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 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

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