The changing media ecosystem has dramatically affected how people receive the news. The increasing popularity of online and digital platforms allows instant access to news from around the world. However, newspapers are often forced to lay off personnel or shut down completely, reducing local news efforts in smaller regions and communities.
Dr. Michelle Ferrier became interested in how these changes affected communities through her experience as a former newspaper editor around 2007 when media outlets began making these drastic changes.
“Many people asked about the journalists, but they didn’t really ask about how the communities themselves were affected by those layoffs,” Ferrier says. “That’s where I began to think about a way to tell the story about the effects of the changes in the industry and personnel on communities.”
Ferrier continues her innovative research in the data visualization of what she calls “media deserts” or areas where fresh, local news is lacking. The Media Deserts Project analyzes zip code data on the changes in newspaper circulation over time from 2007-2011, a time when newspaper layoffs and shut downs were common.
The data are displayed on a geographical information system to create a climate map, with areas of high circulation of news in green and areas of low circulation in red. White areas are potential media deserts.
“The visualizations are designed to give the layperson a quick read on what’s happening in the community, and help them understand and begin the conversations at the local level about what they can do about it,” Ferrier says.
The data visualization provides opportunities for media entrepreneurship and innovation at the local level to areas lacking news, especially through online and digital technologies, Ferrier says.
Ferrier has currently mapped the circulation of all the daily national newspapers in the country. As the project continues, she plans to do more analysis of alternative news sources like weekly alternative and community newspapers as well as a community’s broadband access, television and radio broadcast reach in order to get a snapshot of what news reaches a particular community.
Ferrier also researches the impact of hyperlocal online news, small, independent news operations serving a small geographic area. These hyperlocals cover local news in a community. However, hyperlocal is a poorly understood area because there is not much information available on how to make it successful and sustainable or whether hyperlocals are serving their communities with fresh news and information, Ferrier says.
After all layers of the media outlets are added in, community stakeholders can use Ferrier’s map to determine if their community is in a media desert, and what steps can be taken to start conversations about what can be done.
“We hope to help community members engage key stakeholders and opinion leaders in the community to have a conversation about the unique characteristics and demographics of the community,” Ferrier says. “Then they can develop innovations, whether they are broadcast, online or print, that can service that particular community’s needs for news and information.”
Social networking sites no longer constrain groups to being part of just a geographic community, but allow for the formation of other communities based on race, language or certain topics of importance. Ferrier’s work focuses on digital representations of individuals as well as culture and how individuals can better understand and utilize social networking sites to get the word out on important issues.
“There are no longer mass communication solutions, but instead it’s about how to create niche solutions that can be customized to serve particular audiences,” Ferrier says.
Ferrier hopes to create a locus of innovation at Ohio University to get all disciplines and schools involved with building visualizations and innovating. She also has a stake in the curriculum change at the University, providing significant development around media entrepreneurship to keep up with new technologies and give young professionals the tools they need to create and innovate successfully.