The digital divide is a news divide

The comet NEOWISE arced into our social media feeds last month as a reminder that, even as chaos seems to reign below, the world beyond our pale blue dot goes on spinning into a void that is incomprehensibly vast. It was beautiful, poetic, and according to some, completely ruined by Space-X’s Starlink satellites

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What isn’t usually talked about on Twitter, perhaps because the audience who benefits from the satellites most aren’t on the platform, is the scale of the digital divide in America and how few journalism organizations are considering a very serious inequity in how information is distributed.

Broadband seems like a simple question of infrastructure until news audiences come into play. As print subscriptions decline and many nonprofit newsrooms focus explicitly on digital distribution, it’s something that few organizations have taken the time to consider or deal with. “Newsrooms never explicitly discriminate,” said Katlyn Alo, a reporter for Outlier Media, an SMS-based information service based in Michigan. “But it’s true that if you’re limited in the way you access information, you’re a certain type of [news consumer].” 

Outlier Media is a news service in that it will occasionally collaborate with local outlets to produce traditional stories. But it is primarily a news information service, focusing on immediate utility and providing text information on housing and utilities and always adapting to community needs. 

Alo said that the service is thoughtful about its intended audience — those underserved by traditional media and government services — because there’s so much that can be easily missed. For example: Outlier Media sends information-heavy texts in small packets so they don’t abuse cell phone user’s data caps. 

In a pilot study published last year, Philip Napoli of Duke University, Sarah Stonbely of the Center for Cooperative Media, Kathleen McCullough of Rutgers University, and Bryce Renninger of Baruch College found that larger, more ethnic communities face disproportionately large effects of news deserts in the journalism divide (an extension on the digital divide). While not exactly replicated in findings from an earlier study, these findings are supported by research done in non-white or underserved communities, as in Oakland and Chicago

Napoli said that journalism divide was a very deliberate use of the word, because it falls along the same demographic lines as the digital divide. Communities of color and less affluent communities are still the most likely to lack a really robust news landscape. And yet, “even in their sad state they were still the most import producers of local news in these communities,” according to his previous research.

There has also been research done in the UK indicating that journalists write to their audience’s perceived lifestyles. This can mean that a weather report is framed as “A great weekend to hit the slopes!” or the destruction of a historically Black business district as “New commercial opportunities coming to revitalized neighborhood.” Each of these headlines signal who the perceived audience is, and who is not. Or, as Alo puts it: “There’s lots of subtle signaling that journalists use to say what our intended audience is.”

By the numbers

In Jackson County, Missouri, otherwise known as metro-area Kansas City, there are more than three internet providers (and in some districts, two different fiber options), but only 83% of households have high-speed internet at home. While most of the area could handle fiber, the highest rate of in-home access is actually in Johnson County, Kansas, half outside city limits, at 98%. The lowest adoption rates in the area belong to Cass and Wyandotte counties, just north of Kansas City. Almost a fourth of the households in these counties lack high-speed internet. Why? 

The research points to multiple reasons, but the primary is almost always fiscal. The median household income in Johnson County is nearly $85,000 a year. Jackson County’s median income is closer to $52,000 a year. 

One news startup called The Beacon is testing out its own SMS-news service. The Beacon, still in a soft-boot, is an example of a nonprofit digital-first newsroom that’s trying to fill a growing news desert in Kansas City, especially as The Star seems to be following the trajectory of most McClatchy properties. The project is a collaboration with KC Race Forward, an organization focusing on racial equity subjects within the city, of which there are many. “I think it’s our ambition to truly use this to serve people who have limited access to the internet and limited access to tools for accessing the internet,” said Jennifer Hack Wolf, The Beacon’s Engagement Editor. 

While SMS was always on the list of things to do for The Beacon, Coronavirus has sped up their plan to implement it, now that public hotspots for WiFi have become way more limited. But in Hack Wolf’s experience, even many SMS services aren’t coming from a place of “digital inclusion.” 

This isn’t to say that SMS is the complete answer. When asked where they were advertising their service, Hack Wolf said that they were still boosting it on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, along with their email newsletter.  

Ruth Hughs, city commissioner of Eudora, Kansas, (pop. 6,384) says that many seniors know how to text, but prefer talking, or reading something that they can hold in their hands. “We’ve got arthritic fingers, and it’s hard for us to remember how to use [texting and the internet in an intuitive way].” Eudora also struggles with internet access, despite being down the highway from the affluent collegetown of Lawrence.

At this point, almost all news in Eudora comes from Facebook or word of mouth. This has been a problem in the past, helping to spread rumors or leaving people without news they need to know, like upcoming utility price increases. Some residents don’t know what’s going on with the city unless they attend Hughs’ water-aerobics class, where she acts as town crier. Hughs is especially concerned about seniors who aren’t aware of resources like meals that can be delivered or a van that can drive them to doctor’s appointments. 

A local news start-up staffed by University of Kansas students made a promising start in the fall to address Eudora’s concerns, but COVID put that on hold.

“It’s like — we’ve got a little house, we’re here, but there’s no road from the highway to our house,” said Hughs. What she means is: There are people in her community desperate for information, but there’s no way to deliver it. They feel cut off and isolated. The fact of the matter is that not many news organizations would see Eudora as a money-printing enterprise. 

“We see philanthropic support on the rise, which is great, but we’re kidding ourselves if the business model of journalism is commercially viable,” Napoli said. But that doesn’t mean that journalism and information-sharing services should necessarily be moved to other institutions.

“Journalistic function cannot be absorbed by other organizations. We should remain independent, for as long as possible.”

Where “equity” goes on the balance sheet

Halfway across the country, Tasneem Raja, the editor-in-chief at Oaklandside, says that she starts her journalism from the point of view of sustainability, but wouldn’t necessarily spend time explaining to legacy media executives why they should be thinking about community engagement. “I’m much more interested in spending that time talking to community members about their ideas of how we can improve and reach them.” 

Flyers have been particularly useful. A story about how unhoused people can be compensated for confiscated property ran on Oaklandside’s website, but it also was adapted for a flyer with resources to tap into. 

“We are working to live up to the mission statements that many traditional local newsrooms have long held up but have historically failed to deliver on,” Raja said in a follow-up email. 

Oaklandside is still very young, having just launched in June in a full-blown pandemic. However, writers understand that journalists have historically failed to report on those who don’t look like the reporters. 

Oaklandside partners with El Tímpano and Youth Beat Media to reach more diverse audiences, and is currently working on collaborations with other community organizations. Raja said that these organizations already understand how to reach underserved populations and how information is shared through a community, “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” 

Jimmy Gutierrez, the engagement manager for Milwaukee News414, explains that they have an SMS system that focuses on housing and other emergency COVID-related issues. They launched in May, so when they sent out a survey asking the audience what information needs they had, the message was clear. 

“People using this service aren’t reading our 3,000-word stories on rental assistance,” Gutierrez said, describing News414’s method on finding an audience, “So who is getting in touch with these populations?” 

The service partners with mutual aid organizations and collaborates with two newsrooms in the area, who lend them the kind of credibility that similar services might have to work years for. A lot of it is effective social media engagement. Some of it is good old-fashioned shoe leather. Gutierrez tabled at an event this past weekend. He hands out flyers and masks with Milwaukee News414’s number on it. 

Gutierrez said that recently, a formerly incarcerated man contacted News414 looking for steady housing. They were able to give him a list of resources in the community who could more directly help him. “Objectivity” didn’t seem to enter Gutierrez’s mind, in terms of whether not they should help the man. They just did.  

“It’s about … real relationships,” said Gutierrez, who hopes that the organization can improve its efforts to remain accountable to the public. “Some communities have every reason to be untrusting or hostile [to journalists]. Building that trust is so important.” 

The internet has provided some truly wonderful gifts to reporters and editors. Twitter, as horrific as it can be, is a watercooler and a boon for journalists looking to build a platform outside of the old (and often racist) model of “working your way up.” Facebook is a tool for authoritarian governments and misinformation, but it’s also an instant contact to almost everyone in town, and support groups for like-minded journalists. Google is an instantaneous fact-check. The internet is an incredibly complicated tool, but it’s also cutting out a significant swath of the audience if it’s the only tool being used. Most of that audience is underserved; those who lack access to the internet, or smartphones, or non-arthritic fingers, or English. 

Reporters on Twitter often like to frame the solution as simple: subscribe to your local newspaper. But why should audiences pay for a subscription to a news service that doesn’t even cover their neighborhood, or come in a package they’re able to read?

If journalists and editors are insistent that Twitter isn’t real life, and the journalists with the largest platforms and the broadest audiences write for the internet, then they should probably ask themselves who they really are writing for.

Marlee Baldridge is a member of The Objective. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Holly Piepenburg. Image sourced from NASA.

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