Groundman Chris Via secures lines for Virginia's BARC Electric Cooperative's efforts in installing fiber optic cables to the existing electrical poles, which will bring dependable high-speed broadband to the area for the first time. Similar initiatives are getting underway in parts of North Carolina. USDA photo by Preston Keres

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Executive Director’s note: This week, we’re taking you behind the scenes of a special Carolina Public Press project, NC Connection: Closing the News Gap. We’ve launched an expansive, data-driven research project to determine what the news gaps are in rural communities where high-speed internet is currently expensive, inaccessible or simply not available. Plus, we want to know how these communities want to get their news and information when hopping online simply isn’t an option.


In November 2021, the third GNI North America Innovation Challenge awarded Carolina Public Press a data-driven research grant to help address the need for research in local news in North Carolina.

Now, nearly nine months later, we are well underway with the resulting project, NC Connection: Closing the News Gap.

Carolina Public Press is undertaking the public-service-driven research project to discover where news gaps are within certain of North Carolina’s rural communities — especially those without strong, fast and affordable internet service. The N.C. Rural Center defines rural as a population density of 250 people per square mile or less. By this definition, 78 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are classified as rural, using 2020 U.S. census data.

“High-speed internet access may be thought of as essential infrastructure — especially to people who are used to turning on their internet like they turn on a light switch,” said Angie Newsome, executive director of Carolina Public Press. “But not every North Carolinian has easy and affordable access to the internet, which leaves up to 4 million North Carolinians across the ‘digital divide.'”

We want to know what nonprofit news organizations like ours can do to help.

High-speed internet access may be thought of as essential infrastructure, but not every North Carolinian has access, leaving many on the other side of the “digital divide.”

Angie Newsome, Carolina Public Press executive director

COVID made us even more aware of a digital divide in North Carolina — the fact that many households, perhaps a large number of them being in communities like yours, lack reliable internet access, cannot afford an internet subscription or do not have an adequate device. When there’s a crisis like COVID, lack of internet service becomes a critical need.

We hope this research will help identify trends among these communities’ news needs. We also hope these trends may align with those in other North Carolina communities and even those outside the state. CPP would like to use this information as a springboard to develop new ways to serve the public and deliver the news and information people need in ways that are convenient and accessible to everyone.

Visit NC Connection: Closing the News Gap

Find all the project information in one place.

How you can help and participate

And we want to know what happens when that information is most difficult to receive. We’ve launched surveys in English and Spanish to ask, and results are beginning to come in. We’re working to gain participation from across the state in order to be as representative as possible of North Carolina’s rural communities.

Our work will continue until the end of the year, and we’ve designed surveys (in both English and Spanish). We are convening focus groups within target rural communities to gather input and feedback on known news gaps and the ways people want to get news and information today.

The survey can be delivered to you by email or text, and you can take it in less than 10 minutes. Go here to take it now, or text the word survey to 866-716-1266.

If you’d like to help spread the word about this project in your own communities or among your family, friends, colleagues and church communities, contact Rural Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson.

The processes, data and results will be shared on the CPP website and in a series of materials such as presentations, data visualizations and articles during major touch points along the project’s lifetime.


Learn more about our methodologies, outcomes and expected results

Research strategies

Carolina Public Press is partnering with rural-based community organizations to conduct research and develop best practices that may be shared with other rural-serving news organizations and/or organizations wishing to reach low-tech and hard-to-reach communities. In this collaboration, the project uses surveys, focus groups and other data-driven methods to establish a baseline understanding of the community’s informational needs and expectations. We are striving to make the survey and related data-gathering activities statistically significant with a minimal margin of error.

Why focus on rural North Carolina? 

  • North Carolina’s rural population is larger than that of any other state except Texas.
  • Rural North Carolina communities face challenges related to demographic changes, workforce development, capital access, infrastructure, health, land use, and environment and community preservation.
  • According to the N.C. Rural Center, there are more than 4 million people living in rural North Carolina. The population of 18- to 64-year-olds has been decreasing over the last 10 years, and the population of adults 65 and older is steadily increasing.

Analysis and impact

We’ll analyze data and feedback for insights into trends among news needs and preferred ways to access the news. It will provide the basis for strategic editorial innovation that specifically serves the surveyed audiences. This may provide a wealth of potential innovations.

Results

We hope to ensure that any final news products will tell the widest possible range of stories that best meet the audience’s needs.

We hope that the survey results and research will reveal additional potential innovations. Feedback from these audiences will enable us to interpret the ability of these audiences to voice their community concerns and may serve to deepen CPP’s future reporting. It also should help surface issues that might not occur to editorial staff located in other communities. 

Ultimately, this research and analysis may help provide North Carolina’s rural communities with a more prominent voice in local and statewide news organizations, greater access to journalists, opportunities to help shape the news and options to elevate needed voices, stories, concerns and challenges within their communities. Already, we’re testing one idea with the support of the Dogwood Health Trust: a news-to-text project about the American Rescue Plan Act for Western North Carolinians.

Partnerships

We are working with the N.C. Rural Center, the Border Belt Independent, the N.C. Local News Workshop at Elon University, Carolina Demography and other partners to distribute survey messaging through social media, media relations, radio and digital advertising, focus groups and listening sessions, and print and flyer distribution.

Additional outreach will include posters located in bookmobiles, libraries, grocery stores and one-on-one contact with community organizations. All promotional material will include messages about the survey and will contain the SMS opt-in shortcode. All pertinent digital and print materials are available in both English and Spanish. 

Benchmarking

We’ve created a series of benchmarks designed to inform our ongoing activities and the need to pivot these activities, including:

  • Initial survey results.
  • Sharing by partners/collaborators.
  • Challenges encountered with survey distribution.
  • Survey response rates.
  • Over- or under-represented geographic areas.

Based on the evaluation, we will alter outreach strategies, consider other outreach methods and consider additional resource allocation as necessary. 

Potential uses in journalism and beyond

The critical, data-based insight from this project may be used not only among news entities serving rural communities but also other organizations that need to reach residents who do not have broadband access. Expected insights include:

  • What rural communities without broadband access believe the news and information gaps are.
  • What news and information rural communities without broadband access want first, second and third.
  • Specific ways residents in rural communities would like to receive news.

Selected during the third Google News Initiative North America Innovation Challenge to receive a share of more than $3.2 million to help build ideas that address the need for research in local news, Carolina Public Press’ NC Connection: Closing the News Gap project seeks to discover the news needs and distribution preferences of those North Carolinians living beyond the “digital line.” For more information contact Carolina Public Press Rural Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson.

Staff Reports

This release, story or event was developed through multiple sources and/or is from the staff of Carolina Public Press.

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