What are the keystone media in our information environment?

Later this month, I’m presenting a paper called “The Increasing Importance of Diminished Newspapers for Local Journalism?” at a conference on local journalism I’m organizing with Robert Picard at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

In the paper, I show how despite the fact that it is no longer a “mainstream medium” in terms of audience reach, the local newspaper in the community I study (Næstved, a mid-sized provincial Danish municipality with a population of 81,000) plays an absolutely central role in the wider local political information environment as by far the most important producer of ongoing, original, independently reported news about local affairs.

From the content I have coded, the newspaper accounts for 64% of all coverage of local politics, even in a community also served by two licence-fee funded regional public service broadcasters, several weekly freesheets, a community radio station, and shot through with national and international media as well as global online media like Google and Facebook. Furthermore, much of the (limited) local news content published by other media can be traced back to the newspaper.

I call the newspaper a “keystone medium” in the local political information environment, drawing an analogy to the idea of “keystone species” in conservation biology and zoology. There, the term is meant to capture the critical importance of particular species, who despite being only a small part of a larger interconnected ecology play an outsize role in defining the state and structure of the wider environment. In parallel, I define “keystone media” not in terms of their reach or ubiquity, but in terms of their systemic importance, their importance not for the majority of media users, but for the wider information environment they live in.

I’m thinking the notion of “keystone media” is a useful way of capturing the outsize importance of some entities in a wider environment and that it is an idea that works not only at the local level, but also nationally and internationally (think about news agencies, for example).

I’m not the first to point to the empirical fact that newspapers in many places play a central role in the production of news at the local level. In the US, for example the Project for Excellence in Journalism has done this in a study of Baltimore, Chris Anderson has done this in his great book on Philadelphia, and a series of community information case studies orchestrated by Tom Glaysier when he was still at the New America Foundation has done it.

But what I wanted to do is to make two particular points based on a close study on what sources of information are actually used in my case community and the information that these sources in turn produce and publish.

(1) Though the local newspaper is diminished in terms of reach and resources, it is ironically becoming more important for local information provision as other media pull out and cut their investment and no new providers have emerged. This is not simply a point about volume of production, but also about the environment in which things are produced.

(2) In community case studies done in the US people have generally found a vast ecology of other media outlets reusing and commenting upon news originally produced by local newspapers. That is not the case in the community studied here. Though several of the most widely used media sources of information about local politics in the community (including the regional public service broadcasters) in part base their coverage on stories first covered by the local newspaper, most of what the local newspaper covers does not make it any further in the news “food chain”–it is covered there, and nowhere else. Again, this is not simply a point about the newspaper, but about the environment in which it exists.

The notion of “keystone media” is meant to capture the structural (ecological, if you will) consequences of there being a newspaper in this community rather than there not being one (as in conservation biology).

The true importance of the paper in this community case study lies not in its role as a source of information seen from the users’ point of view (though about a third of the respondents in my survey data read the paper, very few identify the newspaper as their only important source of information about local politics), but as a producer of information that (a) matters because a small minority of it underlies the content produced by other media more widely used in the community but also, importantly, (b) matters because it is there at all, even when it has a limited readership and is not re-used and commented on elsewhere. (And we know from much media research that news coverage of public affairs can affect how politicians and government authorities behave even when the coverage does not routinely reach a large audience–the shadow of publicity is sometimes enough.)

In a time of more and more media, the local newspaper in this case play a structuring role for the entire local political information environment because–though it is only one of many media used as a source of information by citizens, and not a particularly widely used one–it is increasingly the only organization doing ongoing on-the-ground reporting on local public affairs. (Despite Danes having some of the highest levels of internet use and digital device ownership in the world, as well as being avid “joiners” in Robert Putnam’s parlance, active in any number of civic associations, Denmark has not seen the emergence very many significant non-profit or hyperlocal online-only news sources.)

In short, it plays a role as what I am currently thinking of as that of “keystone media” in our political information environments.

The full paper abstract is below. The paper is based on data from a larger research project on local political communication and municipal democracy in a changing media environment that I am pursuing with Nina Blom Andersen and Pernille Almlund from Roskilde University. This is work in progress, so I’d be curious to hear of people working with related ideas or people who think this is nonsense.

The increased importance of diminished newspapers for local journalism? – a case study of sources and producers of information in a digitally connected community

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Roskilde University and the University of Oxford

Paper for “Local journalism around the world: professional practices, economic foundations, and political implications”, February 27-28, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.

ABSTRACT

On the basis of a mixed-method study combining survey data, content analysis, and semi-structured interviews done in a strategically chosen case community in Denmark, this paper shows that the local daily newspaper, despite its diminished audience reach and editorial resources, has become an increasingly important node in the circulation of independent and professionally produced news about local affairs as other news organizations have pulled out of the locality and no new providers have emerged. Citizens in the community studied have access to more and more media, but less and less news, most of it originating with a single news organization—the local daily newspaper. The study suggests that local newspapers—reporting across platforms but still sustained by their eroding print business—despite the well-known challenges they face in a changing and increasingly digital media environment, despite their dwindling editorial resources, and despite their diminished reach, may thus ironically become more important for local journalism as our media environment change, because they increasingly are the only organizations doing ongoing on-the-ground reporting on local public affairs. They are not so much mainstream media—for the majority does not rely directly on them for information, and most of what they produce is disseminated no farther than to their own readers—as keystone media in a local information environment, playing a critical role in the production and circulation of information with ecological consequences well beyond their own audience.

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