Understanding the Information Ecosystem in Rural Indiana

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Engagement is, by definition, about two sides. In the news industry we obsess about the shiny gadgets, the new tools and tactics of engagement. But we often don’t spend as much time listening to the people we serve.

In the first post on our recent research trip to Indiana, we reported on our interactions with four local publishers. It was important to us that we assessed the rural information landscape from both the perspective of the publishers, and the audience. In this post, we want to focus on what the communities themselves said. The visit included three separate focus groups with residents in Brown County, Salem, and Greene County.

Routines

Research tells us that the majority of Americans get their news primarily from TV. This pattern of news consumption was confirmed in the interviews that we conducted with members of the Indiana community. We heard that televised regional or national news was a regular part of their day, often in the morning or in the background throughout the day. People also said they would find news on Facebook regularly.

In most cases local news was a strong part of the daily routine. The majority of participants told us that they would check their local news sources at least once a day. Some had subscriptions so habitually checked the paper at home or as they arrived at work. Others checked the web version on their desktops and mobiles.

One of the greatest struggles facing the people we spoke to was poor connectivity in their areas. As a result, many are unable to engage with digital news from home. However there was optimism that 4G was coming to some of the counties in the near future. Libraries may also have a role to play here, as they offer free Wi-Fi access.

Struggles and expectations

Each focus group noted the struggle to maintain the sense of community in their area. Reasons outlined were the independence that comes with technology, as well as an influx of younger families who commute long distances to work.

The people we met said they rely on the local news publisher as a beacon of togetherness. They expect it to provide information that unifies. They said that things like reporting on local football games or the county fair mattered most.

Each group had respect for the local publisher but often reverted to Facebook (groups and pages) for information because it was faster.

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Observations and analysis

We were most fascinated by the moments of synchronicity and divergence between publishers and the community. Both had concerns, aspirations and hesitations around similar issues, albeit from different perspectives. We think the following findings will be central in any attempt to help this community.

1: Local means local

One of the strongest similarities was the shared understanding of and respect for what local news should be. The publishers understood it was their obligation to provide news that wouldn’t be found anywhere else. The community comes to a local publisher for the stories and information that relate directly to a town or county. None of the community members want to see their local news outlets offer insights or coverage on regional or national stories, because they know they can go to various other sources for that.

2: Nourish the community

Both publishers and community members saw the local paper as an institution. The paper believed it was their obligation to provide insight into all aspects of the town (the good, the bad and the ugly) as a kind of moral compass. Meanwhile the community expects local journalists to report on the optimistic and hopeful aspects of the town to promote the positive and provide refuge from the noise and sensationalism of other sources.

The community was disappointed when their local news providers reverted to publishing shock or sensationalist pieces which they believed were detrimental to the community well-being. The publishers felt obliged to print lowbrow pieces as they felt these were the stories that kept readers interested and which helped them to compete with other mainstream media outlets. This gap in expectation shows that there is an opportunity to help the papers learn more from their readers.

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3: The disengaged

All of the groups we listened to had a shared understanding of what ‘disengaged’ means. Both publishers and community members defined this group as younger families and commuters who do not partake in local events and conversations. The publishers call this cohort “non-traditional residents”, who likely do not know there is a local news provider for relevant and useful information. The communities worry that there will be an increase in this type of disengagement and fear it will loosen local bonds. Both publishers and the community felt like they had done what they could to engage the disengaged, but to no avail.

4: Younger demographics

As parents and grandparents, the community members were worried about their children and the younger generation. As towns that are, according to one resident, “near enough to everything but close to nothing”, many young people leave these areas when they reach adulthood. They want to make sure that their youth see the value in returning to their town when they are older. They worry that this group leaves with little or no attachment to the area. If they do return, there is a danger these people become “the disengaged” who commute long distances.

Meanwhile, the publishers argued that younger readers crave sensationalism and have no interest in the local news itself. A large portion of the papers’ coverage was dedicated to covering sports stories from the school districts. We feel that there is a large uncharted opportunity to access these younger potential readers, if rural publishers had insights that would help them to know more about their readers’ interests and needs.

5: Social media

The community and publishers we spoke to both like and loathe social media. They both rely on it, as it provides an insight into conversations that are happening and gives a ‘pulse’ of what locals are thinking. Facebook groups are coordinated by members of the community and the publishers compete with these groups for the attention of their readers. The community gets frustrated that local publishers do not or cannot publish news at a speed to match these groups. They know that these groups are unregulated and may not be entirely factual, but they still offer more immediate updates.

There are some positives for the community with these Facebook groups. They offer an opportunity to know who the neighbors are. Conversations that are transparent and visible help put names to faces and help people feel more connected to others. But we were told that, without fail, comment threads turn sour as they are distorted by hearsay and gossip.

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Libraries

We also met with Emily Alford, Head of Government Information, Maps and Microform Services at the university library. She discussed her research on reengaging citizens with their local library. We discussed the Federal Depository Library Program and the work they have conducted on local libraries. We are interested to follow up this line of research as we believe local libraries have potential to play a large role in local communities, particularly as an infrastructure for developing a digital civic information hub in rural settings.

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This trip was immensely valuable in helping us to understand the nature of the information ecosystem in rural communities. We will continue to explore how technology can have a positive impact on community journalism — both for publishers and the communities they serve.

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We are grateful to the Center for Rural Engagement at Indiana University for providing the funding for this exploratory research visit. We also want to thank Elaine Monaghan at the Media School for her guidance and support.