Take a deep dive into the media landscape
Ready to roll up your sleeves and dig into the data?
This section is where we get into concrete research methods, data sources, and nitty-gritty questions, all drawn from our own research projects.
There is no expectation that you would pursue every one of these questions. Our goal is to offer you options. Throughout this section, you’ll see suggestions labeled “try it” to see what the data might have to offer in understanding your own community. You can think of these mini-assignments like a scavenger hunt.
What you’re looking for
Local content: There’s an awful lot of media out there, but not much original local news. Focus on finding out which outlets produce original local content and how much. How many minutes or hours does a radio or TV station devote to news and public affairs content? Is it syndicated or locally produced? What format is it in? How many staffers produce it?
Reach: How many people or households does an outlet reach? For print outlets, there should be circulation numbers available. Broadcast outlets will often include information about which cities or counties they reach. Some of this information may be available in marketing information for the outlet or in rate sheets for prospective advertisers.
Ownership: Finding out who owns what can be tricky, and it changes often, but it’s important. Moreover, media outlets that share ownership may share staff or content. University of North Carolina’s database includes information about newspaper ownership, though it may be worth verifying as it may change faster than the database can be updated. Many TV stations are owned and operated affiliates of networks, such as NBC and ABC, so it’s worth making note if they’re not. Some owners are controversial — for example, Sinclair Broadcasting, which in 2018 ordered local TV news anchors to read a pro-Trump script on the air. While it’s not always the case, local ownership can lead to more investment in original local news programming.
What matters most: It’s OK to be selective. Metro areas may have dozens or even hundreds of print publications circulating, and you don’t have to include all of them. Consider which ones provide and serve the critical information needs you prioritize.
Start by learning about the media market (or markets) in your area. A media market, or designated market area (DMA), is the geographic area where residents can all receive the same broadcast signals. These areas are comprised of neighboring counties and generally correspond to metro areas.
Quite a few media markets span multiple states, so that people living in that market may be getting most of their TV and radio news from stations located in a different state. That means they may not receive news about their state government, not to mention their municipal or county governments. Some people live at the intersection of two or more DMAs, meaning they receive broadcast signals from both. While that can mean more news, it also likely means their own town or county is at the periphery and doesn’t receive much coverage from either market’s stations.
Nielsen Media Research, a market research firm, ranks all 210 of the nation’s DMAs annually according to the number of households within each one (New York is No. 1 with 7.1 million “TV homes”). The bigger the market, the higher the advertising rates stations in that market can charge. Some national advertisers buy only in large markets, meaning those highly ranked markets have access to ad revenue that other markets don’t. As a result, larger market stations tend to have better resourced stations.
You can find the current year’s DMA rankings on Nielsen’s website. Internet searches can also turn up maps of DMAs throughout the country or a state, or lists of counties within a market.
- Go to software engineer Simon Zou’s map of Nielsen Media Markets on Github and find the place where you live.
- Which media market is your geographic area in, and what’s its ranking?
- Are there multiple markets in your area, or does it lie in between markets? How does that affect news coverage? What are their relative rankings?
- What is the primary city in the media market (e.g., the Dallas in Dallas-Fort Worth)?
- How many counties are in this media market? How many municipal governments?
So-called “legacy media” generally includes the outlets that existed before the internet: the local newspaper, TV, and radio stations. It also includes the companies that own those outlets, though they may own digital outlets, as well.
To compile a list of print newspapers, start with the database available at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. This offers a map showing daily and weekly newspaper across the country, along with their owners, circulation (the number of copies the paper distributes), and other relevant data. You can also see where newspapers have shut down and how circulation has changed over time.
- Go to USNewsDeserts.com and choose your state from the drop-down menu on the first page.
- How many newspapers did your state lose between 2004 and 2019?
- How much has newspaper circulation declined in that time?
- How many Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers members are stepping up to fill that void?
- Look at the map. Which counties have the most newspapers, and which have the least?
- Find the county or counties you’re most interested in on the map and consider looking at the daily and weekly newspapers listed there. Does the list look accurate? (If not, let the researchers know; they’re perpetually improving their database.)
- Look up those outlets online and see what sort of digital presence they have.
You can verify or supplement these data in a few ways: Check out your state’s press association and look for (or ask for, if it’s not online) a list of its members. This should include most of the print outlets producing news in your state and may turn up some you weren’t aware of. Look at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) website for any member papers in your area.
Commercial broadcast stations: For local TV, you can start by looking up network affiliates for ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Include Spanish-language outlets such as Univision, Estrella TV, and Telemundo, too. There may be a number of affiliates of lesser-known networks such as The CW or MyNetworkTV that primarily air syndicated entertainment programming; check to see if they also broadcast any local public affairs programming.
You can search for all the digital over-the-air television signals in your area at the FCC’s website. Your local cable company may have a list of stations on its site.
Radio is a bit more sprawling, so it may be harder to find an easy central repository of commercial radio stations in your area. The FCC has a searchable database of all licensed FM and AM radio stations, but it may take some combing through.
The Federal Communications Commission has a lot of data about over-the-air broadcast stations. Unfortunately, it’s not very user friendly. But it’s worth checking out. Here’s a simple way to wade in.
- Go to the FCC’s Audio Division home page.
- Click on “FM Query” on the left. Use the pull-down menu to find your state and enter a city name.
- Under the search choice “Output,” choose “FM Short List.”
- Click “Results” to run the search.
- You should see a list of records that include the radio station call signs, frequency on the dial.
- You can now see who owns the license or permit to each of the stations.
- Click on the call sign and you’ll see more technical information about the station’s signal.
- From there, click on the “Links and Maps” tab to see inspection files and other data, which should include contact information and the physical address of the station’s offices.
- Keep exploring this search to find more detail about specific outlets or conduct additional searches to get a picture of over-the-air broadcast media in your area.
- Keep in mind that stations that reach you may not originate in your city — to get a comprehensive picture of all the broadcast media that reaches you, you may need to broaden your search.
National Public Radio (NPR) offers a database of its stations on its website. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers a database of its stations, too. Information about audience reach, budget, and programming should be easy to find on a public media station’s website.
Consider the station’s content: Does it broadcast primarily music, news, or a mix of both? Does it produce original programming or only syndicate national and international programs? Also consider what entity the station is licensed to: an independent nonprofit? a public university? a private college? state government? A station’s licensee can tell you about its resources and its capacity for accountability reporting.
While people typically think of public media as NPR and PBS, there are other forms of public media that may provide important content and community connections.
For instance, Low-Power FM (LPFM) radio is a noncommercial license the FCC created in 2000 to allow for broadcasts under 100 watts, reaching an average radius of 3.5 miles. There are approximately 2,400 LPFM stations in the United States, according to the FCC’s searchable database. Most are licensed to religious organizations. The number run by independent nonprofit organizations, however, is slowly growing thanks to the efforts of Prometheus Radio Project, which provides policy advocacy and technical support to groups seeking to use LPFM licensing to produce participatory radio as a tool for social justice organizing and a voice for community expression. If there’s an LPFM radio station in your area, or one in the works, consider it as part of your ecosystem map.
Public Access, Educational, and Government (PEG) cable television channels are another form of community-oriented, nonprofit media. Funded primarily through cable franchise fees, PEG stations vary widely in their structure and orientation. Government channels often provide broadcasts of local government meetings, educational channels may broadcast courses, and public access provides an outlet for people to share their own programming. Some outstanding public access stations have filled gaps in local news and civic information production, and some provide low-cost training and educational opportunities for people interested in media and technology. The Alliance for Community Media, a national organization with many PEG station members, can offer insight on how PEG fits into your community’s ecosystem.
Community and emergent media
Ethnic media: Newspapers, magazines, and digital publications that serve ethnic and foreign-language communities are vital to a community because they offer a voice and a sense of connection. Also sometimes called community, multicultural, immigrant, diaspora, minority, in-language, or ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) media, ethnic media historically have maintained strong bonds of trust with those they serve and made a powerful social impact as a result. For example, African-American newspapers were a major driver of the Great Migration.
There’s no central database of African-American, Spanish-language, or other ethnic media outlets across the country, so finding a complete list of outlets will require some exploration. National Newspaper Publishers Association represents the Black press and has a directory of members on its site. A 2019 report from The Center for Community and Ethnic Media (CCEM) at City University of New York, titled “The State of the Latino News Media,” includes a map and directory of report national map of Spanish-language news media serving local communities across the United States. The map continues to be updated.
CCEM has catalogued ethnic outlets in New York City, and researchers there are working to develop a selective database of outlets across the country. There are also some regional efforts of broader ethnic media directories. The Center for Cooperative Media is creating a study of outlets in New Jersey. The Chicago-based nonprofit Public Narrative maintains its own media guide that includes the city’s community and ethnic media outlets. Ethnic Media Services is creating a new guide in California.
Democracy Fund has published a series of reports that shine a spotlight on the important role of media by and for diverse communities in the United States, with more resources on how to find those organizations in your communities. They include resources on African-American media, American Indian media, Hispanic media, and ways to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in grantmaking.
Your local library is another good place to look for local ethnic and community outlets. Check the newsstands at independently owned retail establishments or community institutions in neighborhoods with a high concentration of residents those outlets serve. Ask community stakeholders which outlets you need to know about.
You can also supplement these approaches with a manual internet search: try using keywords that include the name or nickname of the city, town, county, or region, along with media terms (in-language if searching for non-English-language outlets). For instance, “Cleveland” and “Jewish newspaper,” or “Oklahoma” and “tribe news,” or “North Carolina” and “noticias.”
Emergent digital media: Digital startups are becoming increasingly important aspects of the local news ecosystem. Two national organizations have emerged to support these outlets; membership in one or more of these organizations may provide clues about the viability of a digital startup outlet.
LION Publishers supports digital publishers that focus on local journalism by providing education and training, networking, technical and legal support, and other services.
Members include both for-profit and nonprofit outlets. LION lists its members on its website; LION outlets are also included in UNC’s news deserts database.
The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) is a network of more 200 nonprofit newsrooms across the United States. The organization provides training, technical and legal support, and other resources, as well as fiscal sponsorship for organizations that don’t yet have their own legal status. Because it vets members according to standards of journalistic practice and nonprofit governance, INN has become a trusted partner for philanthropic funders, leading to the NewsMatch matching grant program, which raised $7.6 million for participating newsrooms in 2018 — its third year.
- Go to INN.org
- Click on “Member Directory”
- Choose your state and look at the outlets that appear. Check out their websites.
- You can also search members by focus area, as many cover specific topics such as the environment or rural issues, either nationally or regionally.
Journalism education and youth media
Journalism schools and campus media: The top journalism programs in the country are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC); a list of accredited institutions is available on ACEJMC’s website.
There are hundreds more programs that provide young people with opportunities to learn journalism and media skills, many at institutions with strong community ties. Consider all of the journalism and media training options in your area, including those at historically Black institutions, community colleges, and high schools.
Likewise, consider campus and student-produced media in your scan. Who produces it? How are students trained? Are they compensated? Does the publication produce coverage of the local (off-campus) community? While many student publications are run by school administration, a few are independent, which gives them more freedom to hold the administration accountable.
Youth media: Youth-produced and -led media provide a training ground for young people, not only to become journalists but also to become more informed and empowered participants in civic life. Young people also bring the perspectives of their own communities — those of their parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends — into their storytelling.
We are not aware of a centralized database of youth media projects, and the platforms, content, and context of youth media can vary widely. Ask stakeholders about youth media or other youth-oriented arts and culture organizations that might have, or could have, a media component.
Shortcut option: If you’re willing to pay for it or have access through a library or business, tools like Cision, Meltwater, and others provide lists of media outlets that may save you some time. Designed to aid public relations professionals seeking to pitch stories to media, these tools contain information about outlets across all platforms. They may not be comprehensive, however, so you’ll want to make sure to look out for emergent digital, nonprofit, ethnic, and foreign-language outlets.
Beyond media: Map your community’s information infrastructure
Now that you have a sense of the media outlets in your community, it’s time to broaden the scope to think about your community’s capacity to access, share, and make sense of news and information. This broader view will tell you about both the need and the infrastructure where you live.
Broadband: The FCC offers a searchable map of broadband access across the United States, but the map’s data come from the industry itself and may overstate what’s available. It also doesn’t tell you how many people have adopted, or signed up for, broadband. U.S. Census data are a better source for that information.
Data consistently show a strong correlation between income and broadband adoption, with poorer people less likely to be connected, or relying on lower-speed connections and less technologically advanced devices. Even controlling for income, there are strong racial and ethnic components to the digital divide. As you consider your community’s infrastructure, look for digital literacy programs addressing this divide.
Libraries: Public libraries are backbones of local communities, providing information and technology access and serving as conveners for civic engagement. They are some of the most accessible and trusted spaces communities have. There are nearly 17,000 public libraries in the United States. Consider where library branches are located in your community, and take stock of the library’s assets and offerings, including computer terminals, digital resources, training opportunities, programming, and physical space.
- Go to LibraryTechnology.org, a searchable database of public libraries across the United States created by Consultant Marshall Breeding.
- Enter the name of your city or county and note the number of individual branches listed.
- Click on a branch listing and look at the details listed, such as what library system the branch belongs to and whether it’s public or private.
- Go back to the homepage and click on your state. How many different library systems serve your state?
Neighborhood organizations and listservs: Each city has a different set of neighborhoods and different ways neighborhoods self-organize. Does your city have active block clubs, neighborhood associations, or other structures in place? Which neighborhoods are the most active? Which could use more resources to develop tools of communication and connection?
Local government outreach: In some places, local governments offer resources or training for neighborhood groups to come together, through block clubs or “neighborhood college,” a training for residents in how their local government agencies work. Check municipal and county websites to see what sort of civic engagement opportunities may exist where you live, and how information flows through those interactions.
Houses of worship: Faith networks are strong networks of trust. Are there especially influential houses of worship in your community? Those known for being active in civic life? Those that invest heavily in communications through printed publications, video, or other forms of media? What sort of backbone organizations exist to connect houses of worship to one another or to other local community groups?
Cultural centers: For immigrant communities and other communities unified by language or culture, cultural centers are important hubs. They provide physical space, social activities, education, and opportunities to develop leadership. Consider how these centers already transmit news and civic information through publications, oral history, social media, or live events.
Advocacy and nonprofit communications: People who care about a particular cause or issue increasingly look to advocacy and nonprofit organizations as trusted sources of information, in part because those organizations typically focus on what actions people can take. Consider not just the influence of these organizations, but also the quality of the information they share: Is it verified and trustworthy? Does it amplify the work of journalists? How does it engage people effectively in working toward solutions?
Social media: What matters here is not the platform, but the people. Who are the influential voices addressing local issues, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.? Are there elected officials who are especially good at using social media to share information? How about activists or entrepreneurs? Which hashtags do they use? Make a list of these influencers and look at how they interact with those who follow them. This can provide a window into the conversations happening in different circles of the community.
Open government and civic data
The state of open government is a critical concern for anyone seeking to make their local civic information stronger.
Public records and public meetings are the most fundamental ways to keep an eye on what our government is up to. But laws and policies around open records and open meetings vary, and the practical application and compliance varies far more. In some communities, city council meetings are broadcast live, while others don’t even allow cameras inside. In some communities, it can take a lawsuit to open up public health data that a neighboring community puts online for the world to see.
To understand the laws where you live, visit the Open Government Guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which offers a compendium on every state’s open records and open meetings laws. The National Freedom of Information Coalition is a national backbone organization serving freedom of information groups across the United States and can direct you to the counterpart organization where you live.
To assess the practical realities of accessing government information, you can use a scavenger hunt approach by seeing how easy (or difficult) it is to find basic information like city council meeting minutes, public officials’ salaries, property tax records, restaurant inspection reports, public transit schedules, city or county budgets, or other data relevant to the information needs you’ve identified. Comparing your findings across local governments will demonstrate their comparative openness. There may be civic technologists in your community, working with groups such as Code for America, who are already exploring digital public records access and putting that data to work toward community solutions.
Code for America is a civic technology nonprofit that enlists technologists to make government services better and more effective. It is a national network with local chapters, called brigades, that host hackathons and other events in cities all over the country. This organization’s volunteers are motivated to make their communities better by helping people access information, and they have skills and expertise that would benefit newsrooms. These volunteers may be great partners in your efforts to build a stronger information ecosystem.
- Go to Code for America’s website https://brigade.codeforamerica.org/
- Zoom in on the map or search and click on the link of the nearest entry
- Find the name of the brigade captain as well as related organizations, university or other institutional sponsors
- Get more information: When is their next event? Could you attend? What projects have they been working on?
- Go directly to the brigade’s website, if one is included on the entry
Who’s already funding media in your area, and what grants are they making? You can find out by searching Media Impact Funders’ media grants data map, available online for free.
Developed in partnership with Candid, a nonprofit that offers searchable data on foundations and nonprofits, this map allows you to search data for more than 200,000 grants made in the media sector, broadly defined, between 2010 and 2015 (with continuous updates). The data are compiled from IRS Forms 990 and 990-PF, foundation websites, and other public sources.
There are five broad categories: “journalism, news, and information”; “Media content and platforms”; “media access and policy”; “media applications and tools”; and “telecommunications infrastructure.” Subcategories break down the data further. These categories of media funding derive from what the foundations themselves report and what Foundation Center staff determine.
There have been several reports on broad trends in the data this map contains since its release. But if you need more specific information about places, funders, and grantees, you can look at the data yourself.