Social Studies

Local News is Not What it Used to Be

In the age of the internet, what does “local” mean for local news organizations? As described by Dr. Matthew S. Weber, local news outlets are covering distances and audiences far beyond their traditional reach, changing the way they operate and the audiences they target. This complicates traditional understandings of how news organizations define “local.”

Technology and journalism are at the center of Weber’s research agenda that includes topics ranging from coding to computational communication research. He is studying local news in partnership with The Democracy Fund and Dr. Philip Napoli. Their first article, published by Digital Journalism in 2018, draws on their large data set of web archives of local news content from across America. This article has important implications for journalists and scholars alike, as it provides an approach to use Web archives to examine changes in the news media industry. Their study showcases the benefits of publishing newspaper content on Web archives so scholars can research the local news ecosystem in various ways.

“I haven’t always done work in local news environments, but it’s becoming a critical area for research in our current political environment,” Weber says. “We are increasingly aware of how local news shapes how people perceive day-to-day topics, and we don’t pay as much attention to these local news environments as we should. Local news is a key driver of political participation—voting.”

A key takeaway from Weber’s research is that local news is, increasingly, not local—at least not in the way we’ve traditionally understood it to be. According to data collected by Weber in 100 small- to medium-sized communities across the United States, local news outlets have shifted from covering stories within a 10, 15, or even 20 mile radius to covering stories from places as far as 300 to 700 miles away.

Weber plans to continue to produce research about what local news outlets report on; what critical news needs are being served by local news coverage, ranging from health, crime and education to crises and events; and how much of local news is original content versus syndicated content, all with the goal of exploring local news ecosystems.

“This research falls at the intersection of journalism studies, computational research and current trends in the news industry,” Weber says. “We are trying to understand and evaluate what the impacts of changing policies, political climates and technology are on local news ecosystems. This body of work gets at that question by looking at large scale digital data and how this changes over time.”

Photo Credit: Jon S. via Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center.