Hyperlocal Online News Sites:

Are They Meeting Community News and Information Needs?

By Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Innovation, Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University

The rise of online news sites in the past seven years has been one response to the changing legacy daily newspaper environment and the relative simplicity of online publishing technologies. However, many of these news startups may not be reaching all the residents in their geographic reach or representing their region’s population accurately, according to recent analysis by Elon University students.

Are these entrepreneurial ventures filling in the gaps in legacy media or providing news coverage to regions previously untapped by mainstream media? Do the sites serve their geographic and demographic audiences? The research, conducted under the guidance of Dr. Michelle Ferrier, evaluates hyperlocal online news sites, their content, their geographic reach and how well these sites serve their region's residents with fresh news and information.

Research Findings

According to a national analysis of more than 100 hyperlocal online news sites and state-based topical sites in Spring 2013, 59 percent of the sites represent the demographics of the regions they cover. Many of the sites’ online readers reflect a Caucasian majority, which may not be reflective of the total regional population. In a more detailed content analysis of the sites' homepages, only 40 percent of the sites accurately represent the full range of the residents in their geographic region either on the demographic factors of ethnicity, gender or both.

Local demographics were determined based on 2010 census data. Because most hyperlocal sites only identify their geographic region by name, student researchers examined business listings, geotagged events and other markers of geographic reach to determine zip codes covered by the hyperlocal online news sites.

The sites were ranked most favorably on providing news and information to its geographic audience, with 62 percent of the sites receiving favorable rankings.

Students compared 2010 census data with site-specific demographic data and conducted a content analysis of the home pages of the sites for 14 days. The students used the content analysis model outlined by Michele McLellan. A more detailed analysis of the sites used in the study can be found on the project wiki at: http://hyperlocalonlinenews.wikispaces.com/.

This wiki contains several pages for each site analyzed:
  • Site Summary Pages: A site can be found using the search field in the navigation screen, or scroll down in the navigation bar to find a site name.
  • Site Appendix: Called URL_Appendix, this page contains the 14 screen grabs of the homepage that were used for analysis of the visuals of the site.

In addition, we generated two aggregate pages for the wiki data:
  • Geographic Reach: This page includes the zip codes for the geographic region covered by the site, the 2010 census data for those zip codes and images from Alexa.com with site-specific demographic data.
  • Research Summary Page: On this page, students ranked the sites they analyzed on a Likert scale for each of the research questions posed.

The student work is part of the Media Deserts Project, a larger research initiative to provide a climate map of the media ecosystem. The Media Desert Project examines daily newspaper circulation, hyperlocal online news and weekly newspapers to provide a picture of where fresh news and information is lacking. The second stage of the student research will map the geographic reach of these sites to determine if news innovations are providing news and information in media deserts. A video describing the Media Desert Project can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK9OqINpyys

Earlier ethnographic research conducted in the April 2013 by Dr. Ferrier on hyperlocal online news publishers found that only 5.5 percent of hyperlocal online news sites were founded or run by people of color. Census data from 2010 shows that minorities make up 28 percent of the U.S. population.