New Research Reveals Stark Local News Gaps in New Jersey

August 6, 2015

At the Democracy Fund, we seek to foster a more informed and active electorate by providing voters with the information, opportunities for engagement, and skills they need to make informed choices. A particular focus of this work has been to build up journalism at the local and state house level, and we have supported the Institute for Nonprofit News nationally and more recently the News Voices Project in New Jersey with an objective strengthening news provision at the local level. The latter with the specific objective of collaborations between newsrooms and communities.

We also realize we don’t yet have a full picture of the state of journalism at the city level and that motivated us to support the new research published today by Rutgers University regarding the level of news provision in three New Jersey Communities. From the release:

In “Assessing the Health of Local Journalism Ecosystems: A Comparative Analysis of Three New Jersey Communities,” researchers examined the journalistic infrastructure, output, and performance in the New Jersey communities of Newark, New Brunswick, and Morristown.

The research, supported by the Democracy Fund, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Knight Foundation, indicates substantial differences in the volume and quality of reporting. Low income communities saw less coverage than higher income neighboring cities.

In Newark, with a population of 277,000 and a per capita income of $13,009, there are only 0.55 sources of news for every 10,000 people. Whereas, in New Brunswick, with a population of 55,000 and a per capita income of $16,395, there are 2.18 news sources for every 10,000 people. But the differences are most stark in comparison to Morristown, which has a population of 18,000 and a per capita income of $37,573 but 6.11 news sources for every 10,000 people.

These pronounced differences in the availability of sources of journalism were then reflected in how much journalism was produced within these three communities:

  • Morristown residents received 23 times more news stories and 20 times more social media posts from their local journalism sources per 10,000 capita than Newark residents, and 2.5 times more news stories and 3.4 times more social media posts per 10,000 capita than New Brunswick residents.
  • New Brunswick residents received 9.3 times more news stories and six times more social media posts per 10,000 capita than Newark residents.

Similar differences across the three communities often persisted when the researchers focused on aspects of the quality of local journalism, such as the extent to which the stories were original (rather than repostings or links to other sources); the extent to which the stories were about the local community; and the extent to which the stories addressed critical information needs, such as education, health, and civic and political life.

Professor Phillip Napoli, the lead author, said, “If journalism and access to information are pillars of self government then these findings suggest those tools of democracy are not being distributed evenly, and that should be cause for concern.”

A study of three communities is not conclusive, and over time we hope that this report will be supplemented by an analysis of a larger number of communities and complemented by others that use complementary research methodologies. That said, we believe the results published today will aid us as we consider how we approach our work and help inform the work of others. As we think further about this we welcome comments below from journalists and others who are at the coalface at this transitional moment.