next most-common form of “Volunteering” was people posting warnings that they had heard about businesses and workplaces having positive cases but keeping them hidden. The types of places being warned about were quite varied: three for specific restaurants, two for USPS post offices, two for specific public schools, and one each for a grocery store, a coffee shop, an OBGYN, the corporate offices for the insurance company AFLAC, and the Marietta police department.

From there, there were nine posts that volunteered information on testing. Five were general postings of the date and times testing would be available, two specified drive-in options one volunteered a service that could do virtual testing, and one was warning of the overall business of mass-testing sites.

As almost an inverse of the content that was warning people of places in the community not following safety protocols, eight posts volunteered information about, and often praising, community businesses that were enforcing masking and social-distancing protocols. Two posts were about local health clinics that were strictly enforcing masking protocols as well as organized outdoor activities, with the two posts, for example, praising Athens for having an outdoor kickball league after the CDC indicated that outdoor activities were considerably safer than being indoors. From there, there was one post each praising a grocery store, a concert venue, a restaurant, and a bookstore.

The number of “Volunteer” posts slimmed down after that. Three posts told people about their own experiences being ill with the disease, three posts volunteered which locations were strictly enforcing vaccine mandates, three posts told people where masks were available, and one post each: explained the scientific data about efficiency of different kinds of masks, who qualified for PPP loans, noted where general aid was available, and informed people a popular local business had closed.


Of the 189 posts coded as organic forms of “Asking,” the most-common category of question was people asking for recommendations for local businesses that followed proper safety protocols, with 70 posts. Masking enforcement was the most-commonly-desired form of safety protocol identified in the language of the request. Although some requests were specific about places following social distancing, there were no requests for businesses mandating vaccines or checking for positive vaccine status. An example of this kind of request can be seen below in Figure 4:

Figure 4

A screenshot of a request for a local business following safety protocols posted to /r/Savannah

Within the 60 posts requesting recommendations for businesses that are following safety protocols, 14 requested restaurants, 10 requested organized outdoor activities like adult kickball or disc golf, eight requested information about a general town area, such as asking “are people in downtown Savannah masking?” and eight requested hair salons, nail salons, or barber shops. From there, six requested gyms, three requested coffee shops, and three requested concert venues. Two each requested gun ranges, a primary care physician, grocery stores, and artist/craft workspaces, while one each requested a movie theater, a church, a tax accountant, a massage therapist, a manicure/pedicure salon, a haunted historical tour, a chiropractor, an auto mechanic, and a farmer’s market. These requests make up an important part of this study’s analysis – it represents something that goes above and beyond what centralized, traditional community news can accomplish. It is largely out of the realm of manpower for even a robust community news outlet to keep track of every possible business in every possible sector in their entire coverage area to see if they are following COVID-19 protocols. Because the subreddits can act as decentralized, participatory information hubs, they effectively act as an on-demand community information service.

While asking for businesses following protocols may have been the biggest chunk of information requests, they were not the only requests. Past that, the next-biggest sub-grouping in the “Asking” category was a collection of 26 posts asking about where to find COVID-19 tests in their community. Fifteen of those requests were general requests for testing times and locations, and all were answered in the comments by members. Chronologically, these requests were not common in the early days of the pandemic. Instead they became more popular after the vaccines became available, in spring and summer 2021. That is when more travel opened up, as well as some employers choosing to enforce rest results for those not willing to get the vaccine. Either way, there was a flood of posts asking about rapid tests for employment or travel. An example of that can be seen below in Figure 5:

Figure 5

A screenshot of a request for rapid-results tests posted to /r/Athens

There were then more-specific requests for testing: 11 posts specifically requested rapid tests, usually in the name of travel or work, four posts specifically requested free tests, three posts specifically requested at-home tests, three posts specifically requested drive-through testing, and one post specifically requested testing sites that were open late because they said they worked the third shift at a paper mill. There was one outlier in this subgrouping, which was four posts asking if other people had experienced delays in results from specific testing centers. The researchers of this study ponder if perhaps some of those individuals fell victim to the many scam testing sites that were rampant in Georgia in 2021 (Yu, 2022).

Next in the “Asking” sub-group by volume was requests for the status of general COVID-related public health policies, of which there were 18 total requests. Of those, eight asked about the current status of mask mandates, four asked about a general sense of policy unrelated to any single informational component, and two each asked about what the enforcement of policy is like, in the sense of if people are issued tickets, fines, etc., and what the current general policy was in public schools. One each asked about society in general “opening back up” and in general about vaccine policy. Many of these requests carried a tone of hopelessness that little clear guidance was coming from above, and many stressed the importance of community in the face of peril. An example of this can be seen below in Figure 6:

Figure 6:

A screenshot of a request for policy guidance posted to /r/Savannah

The next sub-group was 15 requests about vaccine information that broke down into various forms of specificity. Ten of the posts asked, generally, about the vaccine. Most of those general requests were questions about when others thought vaccines would be approved and when they would be available in their community. From there, seven were specifically requests about where vaccines were available in the early days of distribution. Earlier date requests tended to ask about large-scale drive-up and drive-through vaccination sites, and later dates tend to ask about which pharmacies had appointment availability. Two posts specifically asked about what the wait times were for mass-vaccination centers because they were trying to time their work lunch break correctly, and one-each was asking about where the 1-shot Johson & Johnson vaccine was available, asking if it was OK to skip the second dose of the two-shot vaccines, and asking which brand vaccine others planned on getting.

There were two other groups in the double-digits within the content coded “Asking”. There were 10 posts, all from the winter of 2020-2021, asking what the order of vaccine availability currently was. Most of those inquiries were people stating their situation, such as a pre-existing condition or a high-risk job, and asking if that means they are able to sign up for vaccination. There were no sub-groups within that request. The other 10 posts asked about masks. Seven of those were general inquiries about who had masks for sale in the given community area, with a breakdown into sub-groups that included one post specifically asking about child-sized cloth masks, one post asking specifically about which stores sold KN95 masks, and one post was from someone asking if anyone in the community could make custom masks with sports logos on them.

From there, the “Asking” group dips down into single–digit subgroups. There were nine posts generally requesting that people please consider wearing masks in public for the sake of public health in their community. These posts ranged across seven different subreddits. Eight posts asked how many official positive cases there were in the given community. Six total posts asked about other peoples’ vaccine status, with two of those being specific requests for others to share their side-effect experience. From there, three posts asked specifically about the status of community Halloween Trick-or-Treating plans. All three were posted in October 2020, before vaccine availability, and all three were posted in different subreddits, indicating that this was somewhat of a common community concern in late 2020.

Perhaps the eeriest set of “Asking” posts were the three posted in January and February 2020 in /r/Augusta, /r/Athens, and /r/Savannah asking when people in the given community thought that area would get their first case. At no point did anyone in the comments of those posts indicate they thought things would turn out OK – instead, there was an early assumption that COVID-19 was going to spread quickly through their community and there would be no stopping it. The tone of these posts were very much in the sense of “When will this problem get here?” There were three posts, all in June and July 2020, that asked about the general status of “businesses” being open. These were not requests specific to single named businesses, and instead were general requests in the frame of “Are things, in general, still open downtown?”

Two posts asked if anyone knew of a job that would be COVID-19 safe that was hiring in late 2020. And there were one each of the following “Asks”: One inquiry into the accuracy of COVID-19 at-home tests, one post asking if people in the community had experienced stigma from choosing to wear a mask in public, one post asking if the Masters Tournament in Augusta would be canceled, one post asking generally about the science of what makes the COVID-19 virus different from other viruses, and one post generally asking if others in the community thought things would be canceled because of the big summer wave of positive cases in 2021.


The 141 posts coded “Linking” were hyperlinks back to existing news coverage. The biggest single sub-group was people posting links to articles about changes in masking protocols with 28 posts. From there, there were 14 posts about case surges during the late summer and early fall of 2020. There were also 16 feature articles, with seven of those on prominent local deaths from the disease. The rest of the “Linking” posts were a smattering of issues, many political. But because they linked directly to content from established news companies, they were not deeply analyzed for topic, as they do not represent the capacity for these geographically based subreddits to produce their own news.


The final group was the “Discussing” group, which were the 121 posts that contained some element of public health information but were not purely a “Volunteer” of information nor a requested “Ask” of information. These tended to be framed in ways that spurred on discussion, or in many cases, argument.

The most-common type of “Discussing” post was 43 posts, common across all of the subreddits in the sample, that were noted as “Arguments, Rants, or Expressions of Anger.” All but one of these expressed some kind of anger toward people shirking public health guidelines. An example of this can be seen below in Figure 7

Figure 7

A screenshot of an Argument, Rant or Expression of Anger posted to /r/Gwinnett

Included in those 43 posts were photos of people lining up to get into clubs in /r/Athens, rants about how people complaining about masks were weak and selfish in /r/Augusta, and overall admonishing people who were not following protocols for elongating the crisis across all the subreddits. These posts were often filled with expletives and tended to have deep comment sections where people argued about the effectiveness of masks and various other virus-related points of contention. No other kind of “Discussion” post came close to those numbers, with the next-most-popular being eight posts volunteering non-medical services. That is an interesting juxtaposition compared to the bitter and argumentative rant posts. These posts, on the inverse, offered to help out others in their community, with such services offered as lawn mowing, grocery delivery, transportation to-and-from vaccination appointments, and house cleaning. Beyond that, the remaining 70 posts were a collection of 16 other sub-topics, none of which were coded at more than three each, and included excitement about vaccines being available, calls to boycott local businesses not following safety protocols, complaints about the University System of Georgia not enforcing masks on campuses, encouraging safety during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and many other topics. However very few consistent commonalities in this group beyond rants and volunteering. 


R1) How have geographically based digital communities used their platform as a part of the flow of information related to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The results of this study indicate that geographically based subreddits used their digital spaces to share, and trade, necessary information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Users were just as likely to request information as they were to volunteer it, which shows a level of balance within the information flow. If there had been a huge amount of “Asking” behavior and a considerably lower amount of “Volunteering” behavior, then perhaps the assumption would be that these subreddits represent information loss from community-based outlets. But instead, there is almost a paired back-and-forth to the information flow. The thing most asked for was recommendations of businesses and services that followed COVID-19 protocols. The most-volunteered information, after the often bot-created case number updates and large “Megathreads,” was people posting which businesses and services were not following protocol. That represents an appearance of some dynamics of Uses & Gratification Theory, where sociality is one of the guiding motivators for interaction in digital spaces. Or, seen another way, Lowrey (2012) referred to community news as having a “Listening and Changing Dimension,” (pg. 96, in Reader, 2012), that helps define community journalism as a separate utility from other forms of journalism. If one combines the notion of sociality as a driving force of Uses & Gratification Theory in the digital age with the idea that community news has a higher rate of interaction via the “Listening and Changing Dimension,” it becomes a compelling argument that the further growth of digital spaces as community news hubs – be they Facebook pages, NextDoor accounts, or subreddits – will be much more participatory and interactive. The push-and-pull of question asking and information volunteering demonstrates that.

It also represents the use of geographically based subreddits to fulfill an informational need in a way that a traditional community news outlet likely could not. It would not be feasible for a community news outlet to know at any given time which of all of the businesses in their area that are following protocols and which are not. They could possibly run some positive stories on a few of the businesses that are , and perhaps some negative stories about businesses that are not, but reporters cannot be in all places at all times, whereas crowdsourced information in a community essentially turns anyone who might have the answer into a reporter.

R2) Does content posted to geographically based digital communities fulfill the FCC’s identified community-based health informational needs?

This study finds that all of the informational needs identified by Friedland et al. (2012) are present in some capacity within the sample, but some of the sub-groups are more present than others. There are five health information sub-components. The first is “access to information about basic public health.” There were components of the qualitatively assessed data that represent a fulfillment of that need, albeit none of them represented an overwhelming majority. Perhaps because this study was coding just for information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the health information was, in some way, about COVID-19, meaning that the notion of “basic public health” was somewhat out-of-step with the scope of the study. There were basic public health questions asked, however, but there was no dominant question or dominant form of volunteered information. Information was requested and volunteered about the efficiency of masks, the danger level of various variants, what positive cases felt like, and early on, predictions as to when their area would receive its first positive case.

The second is “the availability, quality, and cost of local health care.” This was somewhat fulfilled, especially in the “Asking” behavior. This could be seen monetarily, where people asked about where to get free masks and free tests. It could also be seen from a quality perspective from people asking for recommendations for doctors’ offices, walk-in-clinics, OBGYNs and dentists who did not think the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax. It should be noted that “Asking” represents only one side of the equation, and this study was not coding the comments under the “Asking” posts; however, informal observations note that the comments did often contain answers when people asked questions.

The third is “information on health-based programs and services.” This showed a clear fulfillment in the form of both asking and volunteering information about many posts containing information about drive-through testing, rapid testing, and mask give-outs.

The fourth is “timely information in accessible language on the spread of disease and vaccination.” This was perhaps one of the most-fulfilled informational needs. The automatically updating posts with the number of positive cases, the moderator-curated “Megathreads,” as well as the flood of requests for businesses following protocols and volunteered information about which businesses treated safety seriously acted as a kind of warning system.

The fifth is “timely access to information about local health campaigns and intervention.” While this was fulfilled, the researchers must note that this category was more fulfilled by the posts that linked back to news articles from established news outlets instead of organically developed community information.


The findings of this study indicate a similar conclusion to Riley & Cowart’s (2021) work examining geographically based community subreddits. Many, but not all, of the community informational needs noted by Friedland et al. (2012) and the FCC can be seen on geographically based subreddits in the back-and-forth flow of people asking questions and others volunteering information based on public health. In some cases, like volunteering when and where mass vaccination centers were and when they would open, the information mimics what might be available on a traditional community journalism outlet. But in other cases, like requests for custom-made masks or requests for which businesses followed protocol, those are informational dynamics separate from what a traditional community journalism outlet can usually provide. The 25 posts of people volunteering that their place of work is covering up positive cases, like was the case in the findings with restaurants, mechanics shops, and a nuclear power plant, represent an interesting removal of the middle-man from investigative reporting.

This study did have noted limitations that should be addressed with further research. The study used a sample that was based out of a single U.S. state. A larger geographically varied sample could help find both national trends and national differences. The study was also limited in its lack of ability to check for the accuracy of the information being posted. Someone posting a warning to avoid a local business that was not following COVID safety protocols was taken at face value in this study’s coding system. It could have very well been that the person posting the warning was angry at the business for other reasons and was lying on the Internet.

Combined with Riley & Cowart’s (2021) work looking more generally at Reddit and the FCC informational needs, the results of this study speak to many different options for future research. One would be to include analysis of the back-and-forth dynamic of Volunteering and Asking content. When people post community-based questions to a geographically based subreddit, how often are the questions being answered with correct, valid information?

Perhaps the most obvious direction for future research must embrace our core understanding of Uses & Gratification Theory by surveying the users of geographically based subreddits to see if they feel they are receiving a “well-rounded diet” of information from the subreddits, if they have ever had any real-world impacts based on information they received from the subreddits, and comparing their usage of the subreddits to their interaction with traditional centralized community news content.

These geographically based digital spaces need to be better understood. As the traditional infrastructure of community journalism in the U.S. continues to crumble, it is becoming desperately important for community journalism researchers to understand the places that lost audiences go to for community information. It is not enough to only discover the impact that the closure of traditional community media causes. We must also know what is taking its place and how it works and how people use it, even if those things taking their place are not gate-kept or centralized.


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About the Author

Jeffrey K. Riley is an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Georgia Southern University.

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Community Journalism Journal Volume 10

The Suburban News Desert: Where Communities of Color Are Starved for Critical Information Amid Crime-centered News Coverage


Rarely has news deserts research examined a suburban region teeming with media outlets, and little attention has been paid to the neighborhoods of color within such an area. Through surveys and interviews with over three dozen community-based organization leaders and journalists, as well as a six-month, community-by-community audit of the coverage provided by 14 media outlets, this study aimed to determine whether one can reside in a news desert in densely populated Nassau County, NY, a suburb of New York City that is reported on by a wide range of large and small media outlets. In particular, we focused on the predominately Black and Brown neighborhoods therein. The majority of community-based organization leaders within these six areas contended the news media focused heavily or nearly exclusively on crime within their neighborhoods, and those perceptions were largely borne out in the quantitative data, except in the case of the two community newspapers, the Franklin Square-Elmont Herald and the Freeport Herald.


The news deserts crisis caused by a decline in local reporting has been documented across the United States for more than a decade: a measurable deterioration in civic dialogue as a result of community and regional newspapers and other media outlets closing (Conte, 2022; Stites, 2018). The issue is exacerbated by a growing distrust of the mass media by a wide cross section of the population, particularly owing to the increasing polarization of the national news outlets (Garimella et al., 2021; Jurkowitz et al., 2020). The news desert, though seemingly a relatively new concept, has been a phenomenon in communities of color across the US since before the country was founded, often leaving them bereft of the essential information they need to make informed decisions and choices in this democratic society, even in regions with a multitude of robust media outlets (Conte, 2022; Gandy, 1997; González & Torres, 2011; Nelson, 1999).

One such region is Nassau County, NY, the nation’s 10th wealthiest county 33 miles due east of Midtown Manhattan, the center of the largest media market in the US, with 12% of the country’s newsroom employees (Baker, 2021; Grieco, 2019). This study will show that even in a suburban haven rich with a variety of news organizations, there exist news deserts spanning the majority of the six predominately Black and Brown communities that form what is known as Nassau’s “corridor of color”: Elmont (population 36,245, US Census Bureau, 2020), Freeport Village (44,199), Hempstead Village (58,734), Roosevelt (16,522), Uniondale (32,621), and Westbury Village (15,809).

If there are news deserts in largely Black and Brown neighborhoods in close proximity to what is often called the “media capital of the world,” New York City, then there are likely similar news information vacuums in communities of color across the US. Addressing whether suburban Black and Brown neighborhoods can be considered news deserts is crucial, in particular, because a majority of Americans—53%—live in suburbs, while 26% reside in cities and 21% in rural small towns (Kolko & Bucholtz, 2018). At the same time, suburbs are often misunderstood. They are widely seen as wealthy and majority-White, likely because they were historically so. Today, however, suburbs fully reflect America’s growing diversity. In 1990, approximately 20% of suburbanites were people of color. By 2000, that figure had risen to 30%. Today, it stands at 45% across the nation (Frey, 2022). In Nassau, people of color comprised 44.2% of the population as of June 1, 2022 (Census Bureau).

With a population today of approximately 1.39 million residents (Census Bureau, 2020), Nassau grew rapidly from a largely rural region, composed of small downtowns and farms, to crowded suburbia in the post-World War II era, with two cities, 64 incorporated villages, and 100 unincorporated areas that are divided among three towns—Hempstead, North Hempstead, and Oyster Bay (Nassau County website, Cities, Towns & Villages section). From the late 1940s through the ’60s, segregation was built into the economic model for development in this majority-White county, the specter of which lingers today.

Nassau is ranked the fourth most segregated county among 62 in New York State (Winslow, 2019), with segregation forming the basis for its development model dating back to a restrictive covenant preventing Black people and other underrepresented groups from moving into America’s first planned suburban community, Levittown, at its founding in 1947 (Lambert, 1997; Winslow, 2019). Levittown, which remains a majority-White community today (Census Bureau, 2020), may only be a 10- or 20-minute drive from the neighborhoods in this study, but racially and socio-economically, these areas have remained divided for decades (Winslow, 2019). Indeed, Nassau’s decades-long history of segregation looms large over Long Island, including, this study found, in the inordinate levels of crime reporting that the six studied communities received compared with other critical issues. In a six-month news audit that we conducted, we found issues-oriented coverage was limited or nearly absent, depending on the neighborhood.

The two notable exceptions were Elmont and Freeport, each with a working community newspaper that provided coverage across a wider range of issues for residents. Absent such hyperlocal outlets to offer counternarratives that provide context, news consumers may be led to believe neighborhoods of color such as these are trapped in a continuous cycle of violence, with few, if any, redeeming qualities, perpetuating a biased public perception of them while leaving them starved for vital issue-oriented and events-based reporting.

Grounded theory (Chun Tie et al., 2019; Glaser & Strauss, 1999) formed the basis for our research methodology in this study. We began by collecting qualitative data to assess how leaders in the six studied communities perceived the news media’s coverage of their neighborhoods through surveys and focus groups. Then, we sought data on the actual coverage that could be systematically collected, analyzed, and compared (Chun Tie et al., 2019; Glaser & Strauss, 1999) in order to ground the CBO leaders’ assertions and arguments in hard evidence. As well, we sought the thoughts and opinions of more than a dozen journalists. Through our study, we shall show how the news desert concept can be utilized to frame and understand media exclusivity in communities of color and the mainstream news media’s centuries-old stereotyping of Black and Brown people.

Literature Review

For this study, we took a community-by-community approach to studying the six news ecosystems outlined above. In our quantitative research in particular, we noted a clear difference in how mainstream regional news organizations and community media at the grassroots level approach coverage, with larger media centered, by and large, on crime, and the handful of community-based newspapers focused more on the everyday lives of residents.

Efforts to define community journalism date back at least to 1952, with publication of The Community Press in an Urban Setting, by sociologist Morris Janowitz (Janowitz, 1952; Robinson, 2014), who employed a number of the same research methods as this study, developing neighborhood profiles, interviewing residents and journalists, and analyzing the contents of publications. The community press, Janowitz hypothesized, maintains “local consensus through the emphasis on common values,” linking community leaders and readers through editors and reporters (Hatcher & Reader, 2012, p. 27; Janowitz, 1952). Or, as Conte (2022) wrote, in chronicling “the mundane, [hyperlocal media outlets] knit community together through the moments that otherwise might be overlooked” (pp. 17-18).

By contrast, national and larger regional news outlets many times must focus on the “big” stories owing to the size and scope of their coverage areas. As Conte (2022) wrote:

“Most often, [these stories] tend to be murders, other truly heinous crimes, and high-profile incidents such as house fires. None of these bigger outlets have enough journalists to cover the small stories and the minutia of daily life, even though those are the events that make up the substance of any community” (p. 65).

Defining the news desert

The Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill defines a news desert as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level” (Hussman School, n.d., para. 4). This definition does not include suburbs, though a report sponsored by the Hussman School, The Expanding News Desert, speaks of a growing “silence in the suburbs” caused by the closure of hundreds of suburban community weekly newspapers between 2004 and 2018 (Abernathy, 2018, p. 11).

To date, news deserts research has focused primarily on rural and urban communities that have lost their media outlets. Largely unanswered in the current literature is whether a suburban community with a wide range of media outlets to cover it could also be a news desert. This gap in the literature may be owing to a widely held belief that most suburbs are well-covered by news outlets because they primarily fall within the orbits of major metropolitan media markets with many outlets. As this study will show, a simple count of news organizations alone does not speak to the health of a local, or grassroots, media ecosystem, though. The coverage produced by news organizations must be examined through thematic, content, and textual analysis as well.

In March 2021, Impact Architects released a diagnostic framework to determine the health of local news and information ecosystems. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Google News Initiative funded the research behind this new framework (Stonebraker & Green-Barber, 2021). The authors conducted qualitative research through surveys, focus groups, and listening sessions with three key groups: community members, journalists, and representatives of other information providers such as community organizations, libraries, and universities. “The health of a news and information ecosystem can’t be understood by the presence or absence of journalism organizations alone,” the framework developers argued (Stonebraker & Green-Barber, 2021, p. 10).

Their report outlined six key factors in determining the vitality of a news and information ecosystem:

  • Number of journalism organizations serving a community.
  • Types of media.
  • The news outlets’ business models.
  • The diversity of media, including the number of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) news organizations.
  • Collaboration among media companies.
  • Nonprofit funding available to the outlets.

In our study of news and communications deserts in Nassau County, we considered each of the above six metrics, conducting surveys, focus groups, and listening sessions with community organization leaders and journalists. To determine the health of a news ecosystem, however, the nature and quality of newspaper articles and TV and radio broadcasts about a community must also be examined through quantitative research to determine whether people’s information needs have been fulfilled and satisfied—and whether the news information distributed to the public ultimately encourages or discourages civic discourse and engagement, and/or distorts reality. Thus, we carried out a thematic news audit within the six studied communities over six months in 2022, the results of which demonstrated that news coverage primarily or nearly exclusively centered on crime and education in four of the six areas, with little to no reporting on other critical issues. Thus, we are calling these neighborhoods news deserts.

The term news desert entered the mainstream journalistic lexicon a little over a decade ago, after thousands of print journalists had been laid off and hundreds of newspapers had shut down operations starting in the early 2000s, leaving a steadily decreasing number of communities without media outlets of their own (Abernathy, 2018; Conte, 2022). Due in large part to the digital news revolution, coupled with a societal move toward social media, the past two decades have seen a sharp decline in print circulation at daily and weekly newspapers and thus advertising dollars, forcing the layoffs of more than 40,000 journalists from 2004 to 2022 (Abernathy, 2018; Claussen, 2020; Robinson, 2014; Waldman, 2022). During that same period, the US lost 2,500 newspapers (Simonetti, 2022).

The news desert was not, however, a new concept in communities of color, which for centuries were ignored and stereotyped by mainstream media organizations (Gandy, 1997; González & Torres 2011; Nelson, 1999), including, this study found, in Nassau County today to a large extent. For more than 250 years, the nation’s news media, regardless of political leanings, had remained central institutions of White America, according to González and Torres (2011). Native American, African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian American journalists were “systematically excluded” from newsrooms across the country through the 1970s, the two wrote (2011, p. 8). The lack of representation in newsrooms resulted in an “almost routine distortion of the lives and events of people of color by the press,” they emphasized (p. 15). For the roughly 204,000 residents of the six neighborhoods included in this study, little has changed since the ’70s, it appears.

News media representations of Black and Brown people

Overt racism may have largely disappeared from today’s media portrayals of people of color in the mainstream press, but many news organizations often ignore them and their issues while remaining focused, by and large, on crime coverage in their neighborhoods; as a result, news media many times fail to address the Critical Information Needs (CINS) of Black and Brown people (Keene & Padilla, 2013; Nishikawa et al., 2009; Wenzel & Crittenden, 2021).

At the same time, the media’s focus on crime in Black and Brown communities, we found in this study, can cause a clustering effect, whereby several outlets cover the most shocking criminal activity in these areas all at once, potentially leading the public to believe these communities are experiencing more crime than they do. This effect was described nearly 30 years ago by Sacco (1995), who noted that variations in the volume of crime coverage appeared unrelated to the actual number of crimes taking place within a given area. Crime statistics indicated that most crime was nonviolent three decades ago, but aggregated news media reports suggested otherwise, according to Sacco.

Gandy (1997) noted that continual coverage of crime in communities of color can give the wider public the impression that people of color, particularly Black people, are dangerous by nature. Gandy argued that the media tended to present people in strictly negative terms. The cumulative result of such coverage may be to reduce public social programs designed to support underrepresented and marginalized populations, according to the author, potentially exacerbating feelings of isolation and alienation in communities of color that are news deserts.

In fact, it appears the term news desert was popularized, at least in part, because of the dearth of original, quality reporting in and on communities of color. In an April 5, 2011, column for These Times Magazine, The Paradox of Our Media Age—And What to Do About It, Chicago-based writer Laura Washington described what she called the “communications desert.” In urban areas, most news decision-makers remained White, wrote Washington (2011), noting, “Reporters parachute into black and Latino neighborhoods to cover violent crime and community conflict” (para. 18).

Washington’s column helped thrust the term news desert into the fore (Conte, 2022). Shortly after its publication, Washington appeared beside Tom Stites, a media fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, at a conference at which Washington explained her concept. Stites then began pushing out the notion of the news desert, stating, “Elites and the affluent are awash in information designed to serve them, but everyday people, who often grapple with significantly different concerns, are hungry for credible information they need to make their best life and citizenship decisions” (Conte, 2022, p. 17).

The percentage of journalists of color in newsrooms has grown but remains well below the percentage of the population comprised by people of color. In 1982, journalists of color made up 3.9% of newsrooms; in 1992, 8.2%; and in 2013, 10.8% (Willnat et al., 2022). As of 2018, people of color comprised 40% of the US population, but 17% of American newsrooms (Arana, 2018). Four years later, the newsroom figure had inched up by one percentage point, to 18% (Willnat et al., 2022).

Johnston and Flamiano (2007) noted there was evidence, based on findings at four major daily newspapers, to suggest that a lack of newsroom diversity affects news coverage, with people of color underrepresented as sources for and subjects of stories. Since the early 2000s, at least some newspapers have apologized for how they covered Black communities in the past (Burke, 2022; Neason, 2021; Pinsky, 2023). In 2021, after the Black Lives Matter protests, The Kansas City Star, among a growing number of American dailies that have sought to atone, undertook an introspective examination of its past coverage. In the editorial The Truth in Black and White: An Apology from The KC Star, Martin Fannin, the outlet’s president and editor, remarked:

Reporters were frequently sickened by what they found — decades of coverage that depicted Black Kansas Citians as criminals living in a crime-laden world. They felt shame at what was missing: the achievements, aspirations and milestones of an entire population routinely overlooked, as if Black people were invisible (Fannin, 2020, para. 14).

Patterns of coverage in communities of color

Why journalists remain focused on crime within communities of color, even now in a post-George Floyd era, is an open question and a potential source of debate. Script theory, developed by psychologist Silvan Tomkins in the 1950s, may suggest at least a partial answer.

Conceptual scripts—set patterns of doing and of being within society that humans utilize daily—aid us in interpreting and defining our ever-changing world (Tomkins, 1987). A conceptual script can be thought of as a heuristic, or mental shortcut. The script comprises a set of familiar scenes, each of which begins with a stimulus (an event), which is followed by an affect (an outward expression of emotion that demonstrates motivation) and then a response, according to Tomkins.

Thomson (2016), who studied visual representations in the news, employed script theory to show how the photojournalists he was studying often relied on deeply entrenched scripts to frame their stories when packaging the news. Conceptual scripts enable journalists to produce stories quickly and efficiently on deadline, Thomson noted, but they can also lead journalists to fall back on historically scripted narratives about people of color, portraying them as collectively angry, for example, rather than seeking individual opinion from them and reporting nuance. The researcher further demonstrated that people of color are often overlooked or ignored by the news media.

Thomson called on photojournalists to engage on a deeper level with subjects to learn about them as people and present their stories fully. A number of Black protesters interviewed by Thomson following the mass protests for racial equality at the University of Missouri at Columbia in 2015 noted photojournalists had not sought their names during the rallies after photographing them, leaving them as nameless faces. Images of racial integration within the protests also were not shown. Media outlets “tend to exclude and marginalize” the positive traits of people of color while focusing on the negative, Thomson concluded (2016, p. 224).

As well, resource allocation appears to play a part in how and why majority-White communities are often better served by the media than are communities of color. A study on the Critical Information Needs of communities by (Napoli et al., 2016) in Newark, New Brunswick, and Morristown, New Jersey reported that Morristown, the wealthiest, least diverse of the areas, with a population of roughly 20,000, had 10 times the number of journalistic resources than did Newark, the lowest-income, most diverse area, with a population of more than 307,000 people (Napoli et al., 2016; Census Bureau, 2022). As a result, Morristown residents received 13 times more coverage than did their Newark counterparts (Napoli et al., 2016).

It is little wonder then that studies indicate news consumers of color, especially in lower-income areas, are less satisfied with media coverage than are residents of more affluent areas. Hamilton and Morgan (2018) argue, “Income inequality readily translates into information inequality in the United States . . . . Poor people get poor information, because income inequality generates information inequality” (p. 2832).

In short, implicit, deeply held biases that have remained embedded in mainstream journalists’ daily scripts for centuries, coupled with a lack of newsroom diversity and significantly fewer reporting resources dedicated to communities of color, often leave these areas as news deserts, or information vacuums that are filled by the easiest, simplest form of reporting—crime.

For this research project, we addressed these questions:

RQ1: How are the six largely Black and Brown communities at the center of Nassau County, NY, presented in news coverage?

RQ2: How do community leaders within these areas think and feel about news reporting on their neighborhoods and constituencies?

RQ3: Do the leaders’ perceptions of news coverage align with actual media reports?

RQ4: To what degree are the six communities excluded from the media, leaving them as potential news deserts, or information vacuums?


As shown in Table One here, each of the six studied communities falls below Nassau County’s US Census average for household income, which as of 2020 was $120,036. As shown in Figures Two and Three below, the populations of the six communities are largely Black and Hispanic.

Table 1

Average Household Income by Studied Community

Community Household Income
Hempstead Village $62,569
Freeport Village $81,958
Roosevelt $90,423
Westbury Village $101,671
Elmont $104,671
Uniondale $105,307

Source: U.S. Census Bureau


Figure 1

Percentage of the Population, Black or African

Figure  2

Percentage of Population, Hispanic or Latino

In this three-phase, mixed-methods study, we first approached the question of whether critical local news information needs were being met through a qualitative lens, surveying and interviewing leaders of 21 community-based organizations (CBOs), along with a dozen editors and reporters. The study then layered on a quantitative review of the news information regarding each of the six studied communities. Data was analyzed sequentially, with results from the qualitative inquiry helping to inform the quantitative analysis. Lists of CBOs and news organizations were developed with the aid of library and newspaper directories and the annual Press Club of Long Island Media Guide. From there, key figures at the organizations were identified and invited by email and phone to take part in our research project.

Through triangulation of data—the surveys, interviews, and a news information audit—the health of each of the six media ecosystems could be gauged, and the influence of news organizations on a community, for better or for worse, could be assessed. Researcher triangulation was employed to help ensure the accuracy and validity of findings, with three researchers carrying out each of the study’s phases together.

To determine the level of access to news information, 18-questionsurveys were sent to the CBO leaders and 12-question surveys to the journalists in this study and recorded with Qualtrics software. The CBO surveys focused on how often groups had reached out to the media for—and whether they had received—coverage of their issues. The surveys of media organizations addressed the resources committed to covering the six communities and the frequency of reporting within them.

Interviews were then conducted during two focus group sessions, which were held in June 2022. The first, with the CBO leaders, took place at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. Participants were divided into five tables, with leaders from two to five CBOs represented at each. Participants discussed two primary prompts, including, “What are some of the effective channels or methods that you and your organization have used to tell your community’s story?” and “How would you describe the way in which your organization or your constituents are represented in the media?” Groups developed consensus responses, which were presented to the larger gathering in a town-hall format. Research assistants recorded both the table discussions and the town-hall session, transcripts of which were later printed and analyzed.

The second session, with a dozen journalists, was conducted over Zoom. The reporters and editors responded to questions individually within the larger group. Two main prompts were discussed, including, “Talk a little about the origin of your stories” and “What are the challenges of connecting with sources at community-based organizations?” The Zoom session was recorded, and a transcript was printed and reviewed.

An audit of news stories, covering the period from January 1 to June 30, 2022, was then carried out, with work beginning in September 2022 and concluding four months later in December. The first objective was to identify and record all or nearly all the stories produced by 14 media outlets that were identified as providing coverage for the six communities, listed below in Table Two.

Table 2

Media Outlets in the News Audit

• Anton Media Group (Nassau Illustrated and Westbury Times, both weekly newspapers)
• Herald Community Newspapers (Franklin Square-Elmont Herald and Freeport Herald, both weeklies)
• Newsday (the only Long Island-based daily newspaper)
• News 12 Long Island (TV)
• The Daily Mail
• The Daily News
• The Long Island Press (a news and lifestyle monthly publication)
• The New York Post (a daily newspaper)
• The New York Times (the largest of the daily newspapers in the study)
• WABC Eyewitness News (TV)
• WCBS New York (TV)
• WCBS NewsRadio 880 FM
• WNBC New York (TV)

Fewer than 500 stories were culled from among several thousand possibilities in the NewsBank and Newsday Recent databases and through Advanced Google Boolean site searches of the news organizations themselves. Two research assistants were trained in Boolean searching of the databanks, and they helped to pull stories from them. Hard copies of the three local weekly papers—the Franklin Square-Elmont Herald, Freeport Herald and Westbury Times/Nassau Illustrated—were also examined, as they did not post all their stories online. The articles and/or broadcasts were each analyzed and coded according to issue or topic: crime, education, environment, government, politics, etc. They were also separated into one of two categories, depending on whether a piece was episodic, focusing on a particular story in one of the six communities, or whether it was thematic, including a community in a quote and/or caption as part of regional coverage on a larger issue or feature. All data points, including the media outlets in which the pieces appeared, the story headlines, and their publication and/or broadcast dates, were recorded in one of four Excel spreadsheets.

The Results section below begins with qualitative data from the CBO leaders and journalists, followed by quantitative data on the categories and number of stories that were reported in the six communities, with deeper examinations of their headlines and images.


The community-based leaders’ perspective

In the surveys and interviews with more than two dozen leaders of the community-based organizations in this study, two key coverage themes emerged: one, news outlets were often unresponsive to their issues, and two, the media focused disproportionally on crime coverage. The leaders insisted there was a great deal more to their communities than the felonies and other sensational narratives that often define them in news coverage, but they said stories of hope and resilience were many times ignored by reporters, potentially leaving the impression in the minds of readers, viewers, and listeners that their neighborhoods were plagued by crime, particularly violent crime.

In a Qualtrics survey of 27 CBO leaders from the six studied communities, 17, or nearly 63%, said coverage of their neighborhoods and issues was “mostly peripheral and/or sensational,” while seven, or roughly 26%, said it was “very attuned to local needs.” Three said other. Among those who responded other, one said news media were “always multitasking,” while another described news outlets as “fickle, seldom interested in our population, our issues, or the evolution of services.” The third did not understand the question.

To the focus-group question of whether and how a CBO had sought coverage with a news organization within the past year, one leader responded that “negative and tragic stories are really what’s driving the headlines,” adding, “The grassroots news is really what’s kind of falling by the wayside.” By grassroots, this respondent was referring to community-based reporting.

To the focus-group question of how the CBO and its community were represented in the media, one respondent remarked, “All you ever hear about is crime and poverty and everything negative that [the media] can dig up about [these] neighborhoods.” As this study’s quantitative data will show, that was often the case in most of the six studied communities.

Another noted that coverage was generally positive at two points in the year—Thanksgiving and Christmas—“and then the rest of the year we’re sort of, you know, not on the top of everybody’s minds.”

One leader of a CBO that works with the formerly incarcerated described media misrepresentation as relentless, remarking, “When we’re talking about disinformation and misrepresentation in media, it’s something that we unfortunately encounter every day.”

Another CBO leader expressed concern for how media reports reflect on her group’s constituents, stating, “We’re trying to control how we’re perceived in the media, which involves, of course, prewriting these press releases . . . We don’t want to be misrepresented because the populations we serve, we don’t want them to be viewed negatively.”

The adjective most often used to describe the media’s coverage of the six communities and the CBOs themselves was “negative”—nine times during the focus-group interviews.

The journalists’ viewpoint

The 12 journalists in this study reported they were often frustrated by a lack of resources to cover the six studied communities and the neighborhoods beyond them. There were fewer editors and reporters at each of the outlets than there were in the past. Certain media organizations reduced staff members during the coronavirus pandemic and never brought them back. One outlet had recently merged three local weekly newspapers into one, with a single editor to cover the same territory that two or three once did.

To a survey question inquiring about the constraints that the journalists might face in reporting stories, one weekly editor said, “I have a feeling . . . I’ve disappointed many people. I get almost on a weekly basis calls, emails, texts, people asking, begging, pleading [with] me to look into something or other. I just don’t have the bandwidth.”

Another weekly editor noted, “I wish I could split myself like the sorcerer’s apprentice and send myself all over Hempstead.”

The experiences of these Long Island-based journalists reflect the national trends described in the Literature Review, with newsroom staff reductions spreading editors and reporters considerably thinner than they had been in the past, forcing many journalists to take what were considered “reporting shortcuts” a decade ago, emailing interview questions to sources (Loeppky, 2022), for example, rather than conducting street-level, in-person interviews, the traditionally recommended method of shoe-leather newsgathering. In a survey question of 14 journalists in this study regarding their preferred means of communicating with sources, 72% said either email or phone, while 14% chose face-to-face interviews, though in their focus-group interview, the journalists did report they were “boots on the ground” in the studied communities. One station executive noted that her organization had recently held a series of “community convenings” to hear about people’s issues.

Regardless, gaining trust within historically marginalized communities can be a challenge not only because of limited resources, but also because of widespread fear of media misrepresentation among local leaders and residents, the journalists reported. As one deputy editor stated, “You may go [into] Wyandanch or Hempstead, you want to talk to somebody, but they don’t want to talk to you, because they don’t think you’re going to present their side fairly.”

Crime stories

The news audit identified (N=469) stories on at least one of the six studied communities. Of those, 43.28%, or (n=203), were produced by the two Heralds; followed by Newsday, with 29.85% of stories, or (n=140); and then the 11 other media outlets, with almost 26.87%, or (n=126).

Herald Community Newspapers included the Franklin Square-Elmont Herald and the Freeport Herald. The aggregated news organizations comprised Anton Media Group, News 12 Long Island, The Daily Mail, The Daily News, The Long Island Press, The New York Post, The New York Times, WABC Eyewitness News, WCBS New York, WCBS NewsRadio 880 FM, and WNBC New York.

Statistically, crime pervaded coverage in a majority of outlets. Nowhere was this more evident than in Uniondale, an unincorporated area of the Town of Hempstead (population 793,526, Census Bureau, 2020) that had the highest percentage of crime stories in the news audit. In this community, 51% of the total news coverage—26 of 51 articles and broadcasts—was crime-related over the six months of the audit. When Newsday was removed from the mix of outlets examined, crime coverage rose to 73% of stories on Uniondale, or 19 of 26. Meanwhile, no critical issues other than education were covered in the community.

Much of the Uniondale coverage came from five sources—Newsday, News 12, The Daily Mail, WABC Eyewitness News, and WNBC New York—with only a handful of stories from other outlets. Table Three gives a breakdown of crime coverage in Uniondale versus other reporting for each of the five outlets.

Table 3

Crime Stories by Outlet in Uniondale

Outlet Crime and
Police Stories
In Uniondale
Stories Other
Than Crime
Total Stories Crime As a Percentage of Coverage
News 12 5 1 6 83%
Daily Mail 4 1 5 80%
WABC 3 1 4 75%
WNBC 3 1 4 75%
Newsday 7 18 25 28%


In the five other communities within this study, crime as a percentage of coverage was as follows below. Reporting by Newsday, the two Heralds, and the Westbury Times/Nassau Illustrated newspaper was excluded from these figures.

  • Hempstead Village: 62%
  • Elmont: 60%
  • Westbury Village: 36%
  • Freeport Village: 25%
  • Roosevelt: 25%

Across all six communities, an average of 25% of Newsday stories was crime-related, reaching a high of 46% in Hempstead.

Crime comprised a significantly lower percentage of the two Heralds’ coverage in Elmont and Freeport when compared with the above media outlets’ reporting. In the Franklin Square-Elmont Herald, crime accounted for 7.3% of the total coverage, and in the Freeport Herald, 3.28%.

In March 2022, The Westbury Times became Nassau Illustrated, which no longer covered Westbury full-time, but rather mostly aggregated stories from papers throughout the newly reconstituted eight-edition Anton Media Group. Five Westbury Times/Nassau Illustrated stories were on Westbury itself during the six-month audit. Meanwhile, there was one story on a murder in Uniondale, one on a fatal drunken-driving crash in Uniondale, and one on a murder in Hempstead, despite neither of the two communities falling within the coverage areas of Anton Media newspapers, which are based mainly in upper-income, majority-White neighborhoods on Nassau County’s North Shore, often referred to as Long Island’s “Gold Coast,” or middle-class, majority-White areas on Nassau’s South Shore (see

Overall, crime comprised nearly a quarter of all coverage in the 14 media outlets, at 23.2%, or 109 of 469 stories.

Issue-oriented stories

At the outset of this study, a list of 11 critical community issues, or themes, was developed against which media coverage could be evaluated to determine which of them had received substantive coverage within the six communities. Of 16 respondents, nearly half—7.3—said the media had provided either no coverage or poor coverage on the 11 issues, with immigration, youth empowerment, and gender receiving the lowest average marks. Table Five provides the respondents’ mean ratings for the issues, from highest to lowest.

Table 4

Community-based Leaders’ Ratings of News Coverage

Issue Mean Score
Culture/Arts 1.8
Food/Nutrition 1.76
Police Reform 1.6
Education 1.56
Healthcare 1.56
Housing 1.38
LGBTQ+ Issues 1.27
Environment 1.13
Gender 1.07
Youth Empowerment 1.06
Immigration 0.88


Meanwhile, in a survey of 10 journalists who cover the six studied communities, education, the environment, and housing were reported to be the most frequently covered issues,   and LGBTQ+ issues, police reform, and gender were the least.

Table 5

Journalists’ Reported Frequency of News Coverage

Issue Mean Score
Education 4
Environment 3.44
Housing 3.44
Healthcare 3.38
Culture/Arts 3.20
Immigration 2.86
Youth Empowerment 2.63
Food/Nutrition 2.38
LGBTQ+ Issues 2.33
Police Reform 2.25
Gender 1.75

In the news audit, the one issue among the 11 to receive coverage of any significance was education—115 of 469 stories, or 24.5% of total reporting. However, 59% of these stories—or 68 of the total—appeared in the Franklin Square-Elmont and Freeport Heralds.

Table Seven below gives the total number of stories for each of the issues that appeared in the 14 outlets during the news audit. It should be pointed out that half of the culture and arts stories—15 of 30—were published or broadcast during one of two times—the week of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on January 15 and in February, Black History Month.

Table 6

Stories Covered by Issue

Issue Total Number of Stories Percentage of Overall Coverage
Education 115 of 469 24.5
Culture/Arts 30 6.4
Healthcare 16 3.4
Housing 9 1.9
Environment 7 1.5
Youth Empowerment 6 1.3
Immigration 2 .42
Police Reform 2 .42
Food/Nutrition 1 .2
LGBTQ+ Issues 0 0
Gender 0 0


Fifty-six percent of Newsday’s coverage of the six communities (79 of 140 stories) was thematic, with one or more of the communities included in a quote, photo caption, and/or paragraph as part of regional coverage on a larger issue or feature, while 44% was episodic, focused on a single story in a particular neighborhood. Among the aggregated media, 12.7% was thematic (16 of 126 stories), while 87.3% was episodic. And among the two Heralds, 8.4% was thematic (17 of 203 stories), while 91.6% was episodic. It should be noted, though, that 99% of Freeport Herald stories were focused on the community, making it the most hyperlocal outlet in this study.

The many thematic stories found in Newsday’s coverage provided overviews of big-picture Long Island stories and thus did not hone in on the six studied communities with depth, while its episodic stories did, as did the overwhelming majority of the Heralds’ stories. A number of CBO leaders noted they were often called for a “quick” quote or statistic on a larger issue rather than a deeper report on their organizations and their constituencies. Meanwhile, the aggregated media’s stories were primarily episodic because many of them were breaking-news pieces that applied only to a specific community.


The proclivity of news organizations to center crime, as seen most conspicuously in Uniondale, often caused the clustering effect described in the Literature Review, whereby a string of startling story headlines from competing outlets appeared in the news cycle within short timeframes. Below are two samplings of 2022 headlines on Uniondale:

  • “Police arrest 5th person in alleged MS-13 teen killing in Uniondale,” News 12, January 18.
  • “Long Island MS-13 murderer, 22, is charged over FOURTH killing of teen murdered in woods in 2016,” Daily Mail, January 20.
  • “LI MS-13 gang member sentenced for involvement in 4 separate killings,” WCBS News Radio, January 25.
  • “Second man charged in gang killing of LI teen,” Newsday, January 27.
  • “Police: 32-year-old fatally shot in Uniondale,” News 12, June 3.
  • “Man fatally shot on quiet Uniondale street, stunning neighbors,” WABC Eyewitness News, June 3.
  • “35 years for LI gang murder: Bloods member admitted string of violent crimes,” Newsday, June 18. 
Quotes and photos

After the US Supreme Court handed down a decision in June 2022 expanding the right to carry firearms outside the home across all 50 states, New York strengthened its background requirements to own and carry a handgun and enacted a measure prohibiting concealed-carry permit holders from taking their firearms into “sensitive” locations such as Times Square, schools, and bars (Office of Governor Hochul, 2022).

On May 23, 2022, in the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s decision, The New York Times published the story, “The Latest on the Supreme Court’s Ruling and the Senate’s Passage of a National Gun Safety Law” (Astor, 2022). This national story included a photo of an unidentified gun shop in Hempstead, which was not otherwise cited in the piece. The image showed 12 large guns hung on a wall, with an American flag in black and blue below them. The caption read, “Rifles on Thursday at a gun store in Hempstead, N.Y.”

On June 23, The Times published the story, “Hochul Pledges New Legislation After ‘Shocking’ Court Decision on Guns,” about the governor’s plan to call a special legislative session to enact the new laws (Bromwich et al., 2022). The story included a quote from a Uniondale gun shop owner, Andrew Chernoff, who supported the Supreme Court’s decision.

On June 24, The New York Post published a story, “Eric Adams Says Private NYC Businesses Can Restrict Guns” (Crane, 2022). A photo of an unidentified gun shop in Hempstead illustrated the story, even though the piece was on New York City, not Nassau County where Hempstead is located. The close-up image showed two sets of White men’s hands fingering a Combat Master handgun above a glass countertop, with more guns inside the cabinet below.

There was not, in fact, a gun shop in Hempstead, NY (Village of Hempstead) at the time of this study, though there was a firearms training academy in the community. There were six gun shops throughout the wider Town of Hempstead, five of which were in majority-White neighborhoods and the one in Uniondale.


Regardless of why The New York Times and New York Post ran these Associated Press images of gun shops, the photographs may have left readers with the impression that the Village of Hempstead had a gun shop when it did not. Moreover, the use of the quote and photos may have given readers the sense that Hempstead and Uniondale, two largely Black and Brown communities located next to each other, are heavily armed. No predominately White communities were selected for the three stories, despite the presence of gun shops in nearby Albertson, Franklin Square, Hicksville, Levittown, Merrick, Mineola, New Hyde Park, Rockville Centre, and Wantagh. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, New York had 1,785 licensed firearms dealers and pawn brokers at the time that this study was conducted (Stebbins, 2022), any one of which could have been chosen for a quote or photo to illustrate the above stories, but they were not.

Publishing quotes from and photos of guns shops in Black and Brown communities (correctly identified or not), without the use of similar imagery in White neighborhoods, suggests a form of implicit bias in their selection and could fuel long-held stereotypes of these areas as armed and potentially dangerous, as if the issue of gun safety were confined to them. Seemingly arbitrary editorial choices such as the above, when made repeatedly, could leave residents in communities of color feeling ignored and stereotyped, particularly when their voices are not heard and their issues are not covered with consistency, which leads us back to our research questions.

RQ1: How are the six largely Black and Brown communities at the center of Nassau County, NY, presented in news coverage?

The majority of community-based organization leaders within these six areas contended the news media focused heavily or nearly exclusively on crime within their neighborhoods, and those perceptions were largely borne out in the quantitative data, except in the case of the two community newspapers, the Franklin Square-Elmont Herald and the Freeport Herald. Further, our study demonstrated that Black and Brown people were often excluded from regional news media coverage, with critical issues rarely covered, if at all, the one exception being education. Meanwhile, two community media outlets provided more balanced coverage, with a wider array of issues addressed and, more particularly, local events and human-interest stories covered.

RQ2: How do community leaders within these areas think and feel about news reporting on their neighborhoods and constituencies?

There was strong agreement in the CBO leaders’ perceptions of and thoughts on coverage of their communities and their constituencies, both in the qualitative and quantitative data. It was particularly striking to see the agreement within the quantitative data. News media, the leaders contended, were either stereotyping them and/or ignoring them. Meanwhile, the journalists spoke about a lack of resources to cover these communities properly and/or a sense within these areas that CBO leaders and average citizens were reluctant to speak with the news media because of fears of misrepresentation.

RQ3: Do the leaders’ perceptions of news coverage align with actual media reports?

Based on our quantitative review of news coverage, it appears the CBO leaders’ perceptions of reporting on the six studied communities were largely accurate and represent a strong understanding of their media ecosystems. The leaders believed the news media centered crime in their areas, and that was to a great extent accurate, the two exceptions being the Franklin Square-Elmont and Freeport Heralds. We should note here, though, that even within the two communities with hyperlocal outlets, the overall percentage of crime coverage remained high at 60% in Elmont and 25% in Freeport. This was despite the relatively low percentage of crime reporting within the two Heralds.

RQ4: To what degree are the six communities excluded from the media, leaving them as potential news deserts, or information vacuums?

Regional media, particularly the broadcast outlets, often excluded the Black and Brown communities within this study from coverage other than crime reporting during the six months of our research. Newsday made a clear attempt to report stories other than crime but was often limited in such coverage to education. Moreover, a majority of its reporting was thematic, only including one of the six communities in a photo caption, quote, or paragraph instead of a full-fledged story. As well, one in four of its stories was crime related. Meanwhile, as noted, the two community news outlets within the study, the Franklin Square-Elmont and Freeport Heralds, covered a broader range of issues and events. Therefore, we conclude, at minimum four of the six communities—Hempstead, Uniondale, Roosevelt, and Westbury—could be considered suburban news deserts.

The community journalism model in crisis

The Franklin Square-Elmont and Freeport Heralds followed a community journalism philosophy and model, according to interviews with journalists from these publications. Crime made up a significantly lower percentage of overall coverage within the Franklin Square-Elmont and Freeport Heralds because these publications covered their assigned communities with regular, neighborhood-based reporting, thus addressing people’s Critical Information Needs, or at least working to do so, and providing context to the crime stories that were published. No community should be defined solely or primarily by the felonies and misdemeanors that occur within it. These newspapers followed that principle. Elmont and Freeport thus could be described as news oases by comparison to the four nearby deserts, despite the relatively high percentages of crime reporting on these two areas found in other outlets. Or perhaps it might be said community papers follow a different script (Tomkins, 1987) than that of larger regional news organizations, one less centered on that which might go wrong within a neighborhood and one more focused on that which goes right.

In today’s media landscape, however, smaller community outlets are fighting for survival in an increasingly competitive news ecosystem in which ever more people consume stories on social media, with less focus on their immediate neighborhoods (Vorhaus, 2020). At the same time, local media, once thought to be immune to the type of skeptical questioning by the public that national and regional outlets have long faced, are increasingly vulnerable to the same deficits in people’s trust as seen with larger media (Sands, 2019). And Robinson (2014) points out that communities, once defined by location, have become porous in digital spaces. Many people no longer define themselves first and foremost by where they were born and where they live, though these remain important elements of community identity, but they also associate themselves with shared ethnic, professional, or ideological groups, as well as common causes (Hatcher & Reader, 2012). Though people might be closely connected to their local neighborhoods, they are becoming more tied to global online networks that pull them outside their geographic boundaries. Already-small community publications, therefore, may only become smaller—and fewer in number—in the future. The US now loses two newspapers per week, most of them local outlets (Fischer, 2022; Karter, 2022).

As shown in this study, though, community-based media organizations, where they exist, serve as key information providers for communities of color that have traditionally been portrayed in mainstream media as crime plagued and poverty stricken. Community newspapers and TV and radio stations often provide context by showing residents for who they are, many times with a focus on the good.


To understand and properly report on Black and Brown neighborhoods, journalists need the support and time to be on the ground in these places—not in their offices or homes communicating with the public via email and phone. As Babz Rawls Ivy, editor-in-chief of the Black-owned newspaper Inner-City News, in New Haven, Connecticut, told the Poynter Institute for a February 2023 article:

“I’m in community. [Residents] know me, and they trust us because I’m in community, because I go to their events . . . Don’t show up just for the tragedy. Don’t show up just for the shootings and the trauma. Show up for the celebratory things” (Chan, 2023, The Power of Being Present, para(s). 2 & 5).

Here, we must acknowledge the indelible mark that Black-owned and -operated newspapers, often referred to as the “Black press,” have made in not only covering and giving voice to communities of color dating back to America’s first Black-owned and -operated newspaper—Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827—but also in shaping American history and democracy (Nelson, 1999). The Black press, which has practiced community journalism since its inception, was instrumental in providing for the Critical Information Needs of the formerly enslaved in the years and decades of the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War (1865-77), in bringing about the Great Migration of southern Black people to northern cities in the early part of the 20th century, and in igniting the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s (Nelson, 1999). However, the Black press, like most all community press, has steadily declined in influence since the 1960s and ’70s (Nelson, 1999), leaving many communities stereotyped and starved for information.

News media funders such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Google News Initiative would do well to focus their efforts to sustain journalism on supporting and expanding community outlets, the base of the US media ecosystem, in particular the Black press and other “ethnic media,” including the Hispanic press, the Native American press, the Asian press, and others. Within community-based news media, audiences find a counterbalance, a counternarrative, to provide context to the sensationalized crime coverage that too often defines communities of color. The essential mission of such hyperlocal media is to show communities in their true form, beyond the tragedies that often frame Black and Brown neighborhoods in larger news outlets.

 Study limitations

Our study did not include majority-White communities for comparison to determine how they might be treated by the media, which was a limitation. In recent years, a number of news organizations have reported extensively on the many forms of systemic racism within American society. If this project could determine definitively that majority-White communities received preferential treatment in the news, without the heavy focus on crime coverage and with their critical issues covered, then it could indicate potential bias, possibly even a form of structural racism, within the media on Long Island and perhaps beyond. As well, it should be noted that a new newspaper, the Uniondale Herald, was opened on May 18, 2023, after this study was completed; therefore, it was not included in our findings.

Next steps

The next step in this project would be to conduct a similar mixed-methods study of surrounding majority-White communities, as well as to extend the study of Black and Brown areas to neighboring Suffolk County to gauge the repeatability of this project’s findings. From there, it would be a matter of continuing to expand the number of sampled communities, examining other regions of the country.


About the Authors

Scott A. Brinton is an assistant professor of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. He received his MA from Columbia University, Teachers College, and he is an MA candidate, at the  University of Missouri School of Journalism at Columbia

Aashish Kumar is a professor of television and immersive media at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. He received his MFA from Brooklyn College and has an MS from  Indiana State and an MA Delhi University.

Mario A. Murillo is the vice dean and professor of radio journalism, media studies and Latin American studies at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. He received his MA from New York University.

Conflict of interest statement

The study’s lead author, Scott Brinton, was formerly executive editor of Herald Community Newspapers, parent company of the Franklin Square-Elmont and Freeport Heralds. He was no longer employed by the Herald at the time of this study, and he did not have, nor does he have now, any financial or other interest in his former company. Rather, he was, and is now, a full-time Hofstra University journalism professor. Otherwise, there were no other potential conflicts of interest.

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 9

Positive Solutions – Digital Storytelling for Social Awareness: Using Technology to Inspire


There is much research looking at the negative aspects of media. There are studies addressing social concerns about the impact of media on how people define themselves, success, society, government and many other areas.

There has long been concern that a steady diet of negative news has contributed towards public disillusionment. Seeing images on the news night after night could lend itself to a learned world view far more negative than the world is in reality.

If this is true and negative media creates feelings of disillusionment and despair, then it would make sense that positive media should do the opposite-this was worth a try. Through research considering Interactive Documentary, Constructive/Solutions Journalism and Social Media, this paper looks at this idea.


As media changes in the digital age, it is also important to look at story structure and how that is changing the ways in which stories are told.  The shift in audience metrics from “exposure” to “engagement” offers important opportunities for makers to think about different ways of communicating a message.  Different communication paths containing the message, or story, can be structured in what could be describe as “micro-narratives”—small narrative units that, like Legos, can be disaggregated and reconfigured in various ways (Uricchio,2015). This is where interactive documentary/storytelling come into play.

“If the growth of interactive documentary does anything, I think it will open our eyes to the hundreds of possibilities of telling stories in original ways, and re-defining what a story is, what an audience is, and what a maker is.” Gerry Flahive, National Film Board of Canada.

There are two journalism models considered for this research. Solutions journalism is a practice that looks at reporting on how people are doing better and adaptive responses that people can learn from.  Constructive journalism is described by Seán Dagan Wood as “a publication that shines a light on innovation, kindness, co-operation and the ways people are working to create solutions to the problems facing society.” Both of these styles use positivity to increase reader engagement.

This research examines the idea that creating positive solutions-based digital stories can enhance the narrative for social awareness. This research was done using an interactive web-based project entitled Each Others Shoulders. These techniques can be used in many aspects of journalism and storytelling.  Using digital and social media to enhance stories is becoming the norm.  Organizations such as community journalism, collaborative media, participatory journalism, democratic journalism, street journalism and social change organizations can all benefit from this research.

The Project

The Each Others Shoulders interactive is a site about women.  Women who have made the journey a little bit easier for others. It looks at the positive impact women have had on the world through the eyes of other women.  Users are asked to “share a story” of a woman who made a difference in their lives.  This can be someone they personally know or a historical or public figure who helped them be a better woman in some way.

Each Others Shoulders was initially set up on WordPress, a blog posting website This project began a few months prior to the first Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017. Although there was much negativity among women concerning the election of Donald Trump, this site dedicated to keeping the conversation positive.

As part of the project, open sourced, or approved existing video was re-edited to add to both the Inspirational Women and History sections of the project.

Figure 1: Each Others Shoulders website.


A project was created to allow participants to share stories that would make a positive impact on a social cause. Social awareness is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as, “the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.”  Although social awareness was the main goal of this experiment, social change was looked at as a mark of success.  Social Change goes further in transforming a culture along with behaviors and social structure(Vago, 2004).

To best understand how to use digital media for social awareness the Ripple Strategies were used as a measurement. Ripple Strategies is a full-service communications agency that designs and implements media campaigns to accelerate positive social change (Ripple, 2018).

Ripple gives 3 suggestions to begin creating media for social change:

  • Establish Authority:
    • developing credible content- tell a good, true story
    • fostering credible relationships- credible, relevant experts and trusted
    • preparing credible responses- be proactive and to keep control of your messaging
  • Ignite Conversations and Change:
    • telling memorable stories
    • AIDA conversion funnel, which shows the progression a person makes from initially hearing about an issue to taking-action. The conversion funnel involves four sequential steps: Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action (AIDA).
  • Measuring Impact
    • Online Analytics
    • Likes, Follows

Three areas of consideration were used for this project:

  • Interactive documentary
    • An interactive documentary, or multimedia documentary is a is considered non-fictional storytelling that not only uses video, audio, photographic, but also applies full complement of multimedia tools. These tools allow the user(watcher, listener, doer) to control or modify the journey as the go (Kim, 2014). This can happen in many ways; comment, like, share, add are all available in interactive documentary.
    • Using:
      • Unique and original footage
      • Aggregated footage from the Women’s March on Washington and organizations
      • Existing open-sourced media
      • Participatory media

For a project to be considered an Interactive Documentary for Social Change it must create social awareness, civic engagement and ultimately social change.

  • Constructive/Solutions Journalism
    • Solutions journalism is an approach to news reporting that focuses on the responses to social issues as well as the problems themselves. Solutions stories, anchored in credible evidence, explain how and why responses are working, or not working. Constructive journalism works alongside Solutions Journalism using positive, solutions-focused storytelling for community engagement. These types of journalism were created in response to the increase in negative, tabloidism and fake news in the new media.
  • Social Awareness through Social Media
    • Social awareness, can be defined as consciousness shared by different individuals within a society. We will look at using social media to create awareness of the problems within a society or a community.


The objectives are to use the tools of technology to; film and edit short, meaningful segments and aggregate already existing media, to create the story.  The story will shed positive light on the social cause. This media will be shared through a social media campaign and interaction through blogging, to create an audience and effect social awareness.

With so much emphasis on the negativity in media, specifically when attached to social causes (Black Lives Matter, Trump Election) this paper will examine if positive interactive media alone can make a difference in creating social awareness.

This research considers the impact that positive interactive media combined with interactive documentary can create an awareness in a social justice situation.  The objectives were to use the tools of technology to; film and edit short, meaningful segments and aggregate already existing media, to create the story.  The story shed positive light on the social cause. This media was shared through a social media campaign and interaction through blogging, to create an audience and effect social awareness.

Analytics were used to measure citizen engagement in the cause and interaction data will be collected to determine social awareness and change.

This research worked around the experiment, Each Others Shoulders, an online interactive website which looked at the positive impact women have had on the world and share that as a way of advancing the cause.

Literature Review

“Interactive media/documentary/storytelling combined with the use of interactive and social media tools create the stage, audience and actors that are needed to bring about social awareness, engagement and change. In theory, if this is done in a positive way it will create an audience and interaction that is positive as well” (Cardillo, 2018). Interactive media/documentary is considered non-fictional storytelling that not only uses video, audio, photographic, but also applies full complement of multimedia tools. These tools allow the user (watcher, listener, doer) to control or modify the journey as the go (Kim, 2014).

This project combined Interactive documentary with Solutions/Constructive Journalism and Social Media to share a story and find results.

  • The Interactive Documentary:
    • Interactive and Cross-media innovations have created a new model of communication that can go in many directions, where audiences can both consume and produce in the social activist setting (Whiteman, 2003).  By 2005, more possibilities grew for online participation. The introduction of peer-to-peer broadcasting, largely influenced by YouTube created ever-expanding possibilities for social networking and change. Sites like Facebook continue to add to social networking possibilities. Web 2.0 has created a truly unique opportunity to explore International communities (Miller, 2009).

New interactive tools allow the viewer to take on a collaborative role as creator. When the viewer is encouraged to add their voice to a project, it enhances the community and welcomes others to do the same. This type of interactivity allows the user to become intimately involved with the project and the social cause.

Documentary filmmakers have been producing commentaries concerning the world’s marginalized people and places in an effort to shed light on the problems and help create social movements to effect change for the future (Moyano, 2011).   New technologies are now in place that can elevate this light to a much greater audience, through the use of interactive storytelling and multi-media platforms.

  • Constructive/Solutiouns Journalism:
    • Journalism today is so focused on highlighting problems; it often misses opportunities to tell the many stories about how society is responding effectively to those problems. Looking at the positive, solution-based side of the story can bring about forward moving conversation and involvement.
  • Solutions Journalism:
    • “Journalism’s historical approach is to spotlight social problems in order to spur reform, exposing wrongdoing or generating awareness — or outrage — about injustice, neglect or hidden threats. This “watchdog” role is critical to the vitality of democratic society. But we believe it’s also insufficient, because it fails to capture and circulate some of the most essential information that society needs to understand and solve its problems” (Reeves, 2017,1).

Constructive Journalism is a method of journalism that includes rigorous, compelling reporting that includes positive and solution-focused elements in order to empower audiences and present a fuller picture of truth, while upholding journalism’s core functions and ethics. Constructive Journalism was founded in 2014 by Sean Wood and Danielle Batista in London(Constructive Journalism Project, n.d.).

These types of journalism/storytelling can, not only, engage and empower people as consumers of media but, more importantly, as actors in the solutions.

The University of Pennsylvania did a study where they looked at several hundred New York Times articles to determine the type of news media consumers/users choose to share.  The results were overwhelming in favor of positive news. The Times’ John Tierney, describing the research. “The more positive an article, the more likely it was to be shared” (Tierney, 2013).

  • Social Media for Social Awareness:

According to Dovey (2014), the content of the blog world, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr are all real, journalistic, and expressive and this is what interactive storytelling encompasses. These social media outlets are living documentaries for those who create them. New tools for collaboration and sharing in social media platforms build a participatory culture that creates the formation of groups with common views and goals (Jenkins 2006).  (Social) media plays an important rold in molding society and spreading awareness in important events. It is the best tool for spearding social awareness(Dwivedi & Pandey, 2013).


The project, Each Others Shoulders is an interactive site about women. The format was set up in the style of Interactive Documentary and used Solutions/Constructive Journalism techniques as a basis.  Interactive Documentary uses short form(micro-documentary) clips to engage users to become involved with the cause.  Each Others Shoulders invited users to upload video, still photos and written stories to the site in order to engage the audience.  These additions also added to the story to make Each Others Shoulders a living document.  Constructive/Solutions Journalsim was used by applying positive techniques to the process and production in an effort to create productive and engaging coverage.

Users are asked to “share a story” of a woman who made a positive difference in their lives.  This can be someone they personally know or a historical or public figure who helped them be a better woman in some way.

The submission page states:

This is where Each Others Shoulders becomes an interactive, participatory, living documentary.

Please share a story about a woman who has influenced, inspired or changed you in some way.  This woman can be someone you personally know who is not “famous”(or known to the rest of us-yet), or she can be an historical or public woman who inspires you.

Please share a story, a photo, a video or audio recording…anything that allows us to know this woman better.  The more women we learn about the better we become.  We stand on each others shoulders.

In order to create a simple way to collect the Submit a Story information, was used to create a small website with the Grabimo application for story collection.  “Grabimo is an application that allows you to collect, manage, and publish stories in multimedia format: Video, Audio, Photo, and Text” (Grabimo, 2018).

Figure 2: Submission Page

When considering the Ripple Strategies and social media for social awareness, there were three areas in the project where social media made a difference in awareness.

Establishing authority: the site, along with the Facebook page, was able to create credible content while fostering credible relationships. Great care was taken in preparing credible responses to comments and posts at all times. As this project started with the beginning of plans for the Women’s March and was quickly picked up and carried by those organizers, on their social media, there was immediate establishing of authority.

Figure 3: Response Page of Site

Igniting conversations: This was challenging at first. Getting people involved to submit stories and comments was the most difficult part. Likes, follows and shares were the most common with comments building as the March drew near.  In the few weeks prior to the march, as women were preparing for their journey, the story and photo submissions began to upload. Also, during and soon after the march the site continued to get engagement. One issue that began to occur was that the “positive” nature of the conversation began to wane as the inauguration of Donald Trump coincided with the Women’s March.  As we continued to only put out positive media the comments began to become more negative.

Measuring impact: This was done through analytics. An early post about the Women’s March on Washington entitled, “Why I Will March: A Bi-Partisan Approach received over 1500 hits and 130 shares in less than two weeks, using only Facebook as a channel.  This remained consistent from late November until the end of January (the march was on January 21, 2017). The Women’s March organizers continued to share our posts and women continued to share their stories and photos.  We received many photos and news stories on how women were preparing for the march.  The march dominated the site.  We continued to upload positive stories about women who were making a difference in the world but the uploads continued to center around the march, with a few exceptions of women who uploaded stories of female heroes in their lives.

Figure 4: Post on Facebook

This project continued for a few months after the Women’s March on Washington and proceeded to create numbers in the analytics with user interested in the cause of women’s rights. In a matter of approximately four months’ time the site drew in 3634 views with 2743 visitors.

Figure 5: Analytics on WordPress

Facebook gave this project the biggest boost which funneled traffic to the Each Others Shoulders site.

Figure 6: Analytics on Facebook

On Twitter we used the hashtag: #eachothersshoulders. Twitter worked well for story aggregation in that we could see who was using the hashtag and contact that user to get permission for their story and ask if they wanted to share.

A digital mini-documentary narrative video was made and sent out through social media soon after the march in order to keep the conversation going. This surprisingly received little to know coverage.  Once the march was over, although we continued to reach out on social media the interest waned. One hypothesis is that it was over three minutes and that is too long for social media users to decide to click on and stay.  Also, the site had no immediate or long-term gratification.

Figure 8: Mini-documentary

Is Social Awareness enough?  Or does there need to be Social Change for success?


Deciding to delineate this paper as Positive Solutions- Digital Media Storytelling for Social Awareness rather than committing to Social Change opened up many questions for this researcher.  The thought process was to consider Positive Solutions Digital Media Storytelling in a way that it would begin a conversation that would help causes to make users more socially aware.  The problem lies in how this plays out in social media and what success looks like.

Considering the idea that visuals help us to learn and act, along with constructive/solutions journalism and interactive documentary, this paper looked at how we can create a social change environment by creating a positive campaign and asking for interaction.

For the most part the campaign stayed positive, with the only negativity coming from user comments about the election of Donald Trump.  The use of social media as a tool for social good has its strengths and challenges.  The strengths are that if the message is both timely, short and conveniently placed it will get large numbers.  But once the timeliness wares off there is little to no interaction, as there needs to be some kind of immediate gratification.  The creator would need to continually work to keep the campaign alive in order to have consistent interaction.

Also, there is strong evidence that users prefer to like and share more than comment.  And asking them to engage by adding content is difficult to achieve.  More research is needed in the area of how to keep consistent engagement for causes.  Although this site never asked for money, only time and effort, it was still difficult to get users to engage at that level.  If a set of procedures could be developed that would help to prolong engagement, this would benefit all social causes in the future.

When creating an Interactive Documentary for Social Change project there are three things that need to occur:

  • First the project must create social awareness, which this project did.
  • Next the project must create civic engagement, which this project also did, to some extent.
  • And the last piece to the puzzle is that the project needs to create social change.

Did change occur?

  • This is the piece of the puzzle that will be looked at in future work.
  • Does the cause campaign need to have a “finish” in order to be successful?
  • Is the project a success because it made people stop and get involved or did there need to be a greater outcome in order for success to be apparent?
  • What does change look like? 


There is much research looking at the negative aspects of media. This paper looked at what might happen using Interactive Documentary, Constructive/Solutions Journalism and Social media to tell a positive story. Each Others Shoulders was able to create social engagement for a short time.

These techniques can be used in many aspects of journalism and storytelling.  Using digital and social media to enhance stories is becoming the norm.  Organizations such as community journalism, collaborative media, participatory journalism, democratic journalism, street journalism and social change organizations can all benefit from this research.

Now more research needs to be done to find out how to keep the audience and create social change. There are so many amazing causes in this world that people can become involved with, we just have to find ways, other than like, share and comment to get people to act.


About the Author

Dr. Susan Cardillo, Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Journalism at the University of Hartford focuses her tenure work on Interactive/Micro Documentary for Social Awareness and Change. She is currently in post-production with Campus ReBoot, a crowd-sourced, interactive and collaborative documentary about College during Covid19. She can be reached at [email protected]

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.


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?


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.


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.


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.”


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.
  6. TS Media is an impartial media audit, which examines Swedish media and the media market.
  7. Kantar Sifo is a Swedish company that conducts market research, media and opinion polls.
  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.
  11. 11 Regpress, LNU.—gemensamma/regpress/regpress_preliminary-content-analysis-1.pdf
  13. The SOM Institute:
  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 [email protected].

Annelie Ekelin (Senior Lecture, Linnaeus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Anette Forsberg (Senior Lecture, Linnaeus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Britt-Marie Ringfjord (Linnaus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Mats Wahlberg (Linnaeus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Bridgette Wessels (Professor, Glasgow University) can be reached at [email protected].

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 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?


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.


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

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”The Reddit Oa”]

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Freedom of Information in Community Journalism

Studies of freedom of information (FOI) requests by journalists often focus on outcomes. However, the FOI request process is often more complicated than submitting a request and awaiting a decision; it may require numerous and delicate interactions with records officers. These interactions are particularly fraught for community journalists, for whom maintaining friendly relationships with sources is paramount. This study, based on FOI requests to 45 New York municipal clerks, finds additional interactions were required in more than three-quarters of municipalities that held relevant records. The reasons for those interactions were specific to the places in which requests were filed.

Journalists use freedom of information (FOI) requests to access government records that might otherwise be difficult to get. Records obtained through FOI requests can illuminate “how government decisions are made and the impact of these decisions” (Walby & Larsen, 2011, p. 31). Access to government data can allow journalists to spot trends, and unearth stories that might otherwise go unnoticed. Journalists have used FOI requests to break controversial stories about, for example, the United States government’s rejection of foreign aid after Hurricane Katrina; efforts by Chinese hackers to disrupt satellite networks; and General Motors’ delayed response to fatal accidents involving its ignition switches (News Media for Open Government, n.d.). At a time of increasing interest in computational journalism, government data appeal to journalists due to their abundance and potential for public impact (Coddington, 2015).

For community journalists, using FOI requests to obtain information from local governments is of particular interest. Indeed, most FOI requests by journalists are filed at the state or local, rather than national, level (Cuillier, 2011). This tendency is not surprising given that most journalism is locally based (Lauterer, 2006; Reader & Hatcher, 2012, xiv). Community journalists have used FOI requests to gather documents such as building permits, crime reports, liquor license applications, and restaurant inspections (Parasie & Dagiral, 2013). Examples of community journalism that has used FOI requests include investigations into fraudulent deed transfers, coverups of unsafe transportation systems, and exorbitant salary increases for public officials (Cuillier, 2017).

And yet, obtaining newsworthy information through FOI requests can be difficult. Journalists who have used FOI requests often complain that records officers take too long to respond. Timely responses are particularly important as news deadlines shorten (Barnhurst, 2011). Even when responses are timely, requests are frequently denied, or fulfilled only partially. Requesters who file appeals rarely succeed. The only other remedies available are lawsuits, which few journalists can afford to file. As a result, many journalists simply do not bother making FOI requests. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. journalists have little or no experience with them (Cuillier, 2011).

For community journalists, the FOI request process is particularly challenging. The tenets of community journalism emphasize the importance of being visible in the community (Terry, 2011), and maintaining friendly, informal relationships with potential sources (Byerly, 1961). Considering the difficulties FOI requesters have described in their interactions with records officers, and the formal nature of the process itself, filing requests could jeopardize the friendly, informal relationships community journalists work hard to build. However, relationships between journalists and records officers are not always antagonistic. How might community journalists negotiate the delicate FOI request process? This article aims to address this question by examining the responses of, and negotiations with, local records officers who denied FOI requests.

Literature Review

FOI laws emerged from the notion that people have a right to know “what their government is up to” (U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 1989, quoting from Henry Steele Commager,New York Review of Books, Oct. 5, 1972, p. 7). The principles of FOI can be found in the writings of John Dewey, who argued that a democratic society depended on the free flow of information:

There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it. Whatever obstructs and restricts publicity, limits and distorts public opinion and checks and distorts thinking on social affairs (1927, p. 167).

Laws that establish a right to know can help the public participate more fully in democratic societies by, among other things, help them communicate their wishes to elected representatives (Meiklejohn, 1948), hold officials accountable (Stiglitz, 1999), help agencies identify inefficiencies and reduce expenses (Larbi, 1999), and challenge tendencies within government to overclassify information (Fuchs, 2006). The concept of a right to know can be situated among a broader set of principles known as open government. Those principles include transparency, information sharing, collaboration, and citizen engagement (Wirtz & Birkmeyer, 2015). In addition to FOI, other laws associated with open government relate to open meetings, open data, and the reduction of paperwork and jargon (McDermott, 2010).

While a right to know is generally accepted as a democratic value, government transparency should have limits (Schudson, 2015). Opening government information to the public can have a “dark side” (Zuiderwijk & Janssen, 2014), including the potential misinterpretation of that information. Open government initiatives can also compete with other societal values, such as national security and the right to privacy (Raab, 1997). Transparency initiatives can also have practical limits. Many agencies struggle to respond in a timely fashion to an ever-growing number of FOI requests, potentially leading to less, rather than more, transparency (Rizzardi, 2014). Governments have tried to address these challenges in different ways. They may, for instance, apply “balancing tests” to assess whether the release of information would harm other societal interests (Halstuk & Chamberlin, 2006). Agencies may try to manage the flow of requests by charging fees for certain types of requests, especially those that are deemed commercial in nature or that are particularly time-consuming to fulfill.

Given the challenges involved in managing FOI requests, it is not surprising that relationships between records officers and requesters can be adversarial. Journalists have argued that records officers use inconsistent standards to determine whether documents should be released in full, redacted, or fully withheld (Brennan, 2013; Kwoka, 2011; Shepherd, Stevenson & Flinn, 2010). Some documents that are released are so heavily redacted that they become devoid of any useful information (Arizona Newspapers Association, 2016). Other conflicts arise when agencies fail to keep up with changes in FOI laws that require greater transparency (Bertot, McDermott, & Smith, 2012). Journalists have often accused records officers of charging excessive fees (Associated Press, 2015; Pruitt, 2015; Vaznis, 2016), and of purposely providing records in paper form or in non-machine-readable formats such as image files (Bush & Chamberlin, 2000; Fink & Anderson, 2015), because they are less useful.

For their part, records officers also have plenty of complaints about FOI requesters. Records officers are particularly bothered by “nuisance” or “vexsome” requesters, including those who are disgruntled, file numerous requests, request information at inconvenient times, use overly broad terms to describe what they want, and/or are perceived as having frivolous or malicious intent (Kimball, 2016). Records officers believe some requesters use FOI laws not to obtain information of public interest, but to satisfy idle curiosities, waste the government’s time, or punish officials they do not like (see e.g. Shaner, 2016).

Community Journalists

Community journalism is generally defined as reporting that focuses on a specific, rather than mass, audience (Byerly, 1961). By engaging specific audiences, community journalists can fill coverage gaps left by larger media organizations (Carpenter, Nah, & Chung, 2015). Unlike journalists who serve larger audiences, community journalists are expected to adhere to community norms as well as professional norms (Reader, 2012). That is, community journalists must report facts as well as be “friendly neighbors” (Byerly, 1961). They are also expected to be accessible and empathetic. Community norms call for approaching sources “with a good dose of humility, and not by casually tossing out phrases like ‘the people’s right to know,’ then pulling up the drawbridge, and retreating into the fortress of an office” (Cross, 2011, para. 4). By engaging directly with the audiences they serve, community journalists aim to understand the nuances of local issues and, as a result, build trust with sources and audiences (Bressers, Smethers, & Mwangi, 2015; Meadows, 2013).

The expectation that community journalists be “friendly neighbors,” however, may lead them to avoid stories that portray the people they cover in a negative light (Barney, 1996). When they do cover bad news, they are expected to balance the public’s right to know with “the community’s need to know” (Reader, 2012, p. 7). Publishing negative stories can thus take courage for a community journalist, who “does literally have to face his readers on the street” (Bagdikian, 1964, p. 110). Losing the trust of one’s audience can make the community journalist’s job difficult, given the relatively small pool of available sources (Ekdale, 2014).

Maintaining the trust of local officials is particularly important to community journalists, given the abundance of news that originates with government sources (Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978). Local governments often support the efforts of community journalists, believing that the health of their communities depends on the availability of information (Stonbely, Napoli, McCollough, & Renninger, 2015). However, information that is ostensibly public can still be controversial when reported by community journalists. One newspaper stopped publishing an annual list of government employee salary data after being told it was “not a nice thing to do” (Fink & Anderson, 2015, p. 473). Mugshots of people who have been arrested are also usually public information, but news organizations that compile them have been criticized (Lee, 2017). Given these controversies over public records, community journalists may be reluctant to make FOI requests, in the interest of maintaining cordial relationships with valuable sources.

Local Records Officers

Access to public records is “more about the people than the law” (Cuillier, 2010a, para. 2). That is, decisions over whether FOI requests will be fully granted, partially granted, or denied can vary widely among public records officers. Understanding why records officers privilege or penalize certain requests may help journalists improve their chances of getting the information they want. For community journalists, understanding the ways localrecords officers make decisions is particularly important, since “community” is often, although not always, defined by geographic boundaries (Christensen & Levinson, 2003; Robinson, 2014).

Decisions by records officers vary in part because FOI laws are complex and open to interpretation. In the U.S., the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is generally considered to guide access to public records at federal agencies; however, some offices, such as the White House, are excluded from FOIA, and separate laws pertain to the Legislative and Judicial branches of government. Federal guidance on FOIA also refers to more than 70 other statutes that may result in the withholding of requested records (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018). Each state also has its own law covering access to state and local records. Although state laws tend to be similar to FOIA, they may differ in several ways, such as required response times, the types of records that are exempt, and potential remedies for FOI violations (Fink, 2018).

The processing of FOI requests also differs at the national, state, and local level. At the local level, responding to FOI requests is among a myriad of duties that tend to fall on municipal clerks (Kimball, 2016). Other duties may include attending and recording the minutes of local government meetings, preparing budgets, collecting taxes, communicating with the public, and gathering and maintaining historical records.  Municipal clerks are often elected positions that are “neither wholly political nor wholly administrative” (Gordon, 2011, p. 172), serving a broad range of constituencies with competing interests and demands. Municipal clerks tend to work long and irregular hours and be undercompensated, and may have trouble separating their work and personal lives (Blackburn & Bruce, 1989).

Municipal clerks are also “street level bureaucrats” who enjoy a high degree of autonomy (Kimball, 2016; Lipsky, 2010). Thus, they tend to have wide discretion in how they respond to FOI requests. Municipal clerks report mostly positive interactions with FOI requesters, and say they support government transparency in general (Kimball, 2012, 2016). However, municipal clerks also believe FOI laws are widely open to interpretation (Kimball, 2003) and that releasing too little information is less risky than releasing too much. Indeed, few people whose FOI requests are partially or fully denied challenge those decisions—and winning appeals or lawsuits is difficult (Baker, 2015; Verkuil, 2002). Even when the government loses such cases, records officers who are found to have wrongly withheld information are rarely punished (Hull, 2004).

If municipal clerks believe FOI laws to be open to interpretation, what guides those interpretations? Studies of how municipal clerks perceive their work yield some clues. Municipal clerks see their primary responsibilities as clerical in nature. Keeping accurate, confidential records for the use of government employees is seen as more important than maintaining access to those records for the public (Kimball, 2012). Municipal clerks also prioritize protecting confidentiality (Davenport & Kwoka, 2010; Kimball, 2003). Few states require records officers to be trained in how to respond to FOI requests (Kimball, 2012), and those that do may not require it on a regular basis (Davenport & Kwoka, 2010). Kimball (2003) found that records officers based their decisions on whether to release information not only on their interpretation of public records laws, but also the degree to which they sympathized with requesters (such as crime victims) or felt accountable to their bosses or co-workers. They may also disfavor other types of requests, such as those from people deemed to be “nuisances” because of their behavior, as well as journalists and political activists (Roberts, 2002). Records officers may also limit access to information if they believe it will be used for marketing purposes (Phelps & Bunker, 2001). Local records officers may also withhold requested information if records management software makes retrieving the information difficult (Shepherd, Stevenson & Flinn, 2010).

The Role of Place

The variability of FOI laws and request processes highlight the need to consider the role of place in this research. Place is often underemphasized or ignored in journalism research, despite its importance in the practice of reporting and the ways news organizations claim authority (Usher, 2019). Places that impact journalism include not only geographic coverage areas, but also places where journalists interact and where reporting occurs.Place is “not merely a setting or a backdrop, but an agentic player in the game” (Gieryn, 2000, p. 466). Discounting the role of place can lead to misguided normative assumptions about the generalizability of journalism research. This has been noted in studies critiquing the predominance of studies based in the U.S. (Hanitzsch et al, 2011; Wasserman & de Beer, 2009). Even within the U.S., journalism research and practice has been criticized for focusing too heavily on coastal cities (McGill, 2016).

Studies of records officers have also suggested that places matter in the FOI request process. For instance, even as local records officers believe more public records should be available online, they also prefer requests to be made in person (Kimball, 2016). Records officers were more likely to respond quickly and more completely to FOI requests if they believed that their counterparts in neighboring counties had already responded (ben-Aaron et. al, 2017).

The importance of place to journalists and municipal clerks may explain why attempts to generalize FOI processes have been elusive. Attempts to rank FOI laws across geographies have yielded widely varying results (see, e.g., Access Info Europe and Centre for Law and Democracy, 2018; Center for Public Integrity, 2015; World Justice Project, 2015). Recommending best practices for requesters has also been a challenge. An analysis of 33,000 requests found “few features were consistently associated” (Dias, Kamal, & Bastien, 2017, para. 8) with successful requests. Some studies have found that FOI requests that used a formal or threatening tone had better response rates than those with a friendly or neutral tone (Cuillier & Davis, 2012; Grimmelikhuijsen, John, Meijer, & Worthy, 2018; Worthy, John, & Vannoni, 2017). Still, “smaller, more rural agencies tend to prefer a more friendly tone” (Cuillier & Davis, 2012), and experienced requesters have also suggested that it can help to “play nice” (Kambhampati, 2018).

Research Questions

These inconsistencies suggest that the places in which FOI requests and negotiations are made matter, because the people and processes involved are highly variable and complex, and because FOI outcomes often depend on the level of trust between individual records officers and requesters. But although prior research has suggested that the FOI request process is often more complex than simply filing a request and waiting for a response (Worthy, John, & Vannoni, 2017), those interactions have been little studied. Requesters and records officers may communicate several times about a single request, and those communications may be formal and informal. Either party may seek more information or clarifications. They may challenge each other’s interpretations of public records laws. The following case study thus examines not only the outcomes of FOI requests, but interactions that led to those outcomes.

The literature inspired the following research questions that may help shed light on how local records officers respond to FOI requests:

RQ1:How often are followup interactions required in order to complete requests?

RQ2:Why do records officers initiate followup interactions?

RQ3:How do followup interactions shape the outcomes of FOI requests?


In this study, requests for dog license records were sent to the 45 municipal governments in Westchester County, New York, which included cities, towns, and villages. Access to municipal records is determined by the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). FOIL, like FOIA, includes exemptions for several kinds of records, including those whose disclosure could jeopardize security and personal privacy. However, FOIL also differs from FOIA in several ways. Requests must be acknowledged within five business days, compared to FOIA’s 20 business days. FOIL also requires responses to be completed within 20 business days, unless agencies provide an explanation for the delay and specify a date by when responses will be completed. FOIL allows agencies to charge fees of any requester, while FOIA allows fees to be waived for journalists and educators. FOIL also contains an extra resource for requesters who wish to challenge denials. In addition to filing administrative appeals, requesters may also seek guidance from the Committee on Open Government (COOG). The committee does not have enforcement power, but issues advisory opinions to requesters and records officers.

Dog license records were chosen for this study because of their relevance to community journalism and because their availability under FOIL was suggested in legal opinions as well as by their use in news stories by New York media. Dog license records are typically held by local governments. Dogs themselves are popular topics of community journalism coverage, such as in controversies over leash laws and dog parks, notices about lost and found pets, and feel-good stories of heroism and loyalty that inspire interactions with readers (Turner, 2015). Dog license data has been used by community journalists to document local trends in the popularity of particular dog breeds and names (Caroll, 2013; Fair, 2019; Reader, 2013), and to research whether dogs that bite residents are up to date on their vaccinations (Dinan, 2018). In New York, the availability of dog licenses under FOIL has been established in several opinions by the state COOG. Municipalities had granted similar requests for the same information in the past (Freeman, 1996; Reader, 2013).

The FOIL request for this study sought “All dog licensing data, including but not limited to: dog name, breed, birth year, color, sex, sterilization, vaccinations, and resident’s location” (see Appendix). According to state law, dog license applications include, at minimum, the “sex, actual or approximate age, breed, color, and municipal identification number of the dog, and other identification marks, if any, and the name, address, telephone number, county and town, city or village of residence of the owner” (N.Y. Agriculture and Markets Law, Article 7 §109(c), 2013). Most dog owners in the state are required to license their pets, although only an estimated one in five actually do (Reader, 2013). New York’s law applies to all municipalities in the state, except New York City, which has its own law.

Westchester County was chosen for this study out of convenience. The researcher works in the county, and was available to retrieve records in person, when necessary. Most municipalities provided electronic records or sent paper records through the mail, but the researcher also visited three municipal offices to retrieve records. FOIL requests were sent online, either using a form provided by the municipality’s website or by emailing the local records officer, usually the municipality’s clerk. Requests were submitted to all municipalities between April 21 and May 5, 2015.

If municipalities did not acknowledge the request within the five business days as required by FOIL, the researcher attempted to contact the records officer again. The second contact was always via email. If the second contact yielded no response, the researcher attempted to reach the records officer by phone. Subsequent attempts to contact municipalities were based on whether records officers acknowledged the requests, and whether they offered estimates of when responses would be completed. Follow-up contacts were made by email or by phone based on the preferences of each records officer. When phone conversations took place, the researcher noted the dates and topics discussed.

Of the 45 municipalities contacted, 13 subsequently notified the researcher that they had an agreement with another municipality to keep dog license records on their behalf. Thus, responses from the remaining 32 records officers were considered for this study. When municipalities denied the requests partially or fully, the researcher did not pursue remedies such as appeals or lawsuits. After two months of attempts to access records, the researcher stopped trying to contact municipalities that had not completed responses.


RQ1: How often are followup interactions required in order to complete requests?

Followup interactions were required in 25 of 32 municipalities (78.125 percent) in order to complete the FOI request. In other words, only seven municipalities (21.875 percent) responded with decisions granting or denying the request (fully or partially) without additional communications between the researcher and records officers. Some interactions were initiated by the researcher, while others were initiated by records officers.

The researcher contacted 18 of 32 municipalities (56.25 percent) after they missed at least one deadline for responding to the FOI request. As mentioned in the Methods section, New York’s FOIL establishes two types of deadlines for records officers: one for acknowledging requests, and one for completing them. Ten municipalities (31.25 percent) missed the acknowledgment deadline; 13 (40.63 percent) missed the completion deadline. In some cases, the followup interactions alerted clerks to the very existence of the request. “We don’t check the website that way,” responded one clerk during a followup phone call about an online request that was awaiting an acknowledgment (personal communication, May 8, 2015).

Two municipalities (6.25 percent) never completed the request. That is, they did not provide records, nor did they issue formal denials—rather, they stopped responding to communications from the researcher. One non-responsive municipality had been contacted three times following the initial request; the other, seven.

Records officers initiated interactions with the researcher in 22 of 32 municipalities (68.75 percent). Reasons for those interactions will be described in the following section.

RQ2: Why do records officers initiate followup interactions?

Records officers contacted the researcher for a variety of reasons. If they had missed deadlines, some records officers responded with apologies or explanations for the delays. Other records officers notified the researcher of additional requirements for fulfilling the request. Some records officers responded with questions (the answers to which sometimes prompted notifications of additional requirements), and some records officers wanted to negotiate over which information would be released (which sometimes also involved additional requirements and questions).

Apologies and explanations. Almost all records officers who were contacted about missing deadlines apologized for being late to acknowledge or complete requests within the time mandated by state law. That was true even for the two municipalities that never completed responses. Records officers in both of those municipalities attributed their delays to having too much work or too few employees to handle it. Other records officers or their employees who apologized for delays said they had missed the original request, that the records officer had been on vacation, or that municipal attorneys were evaluating whether any information had to be redacted.

Notifications of additional requirements. Fifteen of the 32 municipalities (46.875 percent) responded that they needed fees or additional information from the researcher. Nine municipalities (28.125 percent) responded that they would charge fees for the records. FOIL allows records officers to charge up to $0.25 per page for photocopies of records, and may also charge for labor if requests take more than two hours to process. Records officers are not supposed to charge fees when records exist electronically and the requester asks for them in an electronic format. The researcher agreed to pay fees to five municipalities that charged under $50. For the four municipalities that charged higher fees, the researcher offered to visit their offices in order to inspect the records in person for free. Two municipalities accepted that offer; two others decided to provide the records electronically for free.

Seven municipalities (21.875 percent) required the researcher to submit a statement affirming that the data would not be used for commercial or fundraising purposes. Three municipalities additionally required that the statements be notarized. New York’s FOIL specifies that some information, such as lists of names and addresses, may be withheld “if such lists would be used for solicitation or fund-raising purposes”(N.Y. Public Officers Law,§89 2(b)(iii)).When clerks requested such statements, the researcher provided them.

Questions. Clerks in seven municipalities (21.875 percent) responded with questions, such as:

For what purpose?

Why do you need the information on the dogs that are licensed in Mount Pleasant?

Why does anybody need to know that?

Although New York’s FOIL specifies that requesters are not “required to provide a reason or indicate the intended use of the record” (New York Department of State, n.d.), some clerks still asked why the researcher wanted the information. Some clerks indicated they were asking in order to ensure the information would not be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes. When such questions arose, the researcher responded that the requests were for a university research project and journalism course.

Other questions from municipal clerks related to the “residents’ location” portion of the request:

What would you be using the owner’s addresses for?

I wanted to ask do you really need the resident’s location.

Several clerks said they were concerned about how residents of their communities would react if they knew their names and addresses were being released. Did the requester need the street address, or would a ZIP code suffice? When such questions arose, the researcher expressed a preference for street addresses. In some cases, the researcher provided context for the request by referring to projects by news organizations and others that had created searchable maps of popular dog names and breeds by neighborhood (Reader, 2013). “Yeah, some of those dog names are funny” (personal communication, May 4, 2015) responded one records officer, before releasing the records with residents’ full addresses included.

Negotiations.While some clerks asked questions about the resident’s location portion of the request, others took a harder line:

That information is an invasion of the person and not allowed. 

Please be aware that owner information is not subject to FOIL.

I don’t think you need the names or phone numbers.

After several clerks raised questions or concerns about the “resident’s location” data, the researcher requested an opinion from COOG Executive Director Robert Freeman, who confirmed that “the items that you requested are accessible, with the exception of a home phone number, and so long as you certify that the names and addresses will not be used for solicitation or fund-raising purposes” (personal communication, May 4, 2015). The researcher forwarded the opinion to clerks who had asked questions about the addresses or suggested they would be redacted.

The most contentious negotiations took place with the clerk of one municipality, Bedford, who also served as president of the Westchester Town and City Clerks Association. She called the researcher after she said several other clerks had contacted her about the request. “We deal with FOIL requests all the time, including from the newspapers, and I have never seen this kind of reaction,” she said (personal communication, May 7, 2015). She also noted that municipal clerks in New York were elected, not appointed, officials, and that it was her duty to “represent the people of my community” (personal communication, May 7, 2015). Finally, she said since the term “resident’s location” was open to interpretation, she would provide only ZIP codes. However, she said she would waive the $105 fee that she had planned to charge for the records.

Other negotiations occurred as a result of technological challenges the clerks faced. Some clerks were stymied by limits to the size of files they could attach to emails from their municipal accounts. Others responded that, although the information existed electronically, they were not sure how to export it from the software they used to a shareable file. Other clerks requested extra time because they wanted to redact residents’ addresses, but did not know how to do so within their software. The redaction problem was addressed several ways. Some clerks used markers or white-out to obscure each address manually, sometimes on hundreds of pages. One clerk printed out records and cut off the left side of each page. Another clerk asked the researcher to help with the redactions by cutting strips of paper and taping them over the left side of each page. The records officer then photocopied each page and gave the photocopies to the researcher.

Finally, some negotiations occurred with clerks who responded that the requested records did not exist.

We have reviewed the list of records you are requesting.  In order to supply this information, it would require us to create a record, as none exists with all of the information that you are requesting. Under FOIL, a government entity is not required to create a new record where none exists.

We do not have the ability to generate reports you would need to contact our software company.

The researcher responded to both of the above records officers by saying that she could inspect individual dog license applications. Records officers in both municipalities then responded by providing dog license reports in similar formats that most other municipalities had provided.

RQ3: How do followup interactions shape the outcomes of FOI requests?

When negotiations were involved, followup interactions often yielded better results for the requester. Three clerks who initially charged fees waived them after speaking with the researcher; two other clerks reduced their fees. Two clerks who initially claimed they could not create summary reports of their dog license data later did so.

Followup interactions did not always lead clerks to change their minds. As mentioned earlier, two clerks never completed a response to the FOI request, despite multiple interactions. Also, clerks who said that they would withhold the “resident’s location” portion of the data, or provide only general information such as ZIP codes, generally stuck to those decisions, even after receiving the opinion from the COOG.

In many municipalities, however, it is difficult to know the extent to which followup interactions made a difference. Did reminders about FOIL’s deadlines prompt action, or would the clerks have responded soon anyway? When clerks asked for the purpose of the request, did they find the answer reassuring, or concerning? It was not always clear.


This study in some ways resembles an FOI audit, in which identical requests are sent to multiple agencies across geographies or bureaucracies in order to compare their compliance. Unlike most FOI audits, however, this study also gathered a second type of data: interactions with records officers following submission of the requests.

This data is important, because, as this study suggests, followup interactions often occur. That means, regardless of how carefully FOI requesters choose their words, the decisions of records officers may hinge upon additional, and often impromptu, interactions. For community journalists, each interaction carries risk—because it suggests a tension between the requester and the records officer that needs to be resolved. Those tensions can jeopardize relationships between community journalists and municipal clerks, who are important news sources.

Requester-initiated interactions may include notifications when records officers miss deadlines. While some of the clerks contacted in this study may not have been bothered by the reminders, some likely were. After all, reminders of missed deadlines suggest that records officers are not complying with the law. But requesters may have to initiate interactions that are even more fraught: challenging the decisions of records officers who withhold information. In this study, challenges were made only informally, during negotiations with clerks. However, challenges couldhave been made in other municipalities whose clerks merely supplied incomplete information without explanation. The most common types of data that were missing were dogs’ birth years and sterilization information. Conversations with clerks later revealed that the software most of them used to manage dog license records did not keep these types of data, even though such information is required by state law to be submitted on dog license applications. In the end, only three of the 32 municipalities in this study (9.375 percent) provided all information requested.

Even when requesters do not initiate additional interactions, records officers may. They may notify requesters of additional requirements, ask questions, or attempt to negotiate the type or amount of information disclosed. Those interactions can also be delicate for community journalists to navigate, particularly if they believe that records officers are not adhering to, or misinterpreting, public records laws.

At the heart of these tensions are often competing viewpoints on the relationship between FOI and the best interests of the community. Journalists may see FOI as a tool to explore and make transparent a broad range of community information. While municipal clerks may support transparency as a general principle, they may not always believe complying with FOI laws to be in the best interests of their communities. Requesters who act in bad faith may anger community members. Requesters who file frivolous or complex requests force clerks to take time away from serving their communities in other ways.

These concerns were reflected in the questions and negotiations that emerged in this case study about the reasons for the researcher’s request. FOIL, like many other public records laws, specifies that requesters do not have to provide a reason. At the same time, FOIL also requires that requesters “reasonably describe” the records they want. COOG additionally offers that agencies should follow up with requesters “if the request is too vague to answer” (New York Department of State, n.d.). The more “reasonably” a requester can describe records, the more obvious the purpose for requesting them will be. Records officers in this study often asked the researcher her purpose for requesting the dog license records. The president of the Westchester Town and City Clerks Association said she often asked this question of requesters in order to make sure she was providing the information they actually wanted. Requesters, she explained, do not always understand how information is organized in municipal records—so knowing the purpose can help her locate records more efficiently and help the requester access them more quickly.

However, this may present a dilemma for community journalists. Disclosing a reason may be in their best interests, if it results in faster access to information and continued friendly relations with records officers. However, journalists who disclose their purposes may find records harder to access. If the records reflect poorly upon the government—or even if the perception is that they might—records officers may use their broad powers of interpretation to deny the requests. On the other hand, journalists whose purposes appear unserious risk being labeled “nuisance” requesters. While some records officers may be reassured to know that the records were requested for a lighter human-interest story, others might be frustrated that they had to spend time and effort to fulfill the request.

The Role of Place, Revisited

The expectation that community journalists should act as “friendly neighbors” to sources presents potential challenges in the FOI request process. However, their deep knowledge of their communities may also be a benefit, because they may already have a relationship with their municipal clerk and understand place-specific challenges that may arise when trying to access information through FOI requests.

As Usher (2019) and others have argued, place plays an important role in news production. Place is not only a physical location. Place can also be defined other ways, including “the ways in which journalists, audiences, and institutions interact with their environments,

build routines, and construct cultural meaning”(Usher, p. 91). In this study, place affected the responses of municipal clerks in several ways. First, clerks were wary of the researcher because of their lack of prior interactions with her. Place also played a role in the difficulties some clerks encountered with the software their municipalities had purchased to manage dog license records. At least 20 municipalities used the same program. The clerks had varying levels of familiarity and comfort with the software, which meant that complying with the FOI request was much more difficult and time-consuming for some of them, particularly those who decided to redact some of the data.

Some clerks also mentioned a public records controversy in Westchester County that was still fresh in their memories. In 2012, the Journal Newsnewspaper published a map that displayed the addresses of all gun license holders in the county. The map was based on records acquired through FOIL requests. A public backlash ensued—editors received death threats, and the newspaper later removed the map from its website. The controversy led state lawmakers to pass the SAFE Act, which allowed gun license holders to opt out of public databases. Clerks in Westchester County said the Journal Newsstory had made them more reluctant to release residents’ addresses.

Finally, some place-specific challenges were affected by state regulations. Unlike records officers at the state and federal level, municipal clerks in New York (and in many other states) are elected positions. Therefore, their job security depends on maintaining the support and trust of their residents. The particulars of FOIL also affect municipal clerks by establishing what information may be requested, how soon records officers must respond, and setting other requirements they must follow. Additionally, FOIL specifies that, although COOG may issue opinions in FOI disputes, those opinions are not enforceable.


This study examined the often complicated and delicate interactions that take place between FOI requesters and local records officers—in this case, municipal clerks. Understanding these interactions can be useful to community journalists who wish their FOI requests to be taken seriously without jeopardizing the friendly relationships they wish to maintain with government officials. By anticipating the types of interactions that might follow the submission of requests, as well as the place-specific reasons that records officers may hesitate to comply, community journalists may be able to mitigate concerns while still accessing the information they want.

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Appendix: FOIL Request

Under the New York Freedom of Information Law, N.Y. Pub. Off. Law sec. 84 et seq., I hereby request the following public records:

All dog licensing data in ____________, including but not limited to: dog name, breed, birth year, color, sex, sterilization, vaccinations, and resident’s location.

If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $10.  However, I would also like to request a waiver of all fees in that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of government operations and activities. This information is not being sought for commercial purposes.

In the interest of expediency, and to minimize the research and/or duplication burden on your staff, please send records electronically if possible.

The New York Freedom of Information Law requires a response time of five business days.  If access to the records I am requesting will take longer than this amount of time, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.

If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.

Thank you for considering my request.

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Bringing the Community to Journalism: A Comparative Analysis of Hearken-driven and Traditional News at Four NPR Stations

Mark Poepsel and Jennifer Cox

Hearken is a news engagement organization providing tools to help publications better provide community journalism by soliciting story ideas from citizens and taking them along on the reporting process. Hearken promises different types of stories that engage the community and boost revenues. This study examined all 2017 Hearken content from four U.S. public radio stations and compared it with a matching number of traditional content produced by those stations for a sample of 406 stories. This study revealed significant differences in the types of content produced and number and types of sources used, with Hearken content geared more toward local news on lifestyle/living topics reported using a high frequency of non-official sources. The results of this study show Hearken is fulfilling its community journalism objectives by engaging with citizens and providing valuable information that produces audience engagement.

Contemporary journalism is plagued with issues – falling revenues, online competition, audiences who cannot distinguish real from fake news. As a result, many newsrooms have looked to community journalism practices to engage, serve, and create relationships with audiences in hopes of generating revenue and building loyalty (Monson, 2017). Hearken is a news engagement organization providing tools to help organizations better provide community journalism. The company, comprised primarily of former radio news reporters, promotes a community journalism format that includes polling local citizens about stories they would like to see covered and working to include the individuals who ask questions in the reporting process. The goal is to bridge the role of source and journalist by having citizens question sources and also contribute as quoted sources in the story (How to, 2018). Hearken provides consulting services in order to share best practices learned from its network of providers (Hearken, 2018). In other words, it is more than a polling and engagement tracking platform. Hearken is a community of practice. Additionally, the company offers tools “to collect valuable data, emails and insights,” enabling journalists and news managers to measure impacts and judge the financial value of the “Engagement Management System (EMS)” (Hearken, 2018).

Hearken grows steadily at a time when news organizations are looking to build and track audience engagement. Companies with social media advertising experience have come to expect detailed data feedback on their ad buys, and nonprofit news organizations want to know whom they are reaching and how well they are engaging their audience as proof of performance for supporters (Lesniak, 2017).None of this is to suggest that “news engagement” is new or that Hearken offers a panacea. At heart, it is a straightforward engagement platform backed by consistent consulting help, a routinized approach to reporting the story, and the community of practice (Hearken, 2018).

Hearken aims to provide content that is different from the traditional publication; content that engages audiences and provides them the news they want to know and will tune in to hear. Although this is the organization’s stated mission, no study has determined whether Hearken is succeeding in its efforts to produce community-based content that differs from its traditional counterparts. The purpose of this study is to determine whether the content created using the Hearken model is different from that produced through traditional reporting processes. Researchers examined all Hearken content published in 2017 from four public radio stations  located throughout the country – New Hampshire Public Radio, Chicago Public Radio, Milwaukee Public Radio, and Public Radio for Northern California. The content was compared with a sample of traditional content produced by those same stations to examine differences in story length, topic, geographic region, story type, and the use of sources.

Literature Review

“Engagement” is not a simple term to define in the scholarly sense. Community journalism scholars have been discussing versions of the concept for decades, long before it was a buzzword (Reader & Hatcher, 2012). Suffice it to say, niche newspapers in urban areas, small town newspapers, and local independent online news sites have a deep understanding about how to engage their audiences or they would not be able to survive (Reader & Hatcher, 2012). Lowrey (2012) notes that “neither big-city journalists nor many journalism scholars have tended to take community journalism seriously” (p. 87). One of the questions driving this research is whether Hearken is spreading community journalism practices in a tech-savvy and support-heavy kit. Hearken costs several thousand dollars per year to implement, and it partners with more than 100 newsrooms around the world. A $650,000 round of grant funding awarded in 2018 (shared with related startup GroundSource) from journalism foundations, including the Lenfest Institute and the Knight Foundation, has helped to spread the Hearken gospel farther faster as the funds subsidize licensing costs (Bilton, 2018).

Support for Hearken comes amid efforts to improve journalist-audience relations at a time when it can be argued global liberal democracies need it most (Bilton, 2018). Even skeptical scholars who doubt that an audience engagement platform can help “save democracy” by bringing community journalism practices to major metropolitan and national news organizations might well consider it a meaningful line of inquiry to examine what kind of journalistic outcomes this platform can lead to. Its premise, promised practices and popularity demand study. One needs not be a “true believer” in communitarian journalism to note that a successful journalism services startup in the 2010s warrants attention and that the news stories produced ought to be analyzed, perhaps scrutinized. A reasonable question for community journalism scholars to ask is how much of Hearken’s success might be attributed to its adherence to core concepts and practices identified in this area of journalism scholarship years ago. The best follow-up question might then be: “In what ways does Hearken innovate beyond the tried-and-true?”


Many journalism entrepreneurs attempt to enhance community engagement. Only one has created an audience engagement tool now used in more than 100 newsrooms (Simpson, 2018). Jennifer Brandel’s Hearken is a platform for creating, managing, and measuring engaging news stories. She developed a version of the platform when working for WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, in 2012 (Tornoe, 2016). Brandel is now CEO of Hearken, LLC., which encapsulates consulting services, software access, installation and service, and the administration of a community of practice. Hearken has grown steadily since some of its early highlights wowed trade publications:

At KQED in San Francisco, Brandel says stories produced using Hearken’s platform performed on average 11 times better than stories produced by the station’s normal process (and [users spend] an average of 5.32 minutes engaged with those stories). At Detroit public radio station WDET, Brandel told Fast Company the first story produced by Hearken’s platform broke their site’s former page view record by more than double. And even though just two percent of the stories posted to WBEZ in 2014 were done through Hearken, Brandel says they made up nearly half of the top 50 stories of the year. (Tornoe, 2016)

Hearken defines what it provides newsrooms as follows: “Hearken partners receive expert training, consulting, our custom platform called the Engagement Management System (EMS), data reports and entry to our global community of best practices” (Hearken, 2018). Hearken is a community manager of community managers.

Déjà Vu for Communitarian Journalism?

The concept of engaging audience members in story selection is not new. Rosenberry and St. John (2009) documented more than a decade’s worth of efforts in the public journalism, or communitarian journalism, movement in the 1980s and 1990s to bring local communities into the story selection process either to submit their own content or to contribute story ideas. The following may sound familiar to community journalism scholars:

The world is a fractured place. Community is broken. Journalists are in transition, trying to find their way in dealing with a fragmented society, a diverse audience. Among the experiments journalists and news organizations are undertaking is a re-examination of the traditional ideal of maintaining distance between themselves and the communities they serve. (Hodges, 1996, p. 133)

Black (1996) presents a dozen essays on the communitarian journalism movement and related debate that can be summed up like this: Supporters of the communitarian or public journalism movement believe that social responsibility bordering on community advocacy can coexist in harmony with journalistic independence. Opponents vigorously do not:

Today, the communitarians sounding much like Rousseau, tell us that we need a more responsible media system, in which journalists, as members of the society, are willing to sacrifice their own freedom to the good of the whole…Increasingly, this rhetoric resembles what the old Soviet media managers meant when they talked of freedom of the press. (Merrill, 1996, p. 55)

But even Merrill (1989) recognized it was possible to be too strong an advocate for liberty to the detriment of journalistic responsibility. The question is not if there is a dynamic balance between freedom and responsibility in the journalistic field. The question is: When can a news organization be said to veer too far off in one direction or the other? Might the introduction of a community participation platform push a news organization into a position where it is beholden to its audience rather than responsible to it? Evidence of this might be seen in the sources journalists use in Hearken stories as opposed to “traditional” news pieces.

Journalists may not put up as much of a libertarian fight now as they did when organizations enjoyed strong profit margins. The wall between “church and state” in news organizations is weakening. Coddington (2015) calls it more of a “curtain” (p. 67). The push to enhance community engagement as a means to improve the bottom line by demonstrating good “audience metrics,” may serve as a force to encourage social responsibility journalism. Community engagement is no longer seen as something some newsrooms take seriously while other organizations use it for PR. Being better engaged is a financial necessity, as metrics examine not just what stories get clicks, but which types of news keep people sharing, commenting, and returning.

Trust and the Journalist’s Dialectic

The push with the communitarian journalism movement was to create trust and to reconnect with readers sick of detached, corporate media voices in order to improve the relationship between news organizations and their communities (Rosenberry & St. John, 2009). In its best practice, it was an effort to redefine the role of the news organization in the community to one where journalists opened up to learn what the community wanted to know about while still maintaining the responsibility that comes with journalistic authority. In scholarship the study of communitarian journalism was about conceptualizing a deep change where journalists shed some pretense and acknowledged their humanity—“the more accurate word or the actual human condition is neither dependence nor independence, but interdependence” (Hodges, 1996). This is a way of looking past the liberty versus social responsibility dialectic, which are both elements of the journalist’s agency. Instead, Hodges (1996) defined a sense of mutual dominion between audience members and journalists who allow themselves to be human.

It might seem like a bridge too far bring up the “human condition” in a   manuscript about tools and networks for community journalism, but community journalism scholars do not shy away from the concept. Lauterer (2003) writes:

At their best, community newspapers satisfy a basic human craving that most big dailies can’t touch, no matter how large their budgets—and that is the affirmation of the sense of community, a positive and intimate reflection of the sense of place, a stroke for our us-ness, our extended family-ness and our profound and interlocking connectedness, what Stanford’s Nadine Cruz calls “the big WE.” (p. 14)

Merrill (1996) blanches at the thought of swaying this far to the side of social responsibility, but community journalism scholars note, particularly when thinking of cyberspace communities, that it is interpersonal relationships not geography that make community (Reader & Hatcher, 2012, p. 95). Thus, the researchers looked for elements of humanity and interpersonal connectedness in Hearken story selection. It is important to note that the way Hearken works audience members submit ideas and vote on them, but in most cases journalists still have a say in which questions to select and how to frame the coverage. When multiple people ask the same question, the journalist selects whom to bring into the story. There can be layers of autonomy even in interpersonally connected, more “human” news collaborations.


For Lewis et al. (2014), human interdependence is essential to the nature of the “community” side of community journalism: “Community journalism is thus about connectedness and embeddedness. It articulates and emphasizes the ‘local’ in both geographic and virtual forms of belonging, using its rootedness within a particular community to sustain and encourage forms of ‘human connectivity’ within that environment” (Robinson, 2013, p. 232). An essential role of journalists is to connect people within a geographical or online community in meaningful ways. “Meaningful” is subjective, but for Lewis et al. (2014), the watchword is “reciprocity,” an exchange that is mutually beneficial (p. 229). Journalists are catalysts for meaning making in communities. Perhaps in an era of cable news propaganda the countervailing force is that of reciprocal, human-centered journalism defined not by two aspects of the journalist’s nature but by the mutual dominion of journalist and individual audience member.

The Principles of Community Journalism

On a more pragmatic level, there are core principles of community journalism that may be injected into news processes that should be examined in sourcing and content of Hearken stories as opposed to “traditional” news. Ninety-seven percent of newspapers in the U.S. can be classified as community newspapers, according to Lauterer (2006). Dozens of additional local online news sites dot the country as community journalism goes digital. “Beyond its pervasiveness, scholars are clear about what differentiates community journalism from other types—an intense focus on the local” (St. John III, Johnson, and Nah, 2014, p. 198).

Community newspapers have an historical advocacy bent (Lauterer, 2006; Reader and Hatcher, 2012). Thus, community journalism is geographically ubiquitous, especially if one considers that urban niche news outlets and suburban news websites continue to serve their niches. When this concept of geographical community melds with the interpersonal nature of online community, a host of niche interest sites and email newsletters qualify as community news. This study will look for narrowly-focused coverage, topics of interest that are geographically and culturally bound as they pertain to this brief look at major topic areas in community journalism.

Local NPR

It is particularly important that this study focus on local NPR news. As nonprofit organizations relying on donor support, they are and have been community-oriented for decades. Their reason for existence is to provide socially responsible journalism. The separation of financial concerns and news reporting, to reference the proverbial “church and state” again, breaks down somewhat when the local anchor/announcer is the same one running the pledge drive a few times each year. With relatively small staffs, radio stations in general have served community niches since the rise of popular television (Reader & Hatcher, 2012, p. 35-36).

All radio is community radio, and although not all NPR content is local, of course, the local coverage that one does find can be expected to focus on community if not to advocate the way other community news outlets might. Much community journalism research is newspaper and online news research.  By looking at the web archives of local NPR affiliates, the researchers intended to study reporting from news outlets that did not have so far to go, so to speak, to buy into such a community-oriented product. Should the content differ in NPR coverage between their regular reporting and Hearken stories, it might make the case that Hearken content is even more robustly community focused than one might first imagine.

Research Questions

RQ1: How do news storiesproduced using the Hearken model, which incorporates citizens into the news process, compare with those produced exclusively by newsroom journalists?

RQ2: How do the sourcesused in news stories produced using the Hearken model, which incorporates citizens into the news process, compare with those produced exclusively by newsroom journalists?


Hearken content aired on 38 U.S. radio stations in 2017, ranging from one to a high of 61 news stories. Four stations containing the highest frequency of Hearken stories during 2017 were selected for this study. New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) aired 61 stories; Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) aired 52 stories; Public Radio for Northern California (KQED) aired 48 stories; and Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM) aired 42 stories. All of the stories generated by these stations were used in the study, totaling 203 items.

In order to compare Hearken content to regular news content from those organizations, the researchers created matching samples of regular news for each local affiliate. Here, “matching” means the same number of news stories from the same year, randomly selected, covering local or regional issues. Each station’s website has either a news archive page or a general local news show with its own archive. What gets posted to these archives are stories reported locally by the affiliate and the occasional wire story with a local angle. The researchers determined an archival page range for each station covering January 1, 2017, through December 31, 2017. They counted the total number of stories published to each station’s local news archive in 2017, and then divided that total by the number of news stories needed to match the number of Hearken stories from that particular station. The resulting number provided an ordinal for selection from the sample. For example, NHPR published about 2,400 news stories to its local archive in 2017 (six or seven stories per day). To create a sample of 61 stories, the researchers selected every 39th article, starting with a random story on the January 1, 2017, archival page. The researchers reviewed headlines and bylines to ensure they were analyzing local and regional content by local reporters or the local staff, e.g. stories that appear to be rewrites of wire copy credited to “WBEZ Staff.” Each article was assigned a number pertaining to this study. The final sample contained 203 Hearken items and 203 traditional news items.

Two coders – one of the authors and an undergraduate research assistant – were trained on the variables below using a codebook developed by the researchers. The coders conducted a pilot test using 40 items – about 10% – not included in the study. Coders worked together to get agreement and revised the codebook accordingly. A pre-test and a final reliability test were conducted using about 10% of the sample items selected at random. Simple agreement ranged from 81 to 100% for all variables. For individual variables, Krippendorff’s alpha was used to calculate agreement (Neuendorf, 2002). The coders divided the remainder of the sample evenly for final coding.

The unit of analysis for this study was the radio story. Coders listened to or read a transcript of each story. Variables were developed from previous content analysis research and adapted based on the needs of the study (Cox, 2012). Five key variables were included: geographic focus, item length, story topic, timeliness, and source type. Additional variables, including day of publication, organization name, and reporter gender, were also recorded. Comparisons between Hearken and regular news content were made using chi square for each variable.

Geographic focus. Each story was coded based on its primary area of focus. Options included local, state/regional, national, or international. For example, a story about two U.S. sports teams would be considered “national.” However, if one of those sports teams was based in the same state as the organization, it would be considered a state/regional story. If the sports team was based within the station’s listening area, it would be considered “local.” (Krippendorff’s alpha = .86).

Story topic. Topic was defined using common general news categories based on previous research (Cox, 2012), including disaster/accident/public safety, economy/business, education, entertainment, environment/science/technology, governance, health, law/crime, lifestyle/living, politics, religion, sports, and transportation. Descriptions and methods for identifying topics were adapted from a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2013). (Krippendorff’s alpha = .83).

Timeliness. Items were divided into one of three categories to determine their timeliness: spot news, time peg, and evergreen. Spot news items included unexpected news events deserving immediate coverage, such as random acts of violence or sudden disasters (Shoemaker, 1996). Time peg items were those containing reactions to or previews of news events, such as press conferences or planned activities, or those timed to a specific date or event, such as stories about breast cancer awareness in October. Evergreen items were those without a specific time connection that are on any date, such as business profiles or informational pieces. (Krippendorff’s alpha = .89).

Source type. Coders counted the number of human sources used in each news item. Each source was identified as either an “official” or “non-official” source. Official sources are those with “power” and “authority.” (Bennett, 2013), including elected representatives, organization heads and spokespeople, and law enforcement officers. Non-official sources include those with less access to platforms for making their voices heard, including affected citizens, teachers, witnesses, victims, and suspects. (Krippendorff’s alpha = .83).


Hearken stories were posted most frequently on three days: Thursday (24.6%), Friday (33.5%), and Sunday (19.7%). These three publication days made up 77.8% of all Hearken postings. The traditional stories sampled were divided nearly equally during the Monday-Friday work week, ranging from 15.3% to 23.2%. Very few items in the sample were posted during the weekend (6.4%). More than half of the Hearken stories were published by women (54.7%) and 15.8% were published by men. Almost half of the traditional articles sampled (45.3%) were published by women, and 23.2% were published by men. Coders could not determine the gender of about one-third of both the Hearken (29.6%) and traditional (31.5%) articles.

Geographic Focus

The majority of stories in both Hearken (78.9%) and the traditional story sample (82.8%) were focused on local or state/regional issues. [See Table 1] However, there were significantly more local stories in Hearken content (42.4%) than in the traditional sample (16.3%), χ2(1, n= 406) = 33.39, p< .001. Conversely, the traditional sample contained significantly more state/regional stories (66.5%) than did Hearken (36.5%), χ2(1, n= 406) = 36.69, p< .001.

Table 1: Geographic Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
Local 42.4% 16.3% 33.39***
Regional/state 36.5% 66.5% 36.69***
National 19.2% 14.3% 1.77
International 2.0% 3.0% .41

***p < .001

Story Length

Hearken stories were not widely distributed, as 70.9% ranged from 4:01-5 minutes, whereas stories in the traditional sample were more scattered across the spectrum. [See Table 2] Stories in the traditional sample were both significantly longer and shorter than Hearken stories. Only 0.5% of Hearken stories lasted 0-2 minutes, compared with 13.8% of traditional stories,χ2(1, n= 406) = 27.07, p< .001.  Nearly half of the stories in the traditional sample (46.8%) were longer than 5 minutes, compared with 8.4% of Hearken’s, χ2(1, n= 406) = 75.02, p< .001.

Table 2: Story Length Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
0-1 minute 0.5% 9.9% 18.13***
1:01-2 minutes 0.0% 3.9% 8.16**
2:01-3 minutes 12.3% 12.3% 1.00
3:01-4 minutes 5.9% 9.4% 1.71
4:01-5 minutes 70.9% 11.8% 146.22***
> 5 minutes 8.4% 46.8% 75.02***

Note: Only audio times listed.

**p < .01, ***p < .001

Story Topic

More than one-third of Hearken’s stories (36.5%) were on lifestyle/living topics, while those in the traditional sample spanned a greater range. [See Table 3] The two content types differed significantly on four topics. Stories in the traditional sample contained higher frequencies of law/crime and political stories, making up 28.6% of all content compared with 11.3% of Hearken content, χ2(1, n= 406) = 18.89, p< .001. Conversely, lifestyle/living and transportation stories accounted for 45.8% of the Hearken content and 17.2% of the traditional sample, χ2(1, n= 406) = 38.38, p< .001. Both Hearken and traditional stories covered governance topics relatively frequently. Governance ranked most-frequent among traditional stories (21.2%) and second most-frequent in Hearken stories (14.3%). Other public affairs topics, including economy/business, disaster/accident/public safety, education, and health were featured more frequently in traditional stories, though the differences among the providers were not significant. Notably, neither entertainment nor sports topics were covered frequently in either case.

Table 3: Story Topic Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
Disaster/accident/ public safety 2.5% 3.4% 0.56
Economy/business 4.4% 6.4% 0.77
Education 4.9% 6.9% 0.71
Entertainment 2.5% 2.0% 0.11
Environment/science/ technology 9.9% 8.4% 0.27
Governance 14.3% 21.2% 3.31
Health 3.4% 5.4% 0.93
Law/crime 4.4% 15.3% 13.42***
Lifestyle/living 36.5% 14.8% 25.03***
Politics 6.9% 13.3% 4.56*
Sports 1.0% 0.5% 0.34
Transportation 9.4% 2.5% 8.68**

*p<.05, **p < .01, ***p < .001

Story Type

The content in Hearken and the traditional sample revealed significant differences across all story types. About one-half of traditional stories focused on news items containing a time peg (50.7%) compared with 16.3% of Hearken stories, χ2(1, n= 406) = 54.18, p< .001. About one-third of traditional stories also contained spot news (36.5%), whereas Hearken stories rarely did (3.0%), χ2(1, n= 406) = 71.98, p< .001. Hearken stories primarily focused on evergreen items (80.8%) compared with 12.8% of traditional items, χ2(1, n= 406) = 188.40, p< .001.


Stories in the Hearken sample had a higher average number of sources per story at 2.97 compared with stories in the traditional sample, which averaged 1.81 sources per story. Hearken stories frequently used between 1-4 sources (71.4%), compared with 61.1% of stories in the traditional sample, χ2(1, n= 406) = 4.86, p< .05. [See Table 4] The traditional sample contained a significantly higher number of stories with no sources (30.5%) compared with Hearken stories (7.9), χ2(1, n= 406) = 33.58, p< .001.

Table 4: Sourcing Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
0 sources 7.9% 30.5% 33.58***
1 source 23.6% 27.6% 0.83
2 sources 19.2% 12.8% 3.10
3 sources 14.8% 10.8% 1.41
4 sources 13.8% 9.9% 1.51
5 sources 7.4% 4.4% 1.60
6 sources 6.4% 0.5% 6.51*
7 sources 2.5% 2.71
8 sources 2.0% 0.5% 4.04
9 sources 1.0% 0.5% 0.37
10 or more sources 1.5% 1.5% 1.00

*p<.05, ***p < .001

Stories in the traditional vein contained more official sources; however, there were no significant differences revealed when compared with their Hearken counterparts. [See Table 5] Almost two-thirds of stories in the traditional sample did not contain non-official sources (62.6%) compared with 18.7% of Hearken stories, χ2(1, n= 406) = 80.87, p< .001. Hearken stories contained a higher frequency of non-official sources across the board, and 45.8% of those stories contained 1-2 sources, compared with 26.6% of those in the traditional sample, χ2(1, n= 406) = 16.22, p< .001. Stories in the traditional sample rarely used five or more sources. Notably, when Hearken used more than five sources, they were almost always primarily non-official sources.

Table 5: Official and Non-Official Sourcing Frequency by Content Provider

Number of sources Hearken official Traditional official χ2 Hearken non-official Traditional non-official χ2
0 sources 53.7% 47.8% 1.42 18.7% 62.6% 80.87***
1 sources 29.6% 25.1% 1.00 24.6% 18.7% 2.09
2 sources 9.4% 15.8% 3.79 21.2% 7.9% 14.46***
3 sources 4.4% 5.9% 0.45 14.3% 4.4% 11.61***
4 sources 2.5% 3.9% 0.72 10.3% 3.4% 7.52**
5 or more sources 0.5% 1.5% 1.01 10.8% 3.0% 9.82**

*p<.05, **p < .01, ***p < .001


The results of this study indicate Hearken is meeting its goals of aiding in the production of communitarian journalism. Journalism assists audiences in creating meaning, especially in community settings. However, Hearken’s content goes a step beyond toward reciprocity, encouraging audiences and journalists to assist each other in creating meaning and value. The story types frequented in articles using the Hearken model reflect community issues that affect peoples’ everyday lives, largely because the community is involved in the early reporting stages. Journalists use their gatekeeper role to designate events as “news” based on a number of factors, including their own individual influences, the media routine process, and extramedia and ideological influences (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). Through this process, they can lose touch with issues affecting community members outside the newsroom. Hearken’s model, inviting community members to suggest story ideas and go along on the reporting process, appears to be pushing reporters outside of their traditional boundaries into new types of stories that garner engagement and make an impact. However, this process does not diminish journalistic autonomy as critics of communitarian journalism have suggested (Merrill, 1996). Reporters are still responsible for selecting story ideas, choosing their sources, and producing the story. In fact, reporting different types of stories than they traditionally have may even be improving journalists’ story-telling abilities, as Hearken article regularly used more sources for stories and more non-official sources they may not have connected with otherwise.

This study revealed significant differences in content selection, reporting, and presentation between stories produced using the Hearken model and those produced for the traditional radio news broadcasts. Stories in traditional publications focused more on spot news and time sensitive items affecting their region and state. Those stories frequently covered topics associated with those time pegs, including law/crime, political stories, and governance, that do not always impact people directly but have larger implications for society. Examples of these were revealed across the publications, such an article broadcast on WBEZ in Chicago, titled “Former Congressman Schock asks court to toss corruption case” (Tarm, 2017), and another from WUWM in Milwaukee titled “Trump administration’s DACA decision will affect Wisconsin students” (Morello, 2017).

Hearken stories provided a different look at communities, focusing more on evergreen content that affects listeners’ daily lives, including a large number of lifestyle/living topics. Coders noted trends emerging among Hearken stories, with many focusing on topics people are often curious about, such as food, local history, and geography. Participants in stories wanted to find ways to represent their communities, often asking versions of the question: “What makes our town unique?” One example of this is a Hearken story from NHPR on one local town, which simply asks “What does Northwood N.H. have to do with Thanksgiving?” (Gutierrez & Prescott, 2017). Transportation topics, such as traffic, public transit, and parking, were also popular among Hearken stories. This is not surprising, as these issues are major sources of stress and consume people’s time, especially those living in larger cities, such as ones included in the study (Texas A&M Transportation Institute, 2015). For example, a Hearken story from KQED in Northern California addresses whether it is legal to park on the street after a street sweeper has passed (Nelson, 2017), which could be helpful information for residents in that area.

Hearken stories appeared to have similar rhythm across publications. News stories in the traditional sample ranged across the spectrum in length, from short snippets lasting fewer than 1 minute to pieces airing well-beyond 5 minutes. However, the majority of Hearken stories across all publications fell into a very specific time range, with more than 70% lasting exactly 4:01-5 minutes. Coders noted a formulaic style in many Hearken pieces – a community member submits a question, a reporter visits appropriate sources to answer it, and, often, the reporter follows up with the question-asker to make sure he/she is satisfied with the answer.

Hearken represents itself as a platform for community journalism, and both the format of its stories and use of non-official sources lends credence to that claim. Story ideas always originate from community members. When possible, reporters include question-askers in the story, bringing them in as a non-official, quoted source and taking them along on the reporting process. However, listeners do not always want to get involved with the process, and, in those cases, their question is read and reported by the journalist, which explains why 18.7% of Hearken stories have no non-official sources. While Hearken stories did use official sources in answering questions, they also often used significantly more non-official sources in their reporting, widening the scope of journalism beyond legislators, officers, and organizational representatives. Their stories often included experts, who could represent information without agenda rather than speaking in an official capacity on behalf of an organization or issue. They also spoke to unofficial local leaders and people impacted by the news, again putting the focus on the community and its people rather than larger regional and state policies.

This community service style of reporting differs from traditional reporting, which is often reactionary (Gans, 1998). A majority of stories in the traditional sample (58.1%) had no sources or only one source, and they contained more spot news and time sensitive items. Coders noted many of these were stories cultivated from press releases or wire services, where little original reporting was conducted. These briefs typically had little to do with the community served by the radio station.

The content produced using Hearken’s community journalism approach revealed differences from traditional content that appear to be in line with the organization’s primary goal: “To meaningfully engage the public as a story develops from pitch through publication” by cultivating “deep audience engagement” (Hearken, 2018). Their work to get citizens involved in the journalism process aims at creating more community stories and fewer statehouse policy stories. The organization also tries to transform listeners from passive news recipients to active information seekers, getting them civically engaged, which can lead to community improvement (Adler & Goggin, 2005). These efforts reflect the qualities of community journalism, which Lauterer (2006) defined aspublications that serve and have an impact on their communities. This study revealed much of Hearken’s content aligns with producers’ desires to perform community journalism and get listeners civically engaged through their emphasis on local content aimed at addressing issues that are important to listeners in that area.

Hearken’s promotional pitch to newsroom partners extends beyond producing better citizens through community journalism. On its website, Hearken (2018) also promises high-performing content, valuable audience data, and new revenue streams. CEO Jennifer Brandel reported Hearken content on WBEZ comprised only 2% of the network’s total stories but accounted for about 50% of the top stories in 2017 (personal communication, December 15, 2017). Lauterer (2006) also argued community journalism is not just altruistic; it’s profitable, because it includes stories people care about and want to consume.

A deeper analysis of the popularity of Hearken’s stories compared with others is needed to determine whether the organization is meeting its goals promised to partners. Evergreen stories, such as many of those produced by Hearken, tend to have longer lifespans, attracting audiences long after the initial publication date (Kirkland, 2014). A longitudinal study could be used to track both the immediate popularity of articles, as well as their continued success over time.

Both Hearken and traditional stories frequently published items on governance topics. The coders noted anecdotal differences in tone among the stories. Those in traditional publications focused more on broader governance issues, including city, state, and national lawmakers and policies. Hearken stories often reflected questions about how government works and both its daily and historical impacts on the community. Future qualitative research could analyze these stories and provide a more nuanced look at the differences between Hearken and traditional items. Similarly, greater examination into source types – beyond “official” and “non-official” – could provide insight into the different processes used in traditional versus Hearken reporting.

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Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Weekly Newspapering: How Small-Town News Workers Decide What is News

Christina C. Smith

U.S. print newspapers are more than two decades into the emergent media era, and they continue to struggle with circulation and advertising revenue declines. However, print weekly newspapers across the United States have consistently remained viable to their communities. Drawing on newsroom observations and interviews with journalists, this study opens the door for more contemporary understanding of one of media’s most understudied topics by examining how news gets produced in small, rural U.S. communities – a news segment that has largely been sheltered from the declines experienced by their larger brethren. This study, which applies the theoretical frameworks of community journalism and sociology of news to the production of three small, rural U.S. weekly newspapers and their journalists, details how news produced in small communities is influenced by internal and external constraints. Simply put, small-town news is a social phenomenon. At a time in which community newspapers, including the weekly print press, remain the go-to media choice for local news – indicating high levels of trust from readers – and the larger daily newspapers continue to face accusations of intentionally producing misinformation as well as deal with continuous annual declines in circulation and advertising revenues, this researcher posits that maybe other types of journalisms can draw upon, and benefit from, the practices, strategies, and norms employed in small-town weekly newspapering production.

U.S. print newspapers are more than two decades into the emergent media era, and they continue to struggle. In its study on U.S. newspapers that was reported in June 2018, the Pew Research Center found newspaper circulations and advertising revenue have continued to decline for most of the industry.

But despite the ongoing turmoil that characterizes the contemporary U.S. print newspaper industry, print community newspapers across the United States have consistently remained viable and relatively stable (Knolle, 2016; Gallagher, 2017 Radcliffe & Ali, 2017; Still Kicking, 2018) in the digital age. Additional non-academic investigation has suggested the news community newspapers produce still matters and is significant to people in the communities they serve (Dalton, 2017; Masters, 2017). Most recently, community newspapers received recognition for their viability when Art Cullen, co-owner of the Iowa weekly newspaper The Storm Lake Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in which he challenged the corporate agricultural industry (Pulitzer, 2017).

In general, community newspapers in the United States continually remain an under-investigated segment of the media industry (Lowrey et al., 2008; Hatcher & Reader, 2012; Radcliffe & Ali, 2017). The above descriptive findings show print community newspapers are still important, even in a technologically transformed media era. Yet despite the importance of community newspapers as highlighted above, few contemporary scholars have provided theoretical and conceptual insight into how news gets produced by weekly newspapers in small, rural communities in the United States.

Under the community journalism and sociology of news theoretical frameworks, and drawing on newsroom observations and interviews with rural journalists, this study aims to examine the key practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers at three small-town weekly newspapers. Ultimately, the purpose of this study is to serve as a contemporary exemplar for how external and internal influences affect how news gets produced in small, rural U.S. communities.

Contextual Framework

Community Journalism

The term ‘community journalism’ was coined in 1961 by Kenneth Byerly, a former newspaper editor (Lauterer, 2006). The concept is a bit ambiguous, and is often considered the work of weekly newspapers, small dailies, and sometimes the alternative press (Byerly, 1961). But Hatcher and Reader (2012) have contended that community journalism extends beyond geography and circulation sizes, arguing that community journalism also includes the press that helps connect people who share similar interests and cultures.

In the United States, print journalism began with pamphlets, most of which were religious and political in nature, distributed during the colonial era. However, as settlers began to head west, so too did printers and writers. The frontier press was born out of necessity for small towns in the West (Karolevitz, 1985). This type of newspaper was different than the newspapers produced in larger cities like New York and Philadelphia. The function of the frontier press was primarily boosterism – promotion of the small town. Western newspapers would print multiple-page broadsheets that promoted their towns to attract new residents. The content of this type of news was local, showing that the town was vibrant, but the ads were specific to the metropolitan cities back East where the newspapers were distributed. Eventually, as settlers and modes of transportation moved west, the need for the frontier press diminished. However, the small-town newspaper’s purpose of boosterism never died.

According to Karolevitz (1985), it was in the late 1860s that a distinction was established between two types of newspapers – weeklies and those serving larger audiences. Owners and publishers of weekly newspapers established The Weekly Newspaper Association, quickly followed by the formation of The National Press Association by the owners of large daily newspapers. The creation of these two news organizations created a division between types of journalism (Karolevitz, 1985) that have grown wider over the past 155 years.

The scholarly literature on community journalism, specifically the small-town weekly newspaper, is limited compared to scholarship that focuses on larger daily newspapers. Foundational understanding of community journalism falls upon the works of Byerly (1961), Kennedy (1974), Lauterer (2006), and most recently, Reader and Hatcher (2011). Over the years, scholarly literature on community newspapers has emerged and provided conceptual understanding of community newspapers and their functions within their communities, including creating a sense of social cohesion for local people (Janowitz, 1952; Yomamoto, 2011), helping a person integrate into a community (Ball-Rokeach, Kim, & Mattei, 2001), and to serve as a communication system among community members (Edelstein and Larsen, 1960).

In their research on the role of the local press, Stamm (1985) and Robinson (2013) found that the newspaper creates a sense of connectedness to a community. Stamm also has suggested a person’s community civic involvement is influenced by his or her use of local media. Furthermore, Anderson (1991) has contended newspapers help create a sense of community for people simply by knowing everyone is reading about the same thing. Wotanis (2012) showed in her study on a newspaper moving its newsroom out of town that the weekly newspaper creates not only a sense of community, but it creates a sense of place for the audience.

Several scholars also have argued local community newspapers’ simply hold different functions than their larger brethren in big cities (Schramm & Ludwig, 1951; Olien, Donohue, & Tichenor, 1968; Emke, 2001). Normative theory posits that a newspaper’s primary function is to serve as a watchdog for the public in a democratic society (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001; Bender, Davenport, Drager & Fedler, 2016), and it does this by adhering to rules such as remaining free of conflicts of interests with sources and organizational economic needs (Wasserman, 2010), as well as being objective and independent (Ward, 2010).

But research on the role of the local newspaper has shown that community newspapers are different, primarily serving as advertising platforms for local businesses and providers of information about the local people, places, and events (Abbott & Niebauer, 2000; Emke, 2001). Abbott and Niebauer also have suggested local newspapers tend to mirror their communities rather than criticize them. Furthermore, Emke (2001), has suggested the primary role of the community newspaper is to create a sense of unity. But there are scholars who have contended the functions of the local press extend beyond advertising and unifying. Hindman and Beam (2014) have argued that another role of the local press – which is often neglected due to resource constraints, but vital to civic engagement in communities – is to provide conflict-oriented public affairs information. Donohue, Tichenor, and Olien (1980) have also theorized another function of the community newspaper, and that is it serves as a “guard dog” when community members disrupt the community balance.

Despite being an ambiguous term at times, scholars have routinely recognized that the ultimate difference between community newspapers and larger daily newspapers is the nearness they have with their audiences. Byerly, Robinson (2013), and Hatcher (2014) have argued that community journalism is about its connectedness with the audiences it serves. Lauterer has even coined community journalism as the “personal approach” because of the nearness the journalists and news organizations have with their communities.

In trying to solve the problems faced by larger daily newspapers in the digital age, scholars have suggested that larger newspapers turn to the journalistic practices of community papers. Altschull (1996) argued that larger newspapers are undergoing a crisis of conscience and can learn from the community journalism’s approach. Terry (2011) has argued that it is because community journalists do not embrace long-standing journalistic norms such remaining objective and detached that they have remained viable to their communities in the emergent media era. Meyrowitz (1995) dubbed the concept “local journalistic logic” in his research on the community press. Simply put, Meyrowitz contended that community journalists are close enough to their audiences that they know what readers want and are not afraid of seeking local leaders’ and readers’ input on news coverage – an argument recently supported by Kirch (2016) in his study on community newspapers and their willingness to cover third-party candidates more than other media segments. Terry has also gone so far as to suggest the community journalism approach is the future of journalism: To survive, he says, larger media must learn to be fully engaged – living, working and actively participating in the community they serve.

However, other scholars have argued the small-town newspapering approach to journalism does operate within constraints, notably those is community structure. Scholars have paid particular attention to the effects of community pluralism – the degree to which a community is diverse in demographics, ideas, and beliefs – on news content and news production (Berkowitz & TerKeurst, 1999; Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1997; Hindman, 1996). It might be argued that journalists working in a small and relatively homogeneous community are more influenced by its structure than are their counterparts at larger newspapers both because individual community journalists produce a greater volume of local content and because they are themselves local residents (Howe, 2009). Both factors ultimately might influence what does and does not get reported and published.

In general, community newspapers, specifically small, weekly newspapers, are an understudied field of the media industry, and scholars have argued they deserve more study (Emke, 2001; Lowrey, Brozana, & Mackay, 2008; Hatcher & Reader, 2012; Radcliff & Ali, 2017). At a time in which descriptive data show, and are highlighted above, local community newspapers are remaining important to the communities they serve despite a chaotic media landscape, and this researcher contends it is crucial to contemporarily theorize the practices, strategies, and norms employed by these media in order to further understand the news produced in small, rural communities – a segment of the media industry that seems to be surviving, some cases thriving, in the digital era.

Sociology of News

In an attempt to understand community newspapers and their news, this research draws from the sociology of news interpretive lens, which assumes that news is socially constructed (Roshco, 1975) – meaning external and internal forces influence news and how it gets presented. This approach, which began to emerge in journalism studies in the 1970s with the work of trained sociologists with an interest in news, focuses on how news is constrained by journalistic routines (Tuchman, 1978/1997; Fishman, 1980), relationships with sources (Sigal, 1973; Gans, 1979; Berkowitz, 2009; Schudson,1989; Berkowitz and Beach, 1993), expectations of the news profession (Breed, 1955; Ryfe, 2012), organizational bureaucracies (Epstein, 1973), and newsroom interactions (Tunstall, 1971).

While the pool of scholarship aimed at understanding news and news production is rather large, this research is heavily guided by Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) “Hierarchy of Influences” model in order to understand the forces that shape small-town weekly newspaper news content. Shoemaker and Reese have contended that news is influenced on four levels — personal views and roles of journalists, newsroom routines, media organizations, external pressures, and media ideology.

While this researcher recognizes Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) levels of analysis of external pressures, media ideology, and individual, the researcher believes examining these levels is out of the scope of this particular research. Instead, this researcher has chosen to focus primarily on the levels of analysis of organization and routines in Shoemaker and Reese’s model in order to better understand the factors that might affect small-town news content and the decision-making of news workers.

The Organization as Level of Analysis. The organization as a level of analysis, according to Shoemaker and Reese (2014), stresses that media content is produced in an organizational and bureaucratic setting. In order to understand how news is made, Schudson (1989) has argued that it is important to understand the social environment – the bureaucratic process of the news organization – in which it is produced. This level of analysis focuses primarily on the effects of ownership, economics, advertising, and organizational policies on news production.

Research has shown that the economic goals and requirements – maintaining audiences, building advertising revenues, following government restrictions, and staying within financial budgets – of a media organization affect news content (Epstein, 1973; Tunstall, 1971; Eliasoph, 1997; Bagdikian, 2004; Soley and Craig, 1992; Craig, 2004; Eckman and Lindlof, 2003). Type of media ownership has also been found to have an effect on news content (Roach, 1979; Lacy, 1991; Dunaway, 2008; Shoemaker and Reese, 2014).

Another influence explored within the organizational level of analysis is organizational policy. Sociologist Warren Breed (1955), in his classic study on news making, revealed that publishers and media organizations enforce rules, or policies as he calls them, of journalism. The rules, according to Breed, are learned through a socialization process, including watching what other journalists do or do not do.

Routines as Levels of Analysis. Under Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) model, routines as a level of analysis explore how news workers do their jobs. A considerable amount of scholarship has revealed the routine practices of journalists and media organizations (Tuchman, 1978/1997). In his ethnographic study of reporters, Fishman (1980) revealed that “the beat” provides guidance for journalists so that they know where to go and whom to see. Relying on sources is also a routine practice for journalists. Research has shown that the relationship between source and journalist is central to the production of media content (Sigal, 1973; Berkowitz, 2009; Schudson, 1989; Berkowitz and Beach, 1993).

Research Questions

While the literature detailed above on community journalism and sociology of news is far from exhaustive, the researcher feels the works are useful to readers as they explore the research presented in this study, which is intended to serve as a contemporary exemplar for understanding the production of news for small-town weekly newspaper news workers. Specifically, this research aims to answer the following research questions:

RQ1: What are the key practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers at small-town weekly newspapers?

RQ2: How do the levels of influences outlined in the literature affect these news   production practices, strategies, and norms for news workers at small-town weekly newspapers?


This study, under the community journalism and sociology of news conceptual frameworks, and through the analysis of newsroom observations and interviews with news workers, aims to understand how external and internal influences affect how journalists do their jobs. For this study, the researcher observed the newsrooms and interviewed the news workers of three weekly newspapers in rural communities in southeast Iowa between December 2014 and January 2015. All staff members – a total of 19 – were interviewed because newspapers in small towns have few staff and often the editorial and the advertising departments overlap – meaning duties may be interchangeable. To protect their confidentiality, as well as the identity of the newspapers, pseudonyms, which are detailed in Appendix A, have been assigned to each news worker and newspaper.

To understand news decisions that people make in weekly newspaper newsrooms, the researcher used ethnographic methods that enable discovery of the perspectives of research subjects. Singer (2009) has argued that interviews and observations provide insight into the human element of news making. For this study, the researcher defined small-town weekly newspaper as a newspaper with a circulation of less than 5,000 published once a week in a town of fewer than 3,500 residents. The researcher selected as field research sites three small-town weekly newspapers to observe news production strategies and to interview news workers. These particular newspapers were selected as part of a larger research project, and they were accessible to the researcher on a daily basis.

All three newspapers have a different organizational structure, which created the potential for comparative analysis. For each newspaper site, the researcher observed two news cycles, equating to a total of six weeks of newsroom observations. In addition to observing the sites, the researcher conducted in-depth interviews with publishers, editors, reporters, photographers, and advertising representatives in order to understand news production in the community. Interviews were digitally recorded, and the researcher adhered to local Institutional Review Board guidelines.

The interview data and observation field notes were analyzed through the use of textual analysis, an inductive process of reading and re-reading and conducting line-by-line coding that is considered appropriate for qualitative data analysis (Strauss andCorbin, 1990). Guided by the community journalism and sociology of news literature, and as anticipated, thematic categories and patterns emerged from the data and provided meaningful insight about news workers and their news-making strategies.


As previous research has shown (White, 1949; Gans, 1979; Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1987; Heider, 2000), news workers’ news production practices, strategies, and norms are a social construction. Interviews with and observations of weekly news workers in this study indicated that news in small towns is also a social construction, and it is constrained by organizational structure and routine practices of journalists. These constraints affect how news workers decide what is news, whom they use as sources, how many stories they write, the rhythm of the work day and week, how many pages are in the upcoming week’s edition, what and how many special sections are produced each year, and the overall morale of the newsroom.

Organizational structure – Ownership

Previous literature (Roach, 1979; Lacy, 1991; Dunaway, 2008; Shoemaker and Reese, 2014) has contended that different types of ownership might have different end goals. This study encompassed newsroom observation and interviews with news workers at two independently owned newspapers (The Times and The Herald) and a corporately owned newspaper (The Bugle). The findings reveal that ownership structure does influence the production practices, strategies, and norms for news workers at small-town weekly newspapers.

News workers said it is important for the newspaper to have local ownership or at least some form of local management. The local connection, they said, helps build support for the newspaper in the community. “I wished it still was locally owned. Everyone knew (previous owner), and that made everyone want to support him,” said Carrie at The Bugle. “I think it brought readership in because he was local and everyone knew him. I think we would still have a printing press. More people would be employed, but times have changed.”

Susan at The Times said local ownership builds trust between the newspaper and its readers. “They trust (owner) because he grew up here. He’s a local boy. He’s full of integrity, and he’s fiercely loyal to his employees,” she said. And for Randel, news editor at The Herald, the goals of a locally owned weekly newspaper are different from the goals of newspapers owned by larger corporations. “Weeklies are surviving because they are focused and they focus on their communities. The larger media, it’s about greed,” he said.

The findings indicate ownership structure also plays a significant role in how the news workers perceive the company’s interest in the community. For the news workers at The Times and The Herald, having a local owner means the paper will produce relevant news content for its audience. Their perceptions are supported through the interviews with the local owners, who talked about their readers as friends and neighbors. These local owners said they feel they are as much a part of the community as they are recorders of what happens in the community. And it is that connectedness to their communities that seems to motivate them, according to the findings, which supports previous arguments made by Kennedy (1974) and Robinson (2013). One of the co-owners of The Herald said the readers are what have kept her holding on to the paper for more than a decade. She said she thought about selling the paper years ago because of personal reasons, but decided not to sell because she said the community needed the local paper. “We’ve had some pretty trying years … but the community heard and told us not to sell. The community becomes your family, and I felt like if I left, I’d be hurting my family,” she said.

The observations and interviews at The Bugle indicated that the change in ownership in 2001 and a consolidation process in 2009 impacted the news workers’ perceptions of their jobs. The news workers said they and their newspaper face constant uncertainty. Since ownership changed at the newspaper, the staff has been reduced dramatically – from 40 to six. In the fall of 2014, the owner eliminated the pagination and layout design duties for the staff at The Bugle and transferred those duties to a central design studio in a different city. The news workers said they were told the transfer of duties was to help free up their time so that they could produce more local content. That, they said, had not been the case.

On Mondays, the local news workers at The Bugle, instead of writing stories, have had to watch the page layout process unfold on their computer screens in real time. They have to watch, they said, because the designers are technically talented but do not have an understanding of what is news to the local community. “Some weeks we’ve had really good-looking pages, but other times we would have liked them to be different,” said Derrick at The Bugle. “We watch to make sure the names are spelled correctly, which is one of our keys here.” Sandra at The Bugle explained that small details are important to small communities. For example, she said she was frustrated that not all of the obituary photos on the Family News pages were the same size. In small towns, she said, different sized photos have negative implications for how the community feels about the newspaper’s desire to be fair to all community members.

The changes, the news workers at The Bugle said, have affected their relationships with the owner and management. “There’s no social cohesion here right now. We all just come in and do our jobs and go home. There’s no camaraderie,” said Carrie of The Bugle. Sandra at The Bugle added:

The morale, it sucks. We’re losing our employees. . . . It’s not good. And the public knows because we don’t have the staff, we don’t have the coverage we’ve had in the past. Last month, subscriptions and payments began to be processed out of the area and people now send their checks to some place out of the state. It’s not a happy place to be right now.

Sandra at The Bugle said it became apparent to her the external outside management does not seem to understand the workflow of the weekly newspaper when they sent the entire staff to another city to learn the new computer system the week before Christmas – a time when there is limited staff and hours to produce the newspaper. “That was planned by someone who doesn’t understand weekly newspapers, I’m guessing,” she said.


“How many pages are we going to have this week?” asked Randel at The Herald during a weekly editorial meeting. “It depends on the ads,” responded Kristen.

This interaction was the repeated opening line for the two weekly newspaper-planning meetings observed by the researcher at The Herald. While the other two newspapers did not have the same vocal exchange, the observations from this study suggested that the number of pages typically is determined by the volume of advertising and legal notices, thus affecting the space available for news each week.

The findings reveal that advertising and editorial content go hand-in-hand in weekly newspapering. The number of ads dictates page numbers for each edition, but the editorial content has implications for advertising. This was evident when Ellen at The Bugle talked about how the newspaper’s coverage of certain topics can and does offend some community members, particularly business owners, which leads to those community members choosing to not advertise with the newspaper. “Editorial content affects everything. There’s a lot of sensitivity in a small town, and it all comes back to advertising. When we had the official embezzle money, we have to tell that story, but then there is the other group like her family and friends. It’s a fine line between advertising and editorial content that can get pretty tough,” she said.

Weekly publishers were divided on the extent to which advertising revenue in small communities supports weekly newspapers. “Advertising is still good, but not as good as it used to be. Legals are still strong. Classifieds are still healthy in a county seat town. Craigslist hasn’t killed us,” said Dan at The Times. But Kristen at The Herald had a different opinion. “Advertising in a small community with a small business base, it’s not enough advertising to keep this business going. The big businesses have all cut way back on print advertising, so we are having to find unique ways to get that money,” she said. Advertising, Ellen at The Bugle said, is a challenge because small towns aren’t growing. “It’s tough. Businesses aren’t starting up all the time here. We might get one to two businesses a year, but in (a larger city), there’s a new one every day.”

Most of the news workers at The Times and The Herald contribute to finding and getting advertisements – for them, it is not an issue of following the long-standing journalistic norms of not blurring editorial and business needs and avoiding having conflicts of interests with sources or organizational economic needs, it is simply part of their job as community journalists. While producing the winter sports preview tab, James at The Times was not only in charge of writing the news stories and taking the photographs, he was also in charge of the advertisements for the entire special section.

At The Herald, it is not uncommon to hear the news workers talk about asking sources to buy advertisements while interviewing them for stories, especially stories created for special sections. Kristen at The Herald said the practice is good business sense because the journalist who knows a business owner is in the best position to ask for advertising support.

These results suggest that although advertising in smaller communities seems to be getting tougher, news workers believed small towns want to support their local newspapers. “They want the paper to continue, and they know that for that to happen they have to do business with us,” said Ellen at The Bugle, adding, “We really need to cut back on special sections. We did have a couple of years ago one (special section) every week. (Owner) doesn’t understand. They fill special section with canned copy. We can’t do that here. It has to be local copy for it to sell.” The special sections, which are considered moneymakers for all three weekly newspapers, do take their toll on news content, said Sandra at The Bugle. “Special sections are important. They make money, but it’s additional work for the writers,” she said.

Organizational policy

Each of these three small-town weekly newspapers have organizational policies and rules. Analysis of the data yielded three consistent themes related to organizational policies and rules. The first is deadlines. Weekly newspapers are published once a week. And while deadlines are important for most media, they are vital to small-town weeklies because these news outlets get one shot a week at producing a print product. At the newspapers in this study, the news workers all depend on each other to adhere to the deadlines because there is no one else in the newsroom who can report on the story and write about it. Furthermore, there is little hyperlocal wire copy to fall back on when there are news holes.

The second consistent policy is about not taking unnecessary time off from work. When one news worker at a small-town paper is absent from work, it can create an enormous amount of chaos and work for the other news workers. News workers at The Times joked about missing work on page layout days. “No one can die on Tuesdays,” said Leya. Weekly newspapers also have an unwritten rule when it comes to taking time off – news workers must do their work before they leave for the time off. As Ellen at The Bugle prepared to be absent from the job for six weeks for a medical procedure, she detailed the work she had done in preparation for her absence: “I planned ahead. I looked at last year’s papers and called the customers to tell them I was going to be gone and did as much ahead stuff as possible,” she said.

Finally, the third consistent policy is that news workers at small-town newspapers must know how to manage time well without being micromanaged. The weekly newspaper journalists said they have learned how to do their jobs without hands-on editing and instruction from a line of editors and/or the publisher. The publishers and staffers said none of the news workers are micromanaged. For Dan, the publisher of The Times, micromanaging is “counterproductive.” “We have the right people, so I just let them do it,” he said.

The Herald is the only newspaper of the three weeklies that holds regular editorial meetings. However, the meetings seem to be less about managing and more about planning. The publisher of The Herald does not give instructions of how to do stories or what sources to talk to. Nor does she critique staffers’ work. Instead, meetings seem to be an opportunity to discuss what is happening in the community and to build camaraderie.


The newsgathering practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers in small-town weekly newspapers are highly routinized. Routine practices of news workers, according to the literature, enable journalists to deal with the unexpected (Tuchman, 1978, 1997). The findings in this study suggest journalistic routines might be even more influential on weekly newspaper journalists than for journalists in bigger cities because small-town weekly newspapers do not have the resources that larger daily newspapers often have, including a diverse readership and source pool, staff members, advertising opportunities, and money. Therefore, having set routines for each weekly newspaper news worker, and everyone knowing those routines, is vital to the production of the news in small towns.

Observations and interviews with news workers reveal a predictable rhythm of the journalists’ typical news week. The observations and interviews also reveal the similarity of the workdays and workweeks for the news workers, despite working and living in entirely different communities.  The following is a typical observed workweek routine for most of the news workers at the three different newspapers:

  • Monday: Finishing writing stories for the week’s paper and attending possible night city council meeting.
  • Tuesday: Layout day, which means placing ads and content on the pages.
  • Wednesday: Paper is published; catching up on stories from the previous week; writing Monday’s meeting story if need be; and attending possible night meeting.
  • Thursday: Trying to spend time out of the office; conducting interviews; working on features; possibly attending government meeting in the evening.
  • Friday: Preparing for the weekend and working on news stories.
  • Weekend: Attending community events if necessary for content, particularly for photos, in following week’s newspaper.

Many of the news stories published in small-town weekly newspapers also are predictable. For example, all of the newspapers annually featured, or have featured in the past, special sections and/or special pages – commonly referred to as “tabs.” Examples of topics include women in business; agricultural updates; salutes to local volunteers, doctors, farmers, cheer and dance squads; sports previews; a summer youth baseball page; home improvements; and fair results. These “tabs” tend to be published about the same time every year.

The findings show that these special sections, when built with completely local content, are a revenue source for the weekly newspapers. The local content is vital to attract local advertisers, said Ellen at The Bugle. “(Owner) doesn’t understand. They fill special section with canned copy. Oh lord, that doesn’t fly here.” Randel at The Herald talked during the 2015 yearly editorial planning meeting about how important the Little League summer tab is to the community. “It sells newspapers,” he reminded the rest of the staff.

The findings also suggest beat reporting is crucial to the production of news in small towns. As mentioned previously, staff resources are limited, so beat reporting becomes a guide for journalists in where to go and whom to see. The news workers for the three newspapers in this study all cover specific beats, particularly government beats. It is through these designated beats that the journalists, as Tuchman (1978) contended, know where to be, when to be there, and whom to talk to for specific information.

Tuchman (1978) also has contended that journalists typify news stories to help them understand how to gather news information for their stories. The findings of this study suggest Tuchman’s notion of typifications are useful to the production of news in small towns for news workers primarily because they are pressed for time. For instance, small-town news workers realize there are different kinds of news stories and they generally typify government and crime stories, as well as sports stories. By knowing what kind of stories they are working on – typifying – the news workers know what steps to take to complete their work. For example, the news workers all thought government and major crime stories need to be placed on the front pages of the newspaper and need to be written in time for the next edition if possible because they considered these stories “hard news.”

On the other hand, the news workers deemed “soft news” as not as urgent and were not in a rush to finish those stories or get them in the newspaper. By typifying news stories, the news workers also understood how to report on the stories. They knew to call ahead of meetings to find out what was expected to take place at the meeting and they knew whom to call the morning after the meeting for clarification and verification.

Time and Staffing

The findings suggest that routine news and news gathering practices, strategies, and norms are vital to the weekly newspaper for two main reasons that go hand-in-hand: limited staffs and limited time. The Times has six staff members, including four reporters; The Herald has six staff members, including three reporters and The Bugle has six staff members, including three editors who double as reporters.The Times andThe Bugle have a full-time sports editor. The Herald, on the hand, relies on all three of its local reporters to cover the sporting events. News workers said they feared the communities would not be adequately served if they lost staff members because staffs are already stretched very thinly, even too thinly.

But the findings also reveal that the small staffs try to do the best they can with the resources they have. The news workers for this study repeatedly said they work between 40 and 60 hours a week. To get the news, Derrick at The Bugle said the staff makes adjustments. “If we can’t make meetings, we will leave a tape recorder. And sometime we just have to make phone calls after the fact. It’s not ideal, but it’s a necessity with our staff and making the best use of our time,” he said. And for James at The Times, being busy is just part of being a community journalist; he described a night of covering sports in which he traveled back and forth between two communities to get photos from four different games.

The once-a-week publishing day can also be a constraint on newsgathering practices for weekly newspaper journalists. For example, the staffs in the three communities attend nightly meetings on Monday nights. While they recognized the journalistic news value of timeliness, they noted that it is very difficult to turn a story around before publication day on Tuesday or Wednesday because by the time the meetings are over, the content deadline has passed. While balancing their duties as reporters, most of them also are responsible for page layouts and proofing of the pages. In addition, most events in small communities that create visuals for the paper occur on weekends. In addition to issues of timeliness, this creates workload issues for staffers, who also are responsible for handling the photos, including cropping them and writing captions.

But the findings also indicate that the small-town news workers understand the importance of often working long days Mondays through Fridays and attending weekend events in the community. They feel it is important to report on news in the community. And while they openly talked about missing being home with families, they also said doing those things are just part of the job.

Loyalty to the newspaper

As it turns out, most small-town newspaper news workers in this study are not drive-by journalists, meaning they are not at the newspaper to simply collect clips for their journalistic portfolios. In fact, most of the news workers interviewed for this study are veteran employees at their newspapers. For instance, Dan at The Times has been working in the weekly newspaper industry since 1977. Jane atThe Times has been a reporter in the same community for 34 years. At The Herald, Elizabeth has been a journalist for weeklies since the 1970s, and Kristen has been working at the same newspaper for 19 years. And at The Bugle, Brian has been covering sports on and off in the community for 40 years, while Sandra has been in her position for 27 years. The other news workers ranged in employment from three to 10 years at the newspaper, and they all said they expected to continue to work for the paper for years to come or until they retire or leave the newspaper industry entirely.

The reasons why so many of the news workers have stayed at their newspapers vary, but the majority of the news workers attributed their longevity to being passionate about their communities. For all of the news workers, the communities they work in are the communities they call home. For the staff at The Times and The Herald, the commonality between members was their shared sense of loyalty toward their publishers, as well as the family-like environment in the work place. Also, most of the news workers said they enjoyed the flexibility of the job, including being able to take their car into the auto body shop on a Wednesday morning or being able to take their spouses and/or grandchildren to events that they are covering over the weekend.

Community Structure and Audience

The findings reveal that place, geography, and community structure also affect news practices, strategies, and norms of news workers in small-town weekly newspapers. Most of the literature on local media considers communities as places with physical geographical locations with distinct boundaries (Ball-Rokeach et al., 2001; Stamm, 1985; Byerly, 1961; Janowitz, 1952). But for Harley (1989), communities are more than just geographical locations depicted as points on a map. They also are social constructions (Massey, 1994; Anderson, 2006; Morley, 2009) made up of different languages, religions, politics, economics, and people.

News work at weekly newspapers is influenced by audiences. The three communities in this study have older populations, which local news workers say drives the decision to maintain a strong print product and not deliver the news strictly through the Internet or go digital first. “Not a lot of our citizens have computers in their homes, especially the elderly,” said Jane at The Times. Another news worker said community infrastructure, including access to the Internet, in rural areas is not reliable and is another influence on digital media opportunities for weekly newspapers.

The communities in this study also seemed to have a lot of native residents and long- term residents, which is significant because the residents know each other. They consider each other neighbors even if they do not live immediately next door. “There’s a connectedness to each other,” said Leya at The Times. And former community members are considered friends and neighbors even if they haven’t lived in the physical community for decades, said Sandra at The Bugle.

The findings suggest this sense of connectedness to the place and the people drives news topics that become what the staff of The Herald call “normal stuff” for weekly newspapers, including the societal news such as birth announcements, wedding announcements, obituaries, club news, church news, and crime blotters. “I consider what we do here as writing for the scrapbook, writing for the grandmas. It means something to people,” said James at The Times. Jane at The Times said news in the community is “whatever interests our readers.” News workers seem to understand that the “normal stuff” might not make the news in larger communities. “We are a small town, a small community. And in some cities it’s occasionally laughable news, but that doesn’t make it less important to our readers,” said Sandra at The Bugle.

The audience, the community, also dictates what does not go into the weekly newspaper. For instance, all three newspapers in this study will not run a story about suicide or even mention suicide as the cause of death in an obit. News workers at The Herald said they usually will cover crime-related events, but in one instance a story was not written because the news workers did not think it was in the best interest of the entire community. “There was a young man who was a drug leader in the community. We didn’t cover the arrest because it was so personal. There were so many connections,” said Kristen at The Herald. “We didn’t really know how to cover it because do you cover it? There might have been a story there, but we didn’t cover it because it was being taken care of. We chose not to go after it because they were so well known in the community, and it would have split the community.”


Under the community journalism and sociology of news theoretical frameworks, specifically drawing from Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) “Hierarchy of Influences” model, this research explored how external and internal influences – as outlined previously – shape the news and news production in small towns. This study aimed to understand how small-town weekly newspaper news workers do their jobs.

In addressing RQ1, the data indicate the practices, strategies, and norms of news production for the news workers at the small-town weekly newspapers within this study are consistent and inconsistent with traditional journalistic practices and standards that are traditionally taught in journalism schools across the United States and followed by larger daily newspapers. These long-standing traditional journalistic practices and rules include: the press should be a watchdog for the public (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001); journalists should have a clear understanding of journalistic news values such as impact and timeliness (Lanson andStephens, 2007); journalists should be objective (Ward, 2010); and journalists should avoid conflicts of interest with sources and economic needs of the news organization (Wasserman, 2010). The interviews with and the observations of news workers revealed small-town news workers recognize the traditional journalistic norms of understanding of journalistic news values, the importance of writing a factual news story, as well as the reporter not being present in the storytelling.

However, the data also reveal several of the practices, strategies, and norms of news production for small-town news workers do not follow traditional journalistic rules and standards, which supports previous arguments made by Reader (2006) and Lauterer (2006). For example, the reporters’ role in selling advertisements is inconsistent with the traditional journalistic norm of maintaining a separation between editorial and advertising needs. Also, when considering what is news, the small-town news workers often chose not to write certain stories, particularly crime and death stories, because the news could potentially negatively affect the community. This practice is inconsistent with traditional journalistic norms such as being objective and being a watch dog for the public. Another practice, strategy, and norm for news workers that is inconsistent with long-standing traditional journalistic norms is being actively a part of the community, particularly belonging to civic groups and organizations and serving on their governing boards. According to traditional journalistic norms, this active engagement between news worker and community violates the rule that reporters should be free of conflict of interest with sources, which is necessary in order for reporters and news organizations to adequately serve as watchdogs for the public.

Another key finding of this study is that external and internal influences – as detailed above in this paper – affect news production and news workers at small-town weekly newspapers, which addresses RQ2. Specifically, news production and news workers at weekly newspapers are influenced by the organizational and bureaucratic setting; routine practices of news workers and their news organizations. Because of these constraints, the key practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers are routinized and predictable.

While there are routine workweeks for the weekly newspaper news workers, the observations and interviews for this study also revealed the news workers in this study are aware the constraints influence how they do their jobs. Are they true believers of journalism in their communities? Yes, they believe that their roles as journalists and the functions of the newspaper are to be information sources and historians. But they also seem to be realists.

The news workers in this study recognize their smaller staffs mean they hold a wider range of responsibilities than their counterparts at larger daily newspapers. They understand that advertising revenue is getting hard to find, which means they must contribute to asking sources about advertising in the paper, which again is inconsistent with long-standing traditional journalistic norms. They also realize their community’s structure – specifically their shrinking communities – plays a significant role in the struggle to generate advertising revenue and maintain circulations. Also, they know the ownership structure of the newspaper is influential to how they do their jobs.

All of this is revealed in their open discussions with each other and with this researcher of how they wished they could do more but they don’t have the time, they don’t have the staff, the pages in the current week’s newspaper are dependent on how many ads are purchased, news is more dependent on proximity of the topic than timeliness, the special sections that are produced are because they generate revenue and yet the advertising is dependent on the amount of local news copy.

And while the news workers do not seem to like the fact that their resources are limited, they continuously seem to adapt and adjust. For these news workers, the willingness to adapt and adjust to their working environments is not about doing journalism the “socially accepted journalistic” way – the type of journalism that simply adheres to the long-standing journalistic norms mentioned above – it’s about survival, trust, and remaining a part of the local community. Because many of them said no one else is going to report what is happening on the mainstreets of small towns, the votes taken by local governing boards, the youths participating in the Babe Ruth summer baseball tournaments or the 50th wedding anniversaries – all of the things they attributed to informing community members about each other and their community as a whole and ultimately creating a sense of community, a sense of place. Or in the words of one news worker, “We’re not on the larger media’s radar.”


The most prominent strength of this study is that it provides contemporary theoretical and conceptual insight into community journalism, specifically the small-town weekly print newspaper. Furthermore, this research clearly shows through an examination of production how small-town news is a social phenomenon. It details, through observations and interviews, how news produced in small communities in Iowa is influenced by internal and external constraints such as the newspaper’s ownership structure and the routines held by the news workers.

However, this study was narrowly focused on Iowa weekly newspapers and further limited by the fact that data were obtained from just three papers. It therefore is difficult to generalize the ideas and arguments presented in this study. That said, the purpose here was never to generalize to the entire weekly newspaper industry, but rather to begin to further understand the production of news by one of the media’s most understudied topics, which coincidentally contemporary descriptive data have shown (Knolle, 2016; Gallagher, 2017; Radcliffe & Ali, 2017) remains viable and stable in the chaotic media landscape. Furthermore, the insights provided through this study lay the groundwork for additional scholarly exploration of this particular approach to news, which this study shows is often different than the approach adopted by most larger daily newspapers.

At a time in which community newspapers, including the weekly press, remain the go-to media choice for local news – indicating high levels of trust from readers – and the larger daily newspapers continue to face accusations of intentionally producing misinformation as well as deal with continuous annual declines in circulation and advertising revenue, this researcher posits that maybe other types of journalisms can draw upon, and benefit from, the practices, strategies, and norms of the small-town weekly newspaper journalism approach.

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The following information provides insight into the news workers’ roles within their newspapers.

The Times

Dan – Owner

Jane – Editor

James – Sports editor

Molly – News writer

Susan – Writes societal news/obituaries

Leya – Advertising representative

The Herald

Kristen – Co-owner

Elizabeth – Managing editor and co-owner

Randel – News editor

Lisa – Page designer

Vanessa – Page designer

Angela – Advertising representative

The Bugle

Derrick – Managing editor

Brian – Sports editor

Sandra – Family news editor

Steven – Newspaper group managing editor

Carrie – Handles subscriptions and circulation

Mandy – Oversees legal notices/classifieds

Ellen – Advertising representative

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Building Community Through Dialogue at NPR Member Stations

Joseph W. Kasko

This research is composed of 20 in-depth, qualitative interviews with managers at NPR member stations to examine how they are attempting to build community through the use of dialogue. The stations came from various market sizes and from different regions across the United States. The managers reported they are using many types of dialogue, including face-to-face, formal written and electronic communication, to engage their listeners. The findings suggest the stations are working to build a presence in the community through personal relationships, regular contact with listeners and by inviting regular feedback. This research can provide an example to media outlets and other nonprofits for community building through the use of dialogue.

The radio industry has experienced a great number of changes in recent years. Traditional radio audiences have waned, as new audio platforms have provided listeners with a variety of competing options. However, one area of traditional radio that appears to be thriving is public radio, with news programming at the center of its success. It has been observed that most news organizations in the U.S. have seen declines in audience, but public radio, especially NPR has seen substantial growth. The network is one of the few segments of broadcasting that saw audience growth during the 2000s. NPR, the largest of the U.S. public radio providers, had a reported weekly audience of 30.1 million in 2017 and the network distributes programming and newscasts to 991 member stations nationwide and to satellite radio (Pew, 2018). NPR’s two news-based flagship programs, All Things Consideredand Morning Edition, each have a weekly audience of over 14 million people (NPR, 2018). The network also has a large digital audience that draws 41 million unique visitors monthly to its website and has a monthly podcast audience of over 20 million (NPR, 2018). That makes NPR one of the strongest and most listened to news outlets in the country.

Over its 43-year history, NPR has evolved from mostly government funded to mostly community supported, through individual donations and business support (Bailey, 2004; McCauley, 2005). The birth of the modern public radio system can be traced to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established and provided federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (McCauley, 2005). The newly created CPB included a mandate to develop public radio (Mitchell, 2005), which led to the creation of National Public Radio in March 1970 (Douglas, 2004). Over time public radio managers recognized the need to become less reliant on government funding and they began to seek out new and more reliable sources of revenue. As a result, public stations would turn to listeners and businesses in their community for support (Bailey, 2004; McCauley, 2005). Therefore, the presence of community is important when studying public broadcasting.

NPR reports member stations, on average, receive 39 percent of their budget from individual contributions and 17 percent from businesses (NPR, 2013) and at some stations the percentage of community support is even higher. This demonstrates that the majority of financial support at stations comes from people and organizations within the community. However, little research has been conducted on this topic. Only a handful of studies (Stavitsky, 1994; Bareiss, 1998; McCauley, 2002; Reader, 2007) have examined the relationship between NPR and community. This work attempts to build on that early work and explore the important role community plays at member stations.

A review of public relations literature (Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Stein, 2006) reveals the importance of dialogue with stakeholders in community building. Therefore, this study attempts to examine what member stations are doing to build community through the use of dialogue. This work consists of qualitative interviews with managers at NPR stations to determine what tools and strategies they are using to communicate with their listeners. The major research questions for this work included: Do stations see dialogue as a tool for building community? What efforts are the stations making, through the use of dialogue, to build a sense of community? Are stations engaged in a continuous conversation with their listeners?The findings from this study may provide important information to public radio managers interested in improving their community outreach and strengthening their efforts to engage their audience. It may also provide practical examples for other media organizations and nonprofits interested in community building among their stakeholders through the use of dialogue.

Literature Review


Community is often defined as a group of individuals living and working in harmony with one another, which is typically applied to those living in close proximity to one another. In recent years, however, scholars have recognized that a sense of community may develop regardless of geography (Stein, 2006). Heller (1989) proposed that communities could be “relational” and not bound by location. Therefore, communities can be composed of members who interact with others of shared values.Kruckeberg and Starck (2004) argue that new forms of communication and transportation have destroyed the geographic sense of community that may have existed earlier.

Prior work by Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) identified a number of elements of community that can be applied to NPR listeners. For example, they state an individual participates in the life of the community and regulates their behavior to help achieve the common goals of the community. They also argue a community can develop particular cultural characteristics. Additionally, Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) identified three core components of community. The first is conscious of kind, which refers to the connection that members feel towards each other and the difference they feel from nonmembers. The second is the presence of shared rituals and traditions, which set norms and values within the community. Finally, their third component of community is a sense of moral responsibility, which is felt as a sense of obligation to the community (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001).

Some scholars have argued that public radio listeners and supporters can be examined using Anderson’s (1983) concept of the “imagined community,” which suggests that large groups of people with similar interests can view themselves as part of distinct communities (Reader, 2007). Anderson’s original concept dealt with spatial characteristics shared by groups of people that he argued fueled nationalism. However, the imagined community has since been applied to many different disciplines, including public broadcasting. Anderson (1983) says that communities are frames of reference that are distinguished by the way they are imagined. Bareiss (1998) writes that communities have members who interact regularly and consist of insiders who have common interests, values and allegiances. He argues that the social characteristics of the community are not natural, but are imagined because they are the result of historical trends and negotiation. Pearson (1993) states community is created by shared meanings, which individuals find in the social codes in their environment. This implies that community is created in the minds of members based on perceived similarities with other members.

Reader (2007) argued that NPR produces segments to encourage listeners to feel as if they are part of a community. He believed that radio producers create an imagined community that reflects their own values. Stavitsky (1994, 1995) suggested that a changing conception of localism in public radio has deemphasized the traditional geographic notions of community. He argued that listening to public radio produced a social conception in which community is defined in terms of shared interests, tastes and values. Additionally, Douglas (2004) writes that public radio listeners share a kindred spirit that helps them relate to other listeners and makes them feel like they are a part of a community. Bareiss (1998) argued that public radio can create imagined communities, because local radio is a place-based medium. Therefore, he concluded that programing tastes and local interests can define a community of public radio listeners.


A number of researchers (Daft & Lengel, 1984; Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Stein, 2006; Willis, 2012) have recognized that communication is one of the most important tools an organization can use to build a sense of community. Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) theorize communication can be used to develop and improve community. Pickering and King (1995) note communication is crucial when members are separated geographically. They argue tools, such as newsletters, conferences and other media are needed to foster a sense of community. Kent and Taylor (2002) write that community building requires a commitment to conversations and relationships and that the communication must be genuine and authentic. Additionally, Stein (2006) states, “there is a definite relationship between communication and the process of community building” (p. 256).

The recognition of the important role of communication in community building has lead to the development of a dialogic theory of communication. Day, Dong and Robins (2001) argue dialogic communication can help organizations build community relations and engage in philanthropy. They also warn that contrived dialogue will be of no use to the organization and deceptive communication will ultimately harm the organization’s relationship with its public. Kent and Taylor (2002) suggest the community should be considered and consulted on all matters that affect them. They argue that dialogue with the public will lead to positive outcomes for the organization.

There are a number of ways that organizations, specifically public radio stations, can communicate with their community. Information Richness Theory suggests that the medium used for communication can influence the effectiveness of the message. Daft and Lengel (1984) argued different types of communication tools and media have varying degrees of importance or richness. The theory ranked five types of media based on their level of effectiveness from richest to leanest: (1) face-to-face, (2) telephone, (3) personal written (letters), (4) formal written (flyers) and (5) computer output. This ranking of richness is likely outdated in today’s digital world. For example, Stein (2006) noted only a handful of studies have addressed the theory since the mid-1990s. However, information richness highlights the importance of dialogue and face-to-face communication. Willis (2012) also noted the important role face-to-face communication plays in community engagement and building trust.


This study used purposive sampling to select managers at 20 public radio stations for telephone interviews. The in-depth, semi-structured interviews were intended to determine what techniques stations are using to communicate with their listeners in an effort to build a sense of community. It also hoped to learn how stations are using dialogue to engage their listeners.


To gain a diverse sample, stations were separated by region and market size. Stations from the West, Southwest, Midwest, Northeast and Southeast regions (see appendix 1) were included in the sample. A station was defined as “large” if it was located in a designated radio market (DMA) between 1-50, according to Arbitron’s spring 2013 rankings. A station was defined as “medium” if it was located in market 51-100 and a “small” station came from market 101 or higher. Only stations that carried NPR programming, including the network’s two flagship programs (Morning Editionand All Things Considered), were included. This ensured the stations included in the sample were closely associated with NPR and likely had a strong news audience.

Starting with Arbitron’s list of market rankings, DMAs with NPR stations were identified using a Google search. The author then visited the websites of a number of public radio stations to identify and compile a list of managers. Only top leaders at the station, including those who held the title of station manager or general manager, were included. Thus, a total of 57 managers were contacted by letter, email or phone to invite their participation, which resulted in a response rate of 35 percent. Formal letters were initially sent to 30 managers, which where followed up with emails and phone calls. After a number of weeks an additional nine managers were contacted by email and phone. This process was repeated until the target of 20 responses was achieved.

Sample Characteristics

Managers from 20 different states were included in the sample. The majority of those interviewed held the title general manager, however some other titles included station manager, director, president or CEO. The subjects were overwhelmingly male (16), compared to female (4) and they held their position for an average of 7.76 years. The longest tenure was 25 years and the shortest was one year. The sample (see appendix 2) included six stations from the West, four each from the Southwest and Midwest, and three each from the Northeast and Southeast. It also included six “large” market stations, nine “medium” market stations and five “small” market stations.

Interview Procedures

The interviews were conducted by telephone from March to August of 2013. Each interview began with a description of the study and the subjects were offered anonymity in exchange for participating. The interviews consisted of a set of semi-structured questions that were followed by appropriate probing questions (Berger, 2013; Jankowski & Jensen, 2002; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The interviews were audio taped and transcribed to ensure accuracy and they ranged in length from 14 to 73 minutes. The mean length was 28 minutes. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the author’s university approved this method.

Instrument Development

The interview protocols consisted of four main topics with a total of 17 items. The questions were influenced by previous literature on dialogue and community building (Daft & Lengel, 1984; Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Stein, 2006; Willis, 2012). Some of the questions included: What efforts do you make to build a sense of community with your audience? Not including your air signal, how do you communicate with your audience? What kinds of opportunities are there for listeners to communicate with the station? How do you feel about listener feedback?The interview instrument was pilot-tested with a manager at a small station in the Midwest before it was employed.

Qualitative Data Coding and Analysis

The audio recording of each interview was transcribed into Microsoft Word and coded for common themes. The transcripts were read multiple times by the researcher until themes, or topics that were frequently discussed, emerged. The interview protocols helped to guide the development of the codebook. The initial codebook was used to review a few transcripts, which allowed the codebook and definitions to be modified and refined before they were finalized. All of the transcripts were then examined using the final version of the codebook and each transcript was read thoroughly by the author.


There were four main themes that emerged from the data, which included: (1) an active station presence in the community, (2) the development of personal relationships, (3) regular contact through multiple channels and (4) two-way conversations. There were also a number of sub-topics that arose within each main theme. All of these emergent themes are discussed below because they provide insight on how public radio stations are using dialogue to build a sense of community.

Station Presence in the Community

Every manager in the sample reported that representatives from their station have some type of personal, face-to-face contact with their listeners, most often through some type of station-sponsored event. Many managers also stated they felt events were an important tool the station is using to build a sense of community with their audience. Some of the most cited events included concerts, live broadcasts, open houses, community forums, lectures or events with NPR talent. Some of the events are open to the public and some are intended only for donors, according to a number of managers. “I think generally, it’s an opportunity for people to get out, go somewhere and be engaged,” said a manager from a medium sized station in the Southwest.

The majority of stations reported that members of their staff are making appearances in the community. A few managers said they expect their employees to play a role in communicating with the audience face-to-face. “It’s written into their job description to interact with the public and to have a station presence at public events, concerts and things like that,” said one GM from a small station in the Southeast. “Staff members on a pretty regular basis are being emcees or hosting…for various events around town.” One manager from a medium station in the Southeast reported many members of her staff are active in the arts community and serve as volunteers for other nonprofits. “They’re ambassadors for the station wherever they go and whatever they do,” she said. “We’re all faces to the community. We’re all ambassadors to the community,” added a GM from a small station in the Southwest.

A number of managers said they hosted listeners at their station in some capacity, including open houses and tours. One manager from a medium station in the West reported tours were offered at his station on a quarterly basis. “Our goal is for everybody who listens and is interested to come down to the station and look at what we’re doing with limited resources,” he said. “We invite our donors to come in and meet with me and our director of content to talk to us about what we have on-air,” said a manager from a large station in the Northeast. “When we have these events at the station…we just laugh and feed people,” said a manager from a large station in the West. “The staff and program volunteers from the station are here and we’re just hanging out and talking to people.”

A few managers reported they felt that their stations were serving as community centers. “We are constantly bringing people into our studios and our performance studios and having community events, discussions, musical events, (and) performances,” said a manager from a medium station in the Southeast. “We’re constantly having events here and people know where the station is and they like to come here for events.” One GM from a medium station in the West reported his station built a remote studio in a building where a number of listeners created a community center. “We are trying to be visible in the community and support these efforts that these folks have made,” he said.

Personal Relationships

Nearly every manager reported they have some type of personal relationship with listeners who served as volunteers for the station. Some stations said they relied on volunteers more heavily than others and some of their duties included answering phones, stuffing envelopes, conducting office work, helping with membership and development, assisting with events and hosting programs. A number of managers stated they work with as many as hundreds of volunteers a year and others said the number was much smaller. One GM from a small station in the West said they use volunteers on-air during pledge campaigns. “We have members of the community come on and do pitch breaks with us…giving testimonials,” he said. About half of the stations reported that volunteers were hosting programs, including music and public affairs shows. One manager from a medium station in the Southwest reported people from underserved groups in the community are hosting specialty shows. “We invite them in to make the programming,” he said.

A number of managers stressed the importance of having personal contact with listeners over the telephone. “Usually when people call, often I can recognize their voice,” said the GM of a small station in the Southwest. Many managers said volunteers are often fielding phone calls, especially during pledge campaigns. This highlights that listeners, on behalf of the station, are having dialogue with other listeners. One GM from a small station in the Southeast shared a story about an attempt to use an out-of-state call center during a pledge campaign, rather than allowing listeners to speak directly with volunteers at the station. “It was a disaster. People hated and it didn’t work,” he said. “Just two days into the drive we went back to having (volunteers) through the station, because I think it killed a lot of the locality of our fund drive.” This illustrates how important personal interaction with station staff or other listeners can be for many members of the audience.

Half of the stations reported they are cultivating personal relationships with listeners through handwritten correspondence, including cards, notes and letters. “Donors above $500 receive a personal note from somebody in development thanking them and donors above that level will receive a letter from myself thanking them,” said the GM of a large station in the Midwest. Additionally, a number of stations said some of their thank you letters to donors were “hand-signed,” rather than hand-written. Again, most of these materials were sent to listeners who made large contributions.

A few managers reported they write notes in response to listener complaints. “I like writing the responses to people and I like having those moments when I can really tie someone physically to the station,” said a manger from a medium station in the West. One GM from a medium station in the Northeast said it was important to take the time to respond to listeners with a personal letter. “That is really powerful because it just sends a message to the person that I really do know who you are and I do really care about what’s going on here,” he said.

One manager from a medium station in the Southeast shared a story about sending a get-well card to a long-time listener who was the victim of an assault during a home invasion. She said the card was signed by most of the station staff. “We got a card for him, because he considers us a part of his family,” she said. “A lot of relationships we have are very personal. Now we don’t know a lot of our listeners…but we know a lot of our members and our volunteers, and they know us.”

One interesting topic that arose, which highlighted the strength of personal relationships, came from a few managers who reported they have received feedback from listeners who didn’t or couldn’t attend station events, but said they simply enjoyed hearing about them. “It’s just amazing to me, some of the calls I get and conversations I have with people who we are their companion and they just love hearing where we’re going,” said the GM of a medium station in the Northeast. Another manager, from a small station in the Southwest, said he felt talking about station and community events on the air helped to bring people closer together because it let listeners know what other people in their community were doing. It’s almost as if listeners feel like their getting updates about their friends, who are other listeners, despite the fact they have never met.

Additionally, a manager from a medium station in the Southeast said they recently sent out wall calendars, which featured photos of the staff and provided an inside look at the station, to people who have supported the station for 15 years or longer. “It’s just unbelievable that so many (people) have been with us for so long and have really helped us not only survive, but thrive and prosper,” she said. “It was amazing because it wasn’t a premium or a thank you gift or anything. It was just a little letter.” She said they have since received a number of thank you notes from listeners who really appreciated the gesture, because they said they feel like they know the staff personally.

Regular Contact Through Multiple Channels

Nearly every manager reported they have regular interactions with listeners via telephone. Many managers said phone conversations with listeners were frequently held during pledge campaigns. Most stations reported they often receive feedback from members of the audience over the phone and a number of managers stressed the importance of taking calls from listeners. “All of my managers and I spend quite a bit of time just talking to people on the phone. Responding to ideas, suggestions, criticism, whatever, so it’s a big part of what they do and I think that’s really healthy,” said the manager of a medium station in the Southeast. “I’ve had a couple of situations where I’ve called people who have called and (complained) for one reason or another and if I can get their phone number, I call them,” said a GM from a medium station in the Northeast.

Roughly a third of the managers said representatives from their station were making calls to listeners and donors to say thank you or respond to complaints. Most said staff members or volunteers were making calls to thank mostly high-end donors, although the dollar amount that triggered the call often varied. “Major donors of multi-thousands of dollars will receive a call from one of our board members, thanking them for their contribution,” said one GM from a large station in the Midwest. A few others reported they made calls to high-end donors to personally invite them to station events. “We will sometimes invite them to special events if we have someone coming into town,” said the manager of a large station in the Northeast. “So we try to reach out to them and make them a part of the activities that we’re doing,” she said. Additionally, a manager from a small station in the Midwest said board members would occasionally call to thank new donors.

Nearly every station in the sample reported sending some type of formal written correspondence to their listeners. Some of the most cited examples included thank you letters, tax documents, membership renewal reminders and newsletters. A number of station managers said they believed direct mailings were a good way to encourage future support. The majority of the stations said they send their newsletters on a quarterly basis, but a few stated they send them out monthly. One GM from a medium station in the Midwest said he met with a consultant who felt newsletters served little purpose. “It’s better to just…do them when you’ve got something really important going on,” he said. “I really don’t want our mail communication to turn into junk mail, because it’s so effective. So we try not to abuse the power that we have with mail.” A couple of stations also reported they published a monthly magazine that is sent to their supporters.

Every station reported they are using some type of electronic communication to correspond with their audience. Three-fourths of the managers stated their station is emailing listeners an electronic newsletter or e-blast on a consistent basis. Some of the stations reported they email their members daily and others said they did so weekly or monthly. A manager at a large station in the Southwest said “email and electronic communication is probably the most prevalent” way they are communicating with their audience. “Digital and online is probably one of the areas where we feel we’ll be able to get more and more traction,” said the GM of a large station in the Southeast.

Nearly every station reported they were using social media to connect with their listeners. Facebook and Twitter were by far the most cited tools used, but a few managers also said were using sites such as Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Flickr, Pinterest and YouTube. A few stations said members of their staff were maintaining multiple Facebook and Twitter pages, especially for news content. “Each of our reporters have Twitter accounts and they are tweeting out and they are also working with our digital content,” said a GM from a large station in the Northeast. “We have four or five relatively younger folks who are actively involved in social media and we are training all of our content people to be involved,” said the manager of small station in the West. “We tweet everything, especially news stuff as it’s happening,” said a GM from a medium station in the West. “We just put a bunch of stuff out everywhere, all the time.” A number of stations also said their music hosts were often maintaining their own social media accounts and sharing information.

Many managers expressed concern that they weren’t doing as much online as they would like or using social media as effectively as they could. “I would say we’re kind of increasing our activity, but we’re not at the level of having a strategy about it. We’re not doing a horrible job, but I don’t think we’re really strategic about it yet,” said a manager from a large station in the West. “I think part of what we still need to be working on is improving (with Facebook), because there are so many different ways you can actually be communicating with your audience now. You should probably be trying to reach them in all the methods you possibly can,” said a manager from a small station in the Midwest. “We don’t have a coherent digital strategy in terms of social media. I think there’s a real opportunity to engage the community in an online space, but we just don’t have the resources for it,” said a GM from a medium station in the Southwest.

Two-way Conversations

The data revealed a number of examples that illustrate that stations are engaged in a continuous conversation with their listeners. All of the stations reported they receive listener feedback on a regular basis through multiple channels, including phone calls, letters, emails, web and social media postings and face-to-face comments. Many managers said they receive a lot of feedback during fund drives. “That’s the time of year when people are listening and responding to your requests for support and they call in to say ‘we love what you do and we are willing to put our money behind our love,’” said one GM from a small station in the West, in reference to comments during a pledge drive. “I’d say it’s one of the times that we get the most feedback on what we’re doing. It’s also a really interesting time for us to chat with listeners and folks who are involved with the station,” said the manager of a large station in the Southeast.

Most of the managers stated they have a high opinion of listener feedback. Many of the stations also reported that they often seek out comments and encourage listeners to respond. As a result, a number of managers said they felt their stations are in a continuous conversation with listeners. “We need to know what they’re thinking about us. We need to know that they know about us and we need to know what they want from us,” said a GM from a large station in the Northeast. “We love (feedback), the more the better. When people call up and have a serious concern or a serious question, we love to talk to them,” said the GM of a medium station in the Midwest. “I love (feedback). Good, bad or indifferent. For me it’s connecting the dots and it’s an opportunity to create relationships. With a lot of radio stations you can’t create a relationship,” said a GM from a medium station in the Southwest. “I think that it’s the dialogue that gets created when somebody feels compelled enough to take time out of their day to call and either show appreciation or complain about something that they have heard on the radio station,” said a manager from a small station in the West. “I like the fact that people are listening and thinking about what we’re doing. I like the constructive criticism, as well as the pats on the back,” said one manager from a medium station in the Southeast.

A number of managers reported that audience feedback led to changes with programming or content. “We use listener feedback to select topics that we’ll discuss on our talk show,” said one GM from a large station in the Northeast. “We had a huge Facebook discussion that led to us bringing in a few shows,” said a manager from a small station in the Southeast. A few other managers said listener dialogue helped to dictate news coverage. “We listen to them to find out what they think are the critical issues that we should be covering and discussing,” said the manager of a medium station in the Southeast.

A few managers expressed that feedback was important, but it couldn’t be the only factor when making decisions. “(Feedback) goes into the mix of deciding what we should set as our priorities, but it is only one element. It’s not something by and of itself that should or can dictate any of the direction the station takes, in terms of programming or initiatives,” said the GM of a large station in the Midwest. “It can’t be the only decision tool that we use. Community feedback is a really important way to make sure that donors and supporters have a positive experience with the organization,” said a manager from a medium station in the Northeast. “I get one listener’s feedback and then I think ‘oh my gosh, I’ve got to change this because someone said it, but then you’ve got to step back and go ‘okay, it’s important, but one is not a majority,’” said one manager from a medium station in the Midwest. These examples illustrate how closely stations are listening to their audience.


NPR is one of the strongest news outlets in the U.S. with a weekly audience of 30.1 million (Pew, 2018) and a monthly digital audience of 41 million (NPR, 2018). A study of the history of the network reveals that NPR and its member stations have evolved into a mostly community supported entity (Bailey, 2004; McCauley, 2005). However, very little research has been dedicated to the relationship between public radio listening and community. This study aimed to learn what public radio stations are doing to build community through the use of dialogue. Prior research has demonstrated that dialogue is one of the most effective tools an organization can use to foster a sense of community (Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor; 2002; Stein, 2006). These findings suggest stations are using a number of different tactics and channels to engage in dialogue with their audience.

For example, every manager in the sample reported their station has a presence in their community, which included some type of face-to-face contact, mostly through station sponsored functions. Information Richness Theory suggests that face-to-face communication can produce some of the most effective messages (Daft & Lengel, 1984). These findings suggest that many stations and their representatives are engaged in regular, in-person contact with their listeners. Nearly every manager reported their station regularly hosts events, such as concerts or community forums. They also said members of their staff are taking active roles in their community.

A few managers said they had face-to-face contact with listeners by hosting open houses or offering station tours. A few other managers reported their station served as a community center, which was open to the public for various types of events. These findings suggest that many stations are attempting to create an open and welcoming atmosphere. Some managers expressed that these tactics can help to make listeners feel like they are part of the station. These tactics are likely to strengthen the bond between the listener and the station and aid in building a sense of community.

Nearly every manager stated they make efforts to build personal relationships with listeners. Some of those relationships are with listeners who work for the station as volunteers. Heller (1989) notes that communities are made up of members who interact with people who share their values. Therefore, volunteers would likely share the values of the station, its mission and message if they are willing to work on its behalf. Volunteers and staff would likely also share similar beliefs, so this could strengthen the bond between listeners and the station.

Many managers also said members of their staff are maintaining personal contact with listeners over the phone and through hand-written notes. Some of the calls and notes were in response to complaints, but others included thank you notes or get-well wishes. This is an example of Muniz and O’Guinn’s (2001) concept of conscious of kind, which refers to the connection that members of a community feel towards each other. Members of a community have a desire to stay connected to other members. The desire to say thank you or respond to complaints, which was reported by the managers, highlights the efforts stations are making to cultivate and maintain personal relationships with their members.

One interesting theme that arose from the data suggests there is a connection between listeners, even though they may have never met. A few managers reported they heard from listeners who said they enjoy hearing about station events and the activities of other listeners even though they didn’t plan to participate. They told the managers they simply liked hearing about the things members of the station community are involved in. Heller (1989) noted that community can be “relational” and Pearson (1993) suggested that community is created in the mind of the member. Therefore, it’s likely that some listeners are interested in staying connected with other listeners by hearing news of their activities. This suggests a bond between listeners that is strengthened through dialogue.

The interviews reveal that stations are engaged in regular contact with their listeners through multiple channels. Many managers reported they stay connected with their audience through the use of formal-written materials, such as newsletters. Pickering and King (1995) noted that newsletters, and other tools, could foster a sense of community if members are separated geographically. The data also highlights that stations are very active with new media, including email and social networks, to communicate with listeners. A number of managers also expressed their concern that they weren’t doing as much as they could to communicate with their audience through social media. However, many managers said they felt these tactics helped them to engage and stay connected with their listeners. These tools are also likely to strengthen the ties the listener feels to the station.

The managers also stated they are listening to audience feedback on a regular basis, which suggests stations are engaged in a continuous conversation with listeners. Prior research has highlighted that dialogue should be continuous and genuine to be effective (Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002).  Many managers said they get the most feedback from listeners during fund drives. Therefore, these findings suggest that dialogue may have played a role in securing community support.

The interviews reveal the managers have a high opinion of audience feedback and they often seek out comments and encourage listeners to respond. A number of managers expressed that listening to feedback creates an opportunity to build relationships with listeners, which is supported by the literature (Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Stein, 2006). A number of managers said that dialogue with listeners lead to changes at the station, which further highlights its importance. The fact that stations are listening to audience feedback and responding could aid in creating a sense of community. Listeners are likely to feel a stronger bond with the station if they know their comments and concerns are taken seriously and viewed as important. These findings suggest that the dialogue between stations and listeners is two-way and continuous.

Now perhaps some might ask are the tactics used for community engagement outlined in this research offering anything new? Older radio listeners likely will recall a time when it was commonplace for a disc jockey to attend an event or spend time with a listener on the telephone. However, times have changed and in today’s digital world of corporate radio where conglomerates (such as iHeartMedia or Entercom) own hundreds of stations, there seems to be far less emphasis on community engagement. Often these stations are operated from central locations, in an effort to cut costs and maximize profits, far from the communities where the broadcast signal is heard. As a result, it is difficult to imagine commercial stations investing much time or effort in building personal relationships with their listeners. Thus, these tactics appear to be unique to public radio, which may explain why NPR stations have been more successful in drawing and maintaining an audience in recent years. For example, maintaining regular personal contact, creating a welcoming atmosphere, listening to feedback or engaging in continuous conversations, seems to be rare in broadcasting. Therefore, employing these tactics, especially through the use of dialogue, may be a way for stations to remain relevant in today’s digital media landscape.

Finally, there are a few limitations to this study. For example, it used a small (20) and purposive sample, so these findings are not representative of the general population. Therefore, the views of these station managers cannot be generalized to all public radio managers. However, this method is typical with this type of qualitative work (Berger, 2013; Jankowski & Jensen, 2002; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Furthermore, the author was able to identify and recruit a diverse national sample of managers from various market sizes and geographic regions.

Despite the limitations, this study provides a lot of information on the tactics and strategies public radio stations are using to engage in dialogue with their listeners. These findings also suggest these tools are helping to foster a sense of community. However, future research is needed to examine how listeners feel about these tactics. A survey of listeners could attempt to measure how effective the stations have been in their efforts. For example, some important questions could include: (1) Does attending an event or interacting through social media make listeners feel more connected to the station? (2) Are listeners who feel more connected more likely to give? (3) Do people feel they are part of a community of listeners? These are just a few examples, but these questions demonstrate the need for more information. This present study is just the first step.

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Appendix 1 – Geographic Region Map

Appendix 2 – Sample Characteristics

Region# of Stations
Market Size# of Stations