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November 17, 2017

Neighborhood involvement is a critical factor in the sharing of hyperlocal news, research shows

Photo of a pile of notebooks

By Jessica Mahone, Democracy Fund Public Square Research Associate

Conversations between academic research and local newsrooms are often siloed. Interesting and useful findings from research are trapped in long papers that those in local newsrooms may not know about or have time to sift through. To help highlight some key findings from recent research and what they could mean for those working in local news, we’re launching a new series here on the Local News Lab.

We will summarize some key findings from recent research on news and information, what the findings could mean, and some interesting takeaways to consider. To kick things off, we have research on how audience metrics can impact civic affairs reporting, who shares hyperlocal news and how, and how broad collaboration helps improve local news.

Do you have a project or paper that the audience of the Local News Lab would be interested in? Is there something that you want to know more about from local news related-research? Let us know at localnewslab@democracyfund.org.

Metrics, Hyperlocal, and Collaboration

This week, we pulled research from the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). The meeting focused on the intersection of research and media practice. Papers can be found at AEJMC’s All Academic site. They are behind a paywall but can often be accessed by contacting the authors directly.

(Important to note for those that want more specific details —  some identifying information, such as the names of news organizations or locations, are not specified in the papers due to practices to ensure that peer review processes remain blind. The goal is to ensure that reviewers cannot identify authors and will instead judge works based on their quality, rather than who the authors are.)

Off the Screen and Into the Streets: Hyperlocal News Sharing

Who Gets Vocal about Hyperlocal: The Role of Neighborhood Involvement and Status in the Sharing of Hyperlocal Website News, Petre Bobkowski, Liefu Jiang, Laveda Peterlin, and Nathan Rodriguez, University of Kansas

In a survey of 1,880 readers of seven hyperlocal news sites throughout the U.S., the authors found that news from hyperlocal news sites is shared more frequently via word-of-mouth than through either email or social media. Building on this, the study found:

  • Neighborhood involvement is a critical factor in the sharing of hyperlocal news, especially via word-of-mouth. When measured on a scale of 1 to 5, every one-unit increase in neighborhood involvement increases the likelihood of word-of-mouth sharing by 49 percent.
  • Although education, income, and employment—three markers of socioeconomic status—are all factors that influence news consumption and sharing, they weren’t particularly influential over the sharing of hyperlocal news. Education influences sharing of hyperlocal news via word-of-mouth and email, and employment influences sharing through email, but income was not found to influence any form of sharing, whether in person or online.

These findings provide valuable insight into hyperlocal news audiences. First, this suggests that hyperlocal news is able to bridge at least some socioeconomic divides that are common across news audiences. Second, developing relationships with the most highly involved residents in their neighborhoods may be a worthwhile path for hyperlocal news publishers to better understand the needs of their communities as well as to have ambassadors in their communities.

Moving Beyond Clicks: Web Metrics and Community News

The Impact of Web Metrics on Community News Decisions: A Resource Dependence Perspective, Tom Arenberg and Wilson Lowrey, University of Alabama

This comparative case study of two small community newsrooms suggested that a heavy focus on audience metrics, especially reader clicks, in newsroom decision making in these newsrooms hurt coverage of public affairs and follow-up reporting. One newsroom (the “Heavy Metrics Herald”) includes use of audience metrics for news decisions as part of job reviews as well as has multiple streams of constantly available real-time and recent metrics including newsroom monitors, twice-daily emails, and individual reporter dashboards. The second newsroom (the “Light Metrics Ledger”) does not include metrics in job reviews and has reports on audience analytics only available on a sporadic basis. The study specifically found:

  • The newsroom with less emphasis on audience metrics had a higher proportion of stories about civic affairs (25 of 75) than the newsroom with a heavy emphasis on audience metrics (25 of 98).
  • Several reporters at the newsroom with a heavy emphasis on audience metrics said disappointing metrics discouraged follow-up reporting on issue stories.

While these findings aren’t generalizable beyond these two specific newsrooms, they offer important insights into how standard web metrics aren’t necessarily optimized for audience engagement or strong reporting. While newsrooms must rely on web metrics to attract ad dollars, use of tools such as American Press Institute’s Metrics for News and Center for Investigative Reporting’s Impact Tracker can help newsrooms identify content that plays to their strengths beyond just garnering traffic and to identify the specific impact of their work.

Collaboration and Community Engagement Build New News Routines

Disrupting Traditional News Routines Through Community Engagement: Analysis of a Media Collaboration Project, Jennifer Moore and John Hatcher, University of Minnesota

In a case study of a collaborative reporting project on waterways in a Midwestern city, the authors found some evidence of success for an approach to local news that focuses on the connections among organizations and community members, rather than individual organizations. The authors also found community engagement to be a useful part of the reporting process. Specifically, the authors found:

  • Community engagement fostered a willingness to participate in the project, particularly among non-journalism stakeholders such as local businesses and citizens. As a result, nearly 50 unique stories were produced on the topic.
  • The project also lead to new cross-disciplinary partnerships leading to new formats of storytelling. For example, one playwright created a play based on stories from the project. The play went on to win national awards. Other participants say they learned new ways of storytelling through workshops and engagement with others in the community.

This case study points towards a new way to think about how we make and support local news. “Among the key findings of this study is that its success appears to have been its design and focus at the media ecosystem-level as a way of encouraging news organizations to consider participatory and collaborative journalism techniques” (p. 22). This is in contrast to many initiatives and funding which tend to support individual outlets or industry-level approaches.

Engagement and how we measure it are important pieces of the work of local newsrooms, be it reconsidering how we use web metrics or how we approach new reporting projects.

What questions do these findings raise for you?

Do you have a project or paper that the audience of the Local News Lab would be interested in? Is there something that you want to know more about from local news related-research? Let us know at localnewslab@democracyfund.org.

Jessica Mahone is the Research Associate for the Public Square program at Democracy Fund. Previously, she was a researcher with the News Measures Research Project at Duke University and a temporary Research Associate in journalism at Pew Research Center. Her research interests are varied but center around local news, civic engagement, and diversity in media.