Dr. Michelle Ferrier, left, listens as Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune discusses the Tribune revenue model with David Sasaki, right. / Photos courtesy of New America Foundation
Media Deserts Project by OHIO’s Ferrier touted during Big Ideas Conference
ATHENS, Ohio (May 21, 2014)—Americans are awash in global and national news from multiple sources, but many have difficulty finding fresh, local news and information, said Dr. Michelle Ferrier, associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. Ferrier addressed the challenge of “A World-Class Newspaper in Every State,” during a panel conversation at the 10 Big Ideas for America conference May 15-16 in Washington, D.C.
Sponsored by the New America Foundation and featuring keynote talks by the Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Honorable John McCain, the conference brought together thought leaders across business, higher education and philanthropy to help frame new policy agendas around economics, the military and the media. Some of the big ideas included measuring education by learning, not time; restoring the second chance economy for former convicts; and examining where big data and warfare merge.
Ferrier was part of a panel on media that included Perry Bacon, Jr., a fellow at the New America Foundation; Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune; and David Sasaki, program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ferrier is the principal investigator for the Media Deserts Project, which examines the changes in the media ecosystem using geographic information systems to visualize communities without access to fresh news and information.
“The Media Deserts Project is mapping the new media ecosystem and the changes in newspaper circulation and reach, hyperlocal online news sites’ growth and reach and other media to determine the places that lack access to fresh, local news and information,” Ferrier said of the research collaboration with Ithaca College and its computer science faculty. “Our goal is to identify media deserts, offer an audit of community media assets and begin the dialogue with local stakeholders about media innovations that might fill the gaps in coverage.”
With more than 120 newspapers going out of business since 2007 and many others laying off reporters and staff, circulation continues to decline at the nation’s daily newspapers. Some of the losses in readers may be to online counterparts or to independent sites that have developed over the past few years. However, Ferrier cautions that the existence of these sites doesn’t necessarily translate into coverage that serves all of the residents of a particular community. Language, access to technologies and paywalls all affect who has access to information and who does not.
In Spring 2013, Ferrier analyzed more than 100 hyperlocal online news sites based on sites listed on CJR.org and Michele’s List. Many sites are filling the gaps left by legacy media, but are not venturing into new communities or communities that were not well covered in the past, she said.
“Only 5.5 percent of the hyperlocal online news sites we studied were founded or run by people of color. And when we looked at the visual content of these sites’ home page, only 40 percent of the sites accurately represent the full range of the residents in their geographic region either on the demographic factors of ethnicity, gender or both.
Ferrier said nonprofit media startups like Texas Tribune might help in beefing up investigative coverage of state politics or other broad issues, but doesn’t solve the local coverage problem if content is targeted to the state level.
“We cannot remake the media system in its historical image,” Ferrier said. “We have the opportunity right now to build a media system that serves all Americans.”