Executive Director’s note: This week, we’re taking you behind the scenes of a special Carolina Public Press project, NC Connection: Closing the News Gap. We’ve launched an expansive, data-driven research project to determine what the news gaps are in rural communities where high-speed internet is currently expensive, inaccessible or simply not available. Plus, we want to know how these communities want to get their news and information when hopping online simply isn’t an option.
The core purpose of NC Connection: Closing the News Gap is to have reliable and focused data to inform some of our news decisions. Specifically, we’re asking those who live without reliable or affordable high-speed internet service about the challenges and opportunities for improving the delivery of news and information. We want to learn: What gaps in local news coverage exist in your community? Are the gaps related to spotty — or lack of — internet? Do you read the news on a smartphone? Do you read news websites? What kinds of news is most important to you?
The results are early, and the survey is open and still taking responses. But we spent some time doing some early analysis of who is participating in the survey, what they’re saying and what we need to do, next.
Survey insights as of July 31, 2022
Who are we reaching?
The NC Connection: Closing the News Gap project is managed by one full-time staff member at Carolina Public Press. Through partnerships, individual and community outreach, and more, Rural Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson has been effective at targeting survey participants in rural communities or small towns. Despite attempts to reach people in our target Eastern and Western North Carolina markets without internet access and/or those for whom Spanish is their first language, our survey respondents, as of the end of July, skew heavily toward an older, white demographic, as of the end of July. They are also disproportionately from Western North Carolina. One of our original hypotheses proposed that the communities we’d hear from would be without internet and would primarily use their smartphones to access news and information. Currently, only a small percentage of participants do not have any internet at all at home.
What we’ll do: Based on these early insights, our outreach strategies will now shift to activities designed to connect us with younger audiences, Spanish speakers, immigrant populations and people of color who are outside Western North Carolina. Additionally, we will do specific outreach to those without access to the internet at home by targeting libraries and other places where people use the internet while away from home. Most respondents use their phones to access the internet, so we can try additional outreach through text message campaigns.
How do people get their news?
As of July 31, participants reported using a variety of methods to access news information, but in almost all categories, the internet was the most common method. The next-most-used method of news access was on phones.
Additionally, many respondents still access local news through traditional newspapers, whether online or in print. Where they are still available, these news sources prove very valuable in informing people about local politics, social and entertainment news, and public interest stories.
To date, respondents consistently identified television as one of the least-used methods of accessing news and information across all of the topics covered in the survey. Interview participants expressed distrust of the national television news media, and they were more likely to get national news from a print or online source that they deemed reputable.
What we’ll do: Upcoming interviews and focus groups will ask follow-up questions about how and where people get their news on phones, including social media, apps, news feeds and news organization websites. Additionally, we’ll keep asking where people prefer to get their news, which may or may not reflect their current habits.
What do people want?
Opinions varied regarding the importance of specific news topics and the availability of information about those topics, but some early trends emerged, as of our review on July 31, 2022.
Respondents indicated that news about local politics was very important but that they did not have enough information about this topic. They also noted that news about the weather was important. Health care was also an issue of importance to the majority of respondents, though there was less of a consensus regarding whether the amount of available information about health care and COVID-19 was enough, too little or too much.
The survey will remain open throughout the next few months to allow for more survey respondents to participate. Once we reach our final milestone near the end of 2022, we’ll do a final analysis and provide further insight into available trends, lessons and opportunities to better serve these communities and residents.
Visit NC Connection: Closing the News Gap
Find all the project information in one place.
What’s next? Changing outreach strategies
When we began the project, we anticipated that certain county agencies would be willing to help us distribute information about the project and, specifically, the survey. Since that strategy did not prove successful, we pivoted to working on a more hyperlocal level, communicating directly with local farmers’ organizations, which were willing to share the survey, for example. This reinforced our desire to identify similar organizations in other parts of the state for additional outreach outside WNC.
Also of note, we allow people to self-identify whether they are “rural” residents in the survey. We initially coded the survey to select out those who didn’t say they were “rural.” But upon hearing feedback from multiple survey takers and our partners, we decided to open up the responses to those identifying as living in small towns as well, since “small towns” may also mean “rural” to some participants. This resulted in an increase in the number of people who took the survey and has, so far, given us a more complete picture of the news and internet needs of people in sparsely populated areas.
In the context of our original goals, we are looking at the early results of our efforts and realizing that, if we continue our efforts along this same trajectory, we may well not receive the amount of valuable community feedback we targeted.
So, this early review of the data, while illuminating, has perhaps provided us with the most insight into what outreach methods are or are not working. As a result, we will spend more project time focusing on outreach to seek participation among the people in North Carolina who may be the most underserved by the traditional news media than any across the state.
Selected during the third Google News Initiative North America Innovation Challenge to receive a share of more than $3.2 million to help build ideas that address the need for research in local news, Carolina Public Press’ NC Connection: Closing the News Gap project seeks to discover the news needs and distribution preferences of those North Carolinians living beyond the “digital line.” For more information, contact Carolina Public Press Rural Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson.