Downtown Raleigh at dusk. Photo credit: Jake Kitchener (Flickr/kitch)
The Triangle is a complex and varied metropolitan area of 1.6 million people, a place in which local identity and regional identity often exist in tension. Connected by highways and by the institutions that employ, educate and entertain, them, Triangle residents tend nevertheless to limit their civic interests to the local communities in which they live. This tension presents challenges to media outlets that cover the Triangle as a metropolitan area. Yet there is high demand for media within this well-educated and rapidly growing population, and many opportunities exist to channel civic impulses and community pride toward the improvement of the local information ecology.
This paper evaluates the quality or "health" of the Triangle region's information environment through a broad qualitative study of new and traditional institutions that provide news and information across four counties in the region. To guide our investigation, we have relied on the report of The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.
The report offers a series of indicators for assessing three important elements of "information health":
- availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities;
- capacity of individuals to engage with information; and
- individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
We find that reliable, accurate, ongoing news coverage is an ever more acute need that local communities in the Triangle face. While the area has weathered the economic downturn better than much of the country, traditional news outlets continue to suffer financially from the economic downturn, reduced advertising revenue, and in many cases heavy debt assumed by their parent companies. As a result, the ranks of professional full-time reporters covering state and local issues are shrinking. Cutbacks at the region's major newspaper, The News & Observer, have led to shrinking coverage of suburban and small-town communities despite the continued growth of those communities. Across platforms, the number of boots on the ground providing accountability coverage of local governmental bodies, regional planning issues, and the impact of state politics on local communities has diminished.
As this study documents, many media outlets exist in the area, yet most publish primarily basic information about events, announcements from local organizations, and commentary. Locally owned outlets are more likely to provide local news and information as a way to distinguish their offerings in a competitive marketplace. Digital media outlets proliferate in the Triangle, though they reach mostly affluent and niche audiences that are highly educated and already comfortable with technology. Startup media organizations, even in traditional formats such as print, find greatest success when they focus on one city or local community. Blogs and other digital tools are increasing the public's ability to engage with information and to organize to solve community problems. Yet the supply of relevant and credible information has not kept pace with that engagement. The consistent production of high-quality, substantive content is the greatest challenge for nonprofit and for-profit ventures alike.
The high-tech, university, and creative communities of the Triangle possess ingenuity and resources that may help develop new solutions to the area's problems. The role of universities in local media partnerships, so far limited, is expanding. Local philanthropic organizations are seeking to support the provision of information needs to the Triangle in a way that fits within their missions. Ideologically affiliated groups are fulfilling some of the policy communication functions previously and traditionally assumed by journalistic institutions. Poor policy and governance hinder public media outlets, particularly local PBS affiliate UNC-TV, from fulfilling a greater role. To address these issues a broad range of organizations and publics must engage in conversations about media and technology policy in order to ensure those policies serve the public interest.
The Triangle is poised to develop a media ecology strong in its diversity if it can harness its local talent and channel local resources and creative, civic energy to provide information and context to issues of community concern, thereby increasing the capacity of both mainstream and emergent outlets to report independently verified state and local news.
Note: This document has been updated from a previous version to reflect changes in the information ecology.