Studying Local Information Ecosystems

In the previous section we reviewed some of what has already been established about the state of local news in Oregon. In the remainder of this report, we provide original and timely data – both quantitative and qualitative – that paints a fuller picture of the health of Oregon’s local news ecosystem.

In doing this work, we drew from several frameworks for assessing the health of local news and information ecosystems that have been developed in recent years. While their terminology and methods vary somewhat, a central insight they share is that the civic health of communities is connected to the availability and quality of local news

For example, a framework developed by Impact Architects with the support of the Democracy Fund, the Google News Initiative, and the Knight Foundation combines data on the number, size, and types of local news outlets in a community, including the diversity of their staff and of the communities they aim to serve, along with data on forms of financial support for local news and local residents’ attitudes and perceptions of local news. These data can then be compared with data from other communities to compare the strengths and challenges for local media systems across different states and communities. Analyzing nine communities around the country using this framework yielded “consistent evidence that the health of information providers, specifically journalism organizations, and strong relationships among information providers and community members, are correlated with engaged residents, community cohesion, and other positive community outcomes.”1 Stonebraker and Green-Barber, “Healthy local news”, p. 127. 

A similar framework developed by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University mapped local news outlets in New Jersey in terms of the municipalities each outlet serves. Those numbers were then correlated with community characteristics including median household income, educational attainment, and rural, suburban or urban setting to reveal structural factors most closely associated with high numbers of media outlets in each municipality. Not surprisingly, that analysis found that higher-income areas are more likely to be served by more media outlets – a finding also documented in other recent research.2 Nikki Usher, News for the Rich, White, and Blue.

A recent study of Philadelphia’s news ecosystem looked at the characteristics of 38 of the city’s largest media outlets, such as their ownership structures, platform type, and staffing levels, and the news content each produced over a several month period in 2021, and correlated these with the size and socioeconomics of local news audiences. It concluded that “Philadelphia’s news media system underserves communities with lower levels of income and education,” and “this structural gap generates a measurable gap in the provision of news content meeting the critical information needs of these communities,” particularly by over-producing breaking crime coverage and under-producing news about COVID-19.3 Timothy Neff, Pawel Popiel, and Victor Pickard, “Philadelphia’s news media system: Which audiences are underserved?”, Journal of Communication (2022), p. 476.

Other frameworks are more qualitative, rather than quantitative. For example, a report compiled for the Democracy Fund in 2017 explored North Carolina’s news and information ecosystem. While it included an overall description of the state’s news outlets, that report primarily used interviews with journalists and civic leaders to paint a picture of the overall health of the ecosystem and “ways to strengthen people’s access to information that is central to a healthy democracy.”4Fiona Morgan, “Learning from North Carolina” (5 December 2017), p. 2.

Our report is only a first step toward these more comprehensive analyses of local news and information in Oregon. As a starting place for future research and a revealing project in its own right, we deliberately focus here on mapping the supply of local news around the state of Oregon – specifically, the outlets that are regularly providing original local reporting. For now, we do not focus directly on measuring demand for local news—a subject also deserving of careful research—or on the attitudes of Oregonians toward their local media. While it is critical to understand which media Oregonians are choosing to pay attention to and why, this report focuses on understanding what is available for them to choose from.

It’s important to note that the overall health of local information ecosystems cannot be measured simply by counting the number of news outlets a community or state contains. For one thing, as we discuss further below, just because an outlet is physically based in a particular locale doesn’t mean it regularly produces truly local news content. In fact, it is possible for a community to have many media outlets yet still experience significant gaps in the information residents need to understand and address community problems.5 Brendan R. Watson and Sarah Cavanah, “Community information needs: A theory and methodological framework,” Mass Communication and Society 18, no. 5 (2015): 651-673.

Moreover, some websites purporting to offer local news may actually be engaged in something other than journalism. A growing number of online “news” sites across the country claim to be local news outlets but are actually centrally run by politically-aligned organizations. These sites lean heavily on public relations press releases and algorithmically generated content reproduced across a number of other sites.6Priyanjana Bengani (2019, December 18), “Hundreds of ‘pink slime’ local news outlets are distributing algorithmic stories and conservative talking points,” Columbia Journalism Review (18 December 2019). Metric Media, one such company, operates a number of websites that mimic the look of traditional news sites, such as the Central Oregon Times, the Lane County News, and the South Coast Times. But the stories featured on these sites are often “press release submissions” whose authorship is unclear, or stories whose bylines simply list the name of the website itself, while other stories appear to be algorithmically generated and/or replicated across many of the organization’s other websites. Given what’s been uncovered about such sites through investigative reporting, it’s important to distinguish them from traditional, public interest journalism.7Davey Alba and Jack Nicas, “As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place,” New York Times (18 October 2020); Asa Royal & Philip M. Napoli, “Local journalism’s possible future: Metric Media and its approach to local information needs,” DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy (2021).

Although it’s not the only measure for determining the health of a news ecosystem, careful counting and mapping of news outlets is one important step.8 Philip M. Napoli, Sarah Stonbely, Kathleen McCollough, and Bryce Renninger, “Local journalism and the information needs of local communities: Towards a scalable assessment approach,” Journalism Practice 13, no. 8 (2019), pp. 1024-1028. Accordingly, we have attempted in our quantitative assessment to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible—to capture small digital news start-ups right alongside the remaining big legacy outlets.

It is important to note that our method–like any method of measurement–is imperfect. Some outlets that contribute to local news and information might not be captured here, either because they are very small, or don’t have an online presence, or didn’t produce any original local news during our sampling period. (If you think you notice a missing outlet, you can add your feedback here.)

It is also important to note that a variety of non-journalistic entities also provide important community information. As vital as legacy news media are—particularly newspapers, which are especially critical for the flow of original and investigative local news reporting9 Mahone, et al, “Who’s producing local journalism?” (August 2019). This study found that while newspapers accounted for only 25% of media outlets, they produced 50% of original local news.—their role in the news and information ecosystems of communities is changing, and is augmented by the work of other organizations. In an era marked by the rise of digital and social media “that link concerned citizen groups to one another, citizens and other community institutions…necessarily play an increasingly important role in fulfilling [community] information needs.”10 Watson & Cavanah, “Community information needs,” p. 653. Organizations that fulfill important information needs “include city governments, government accountability agencies, civic foundations, libraries, schools, and community health clinics, among many others.”11 Ibid.; see also Pew Research Center, “Local news in a digital age,” Pew Research Center (March 2015).

Nevertheless, our focus here is primarily on journalistic organizations because of their unique institutional position.12 We also focus here only on news organizations even though we agree with the authors of a similar ecosystem assessment that “from a community member’s perspective, a trusted source of information might not necessarily be journalistic for any number of historical, structural, and logistical reasons. However, because there are not consistent databases and datasets for identifying non-journalistic sources of news and information across communities, we focus on journalistic information providers.” Stonebraker & Green-Barber, “Healthy local news,” p. 4. While many organizations can provide important information to the public, the news media have a special role to play in investigating, fact-checking, and holding powerful entities to account and in providing – or trying to provide – a shared picture of reality upon which the public and policymakers can act.13 Hayes and Lawless, News Hole.

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