A media desert is a geographic locale without access to fresh local news and information to inform and educate the public.
The loss of jobs in the media industry has resulted in a reduction in the quality and quantity of news and information gathered and circulating within a community.1 Since 2008, more than 33,000 American newspaper journalists have lost their jobs from newsrooms large and small across every state in the nation.2 In addition, more than 120 newspapers have ceased operation in communities across America.3 The “brain drain” from the loss of knowledgeable journalists along with the concurrent loss from the news and information functions they performed, has created growing voids in local news coverage. Too many issues that once came to the public’s attention through newspapers are now fragmented across media and platforms – if covered at all. As a result, the ability of local citizens to be informed and engaged with their neighborhoods, schools, community organizations and governments has become more difficult according to recent research.6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
These gaps in coverage – both in depth and breadth – have created what we call “media deserts”. A media desert is a geographic locale without access to fresh local news and information to inform and educate the public. I use the term “media deserts” to describe the phenomenon. Others use “news desert” to describe the lack of news in a community news and information ecosystem. However, “media deserts” describes not only a larger framework for content such as news, information and conversation, but the delivery of such content. Media deserts as defined is a multidimensional conceptualization and its visualization allows us to begin to see the larger complexity of the communication ecosystems in which we operate.
How does this changing media ecosystem affect the ability of a community’s residents to access fresh, local news and information? As researchers, policymakers and local leaders, we need the tools to identify those communities being starved of good news and information. We need to measure trends in access to news and information over time to determine if critical news and information needs are being met. And we need the tools to help identify where valuable human and capital resources might be deployed to establish or restore news and information coverage.
This research seeks to build an interactive, visual representation of the current state of the media using geographic information systems, newspaper circulation data and current demographic data. The model is similar to the USDA Food Locator Map, a tool released in 2011 to identify where communities lacked access to fresh produce. While some have criticized the USDA model for not providing detailed enough local data, the tool has been valuable in engaging various community stakeholders around systemic issues of access to food. We expect a similar visualization of a media access locator will help to identify communities that lack access to fresh news and information. Our goal is a dynamic national map that shows the changes in media coverage over time and that helps jumpstart local conversations regarding community news and information needs.
Our research explores:
• RQ1: How has the decline in circulation over the past five years affected the geographic reach of daily newspapers in the United States?
• RQ2: What relationship exists between income, education level, ethnicity and newspaper circulation in the United States?
This research and its analysis may help policymakers, funders, educators, community developers and other understand the changing media ecosystem and to address the critical information needs of communities.
— Dr. Michelle Ferrier, Principal Investigator
1. Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The State of the News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism 2013, (March 18, 2013).
2. See: http://newspaperlayoffs.com “Paper Cuts: Buyouts and Layoffs in the Newspaper Industry” (accessed October 24, 2013).
3. See: http://newspaperlayoffs.com.
4. Michael R. Fancher, “Re-imagining Journalism: Local News for a Networked World,” A White Paper on Recommendations 1 and 3 of the Knight Commission on the Information needs of Communities in a Democracy, The Aspen Institute, (2011).
5. Tony Deifell, The Big Thaw: Charting a New Future for Journalism. The Media Consortium, 2009, http://www.themediaconsortium.org/thebigthaw/download/.
6. Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, 2009. (Last modified April 7, 2010). http://www.knightcomm.org/read-the-report-andcomment/
7. Lewis Friedland, Philip Napoli, Katherine Ognyanova, Carola Weil, Ernest J. Wilson III , Review of the Literature Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public, submitted to the Federal Communications Commission by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison on behalf of the Communication Policy Research Network, (July 16, 2012).
8. Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, 2009. (Last modified April 7, 2010). http://www.knightcomm.org/read-the-report-andcomment/
9. Steven Waldman. The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age, FCC Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities, (June 9, 2011).
10. Lauren Dolezal, editor. Brave News Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape. International Press Institute Report, (2010).
11. Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres. News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. (New York: Verso, 2011).