North Carolina’s digital divide
More than 1 million North Carolinians don’t have high-speed internet. So what news and information are they missing, and what are the best ways they’d like to be reached? A special research project by Carolina Public Press.
Collaboration, Community Research, Data Analysis
December 2021-November 2022
Carolina Public Press, Asheville, N.C. (headquarters)
The N.C. Rural Center
The Border Belt Independent
NC Local News Workshop
Google GNI Innovation Challenge
Dogwood Health Trust
In November 2021, the third Google News Initiative 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. As a result, the statewide nonprofit newsroom built the NC Connection: Closing the News Gap project to focus on the news needs of rural North Carolinians, especially those who can’t access, afford or have the technical know-how for high-speed internet.
Broadband access is essential infrastructure, but North Carolina has a significant digital divide; at least 1.1 million households lack access to a broadband connection, cannot afford an internet subscription or do not have an adequate device. Many lack skills to use digital services like telehealth, online education or job boards.
As a result, digital news is failing to fill gaps in declining print-based media, the primary news source in rural areas. Already, more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties are, or are at risk of becoming, news deserts. More than 40 newspapers closed from 2004 to 2018. Six North Carolina counties have no newspaper.
This disproportionately impacts rural communities where broadband access simply does not exist, leaving residents without essential news and information. Through the NC Connection project, CPP will work within rural communities to discover news needs and distribution preferences of those living beyond “the end of the digital line.” We will test and incorporate feedback into products, strategy and messaging to provide residents essential news. Finally, we will disclose learnings to industry peers.
Carolina Public Press partnered 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. Research and analysis was specifically undertaken in established ways to make 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
The analysis of data and feedback for insights into trends among news needs and preferred ways to access the news, should provide the basis for strategic editorial decisions that specifically serve the canvassed audiences and lead to several potential innovations.
Testing distribution methods in WNC
In addition to the overall research project, CPP tested outreach methods on Western North Carolina residents about a critical current government and public policy issue: the American Rescue Plan (ARPA). ARPA is intended to combat COVID-19’s education, health and economic impacts. Throughout N.C., counties, cities and tribal governments will receive millions of dollars to aid communities affected by COVID-19. The need to serve rural N.C. and communities of color is growing. Understandably, N.C.’s community foundations want to ensure that relief funds fill gaps, particularly in underserved minority and rural communities facing disproportionate racial and economic issues. Texting distribution will be available throughout the region, but concentrated outreach will target Swain and Yancey counties.
Community engagement in this process, strengthened by nonpartisan accountability journalism, provided the backbone to ensuring overlooked communities have opportunities to participate in and benefit from relief funds.
Broadband access is essential infrastructure, but North Carolina has a significant digital divide. At least 1.1 million North Carolina households lack access to a broadband connection, cannot afford an internet subscription or do not have an adequate device. Additionally, many lack experience to use digital services like telehealth, online education or job boards.
Poor connectivity means less news in rural NC
As a result, digital news is failing to fill gaps caused by declining print-based media, a primary news source in rural areas. Already, more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties are, or are at risk of becoming, news deserts. More than 40 newspapers closed from 2004 to 2018. Six North Carolina counties have no newspaper.
This disproportionately impacts rural communities where affordable and reliable broadband access simply does not exist. Residents are often left without essential news and information about their own communities.
About the survey
The survey asked respondents to tell CPP about their internet capabilities, use and news consumption, with questions that include:
- Do you have a reliable internet connection?
- How do you get your local news?
- How important to you are specific topics such as health care, local politics, schools information, investigative reporting, etc., are,
- And, what kind of news would you like to see more of.
Between April-September of 2022, the survey was completed by 778 people in rural North Carolina, and partially completed by an additional 816.
Google News Initiative Innovation Project
The third GNI North America Innovation Challenge selected 25 projects out of 190 proposals from Canada and the U.S. to receive a share of more than $3.2 million to help build their ideas that address the need for research in local news.
Carolina Public Press’s NC Connection project was included in this recipient pool for its project designed to discover the news needs and distribution preferences of those North Carolinians living beyond the end of the “digital line.” Studies show that 1.1 million North Carolina households lack access to either high-speed broadband or the digital tools and skills needed to access this essential service. Most of these households are in rural communities, leaving the state with a significant digital divide as many residents exist without vital and freely accessible local news and information. Studies have shown that at least half of N.C.’s 100 counties are at risk of becoming news deserts.
The project allowed CPP to incorporate fact- and input-based alternative distribution methodologies to our journalism and community engagement efforts.
Dogwood Health Trust
Carolina Public Press hopes that, in tandem with its Google News Initiative Innovation Project, it will develop a line of site into creating a unique journalism and news distribution program that will increase community knowledge about the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). North Carolina is estimated to receive $5.7 billion in ARPA funding, and elected officials continue to make critical decisions right now about how to distribute this funding throughout the state. It is critical that communities are involved in this conversation, especially those traditionally left out of policy-level conversations. The need was never more highlighted than by COVID-19, which exposed the instability of some of the most disenfranchised populations, particularly people living in rural, minority and underserved communities in Western counties. In order to meet information gaps, CPP’s award-winning team will develop journalism programming that includes written Spanish and English in-depth, explanatory, public service reporting on ARPA, as well as innovative, alternative distribution networks of related news and information to underserved communities in WNC. In addition to sharing content here on our website and with content-sharing partners, we will begin the process of researching the feasibility of implementing innovative means of news distribution.
- Event attendance
Carolina Public Press Community Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson attended the N.C. Rural Center annual Rural Summit in late March 2022 and prepared promotional materials for that event, including flyers and a poster. This was used as an opportunity to network with rural professionals from across the state and conduct initial outreach.
- Community listening/focus groups:
Nov. 17, 2022
Share Your View on News: An event at Western Carolina University
35 people were in attendance at this World Cafe-style event in Western North Carolina. The event was produced in partnership with NC Local News Workshop, WNC Health Network and Blue Ridge Public Radio. Three topics were discussed by small groups, and in between discussion rounds there were brief talks given by community leaders regarding the work that they do for communities in WNC.
Nov. 15, 2022
Eastern Carolina Virtual Focus Group
Attended by four community members, one funder, and CPP four staff members, this discussion focused on what news was missing from the local ecosystem in Cumberland County, N.C. Topics included newspaper closures, lack of government accountability in reporting, reliability of news and affordability/access to news products.
Oct. 27, 2022
Virtual Bilingual Focus Group in partnership with AMEXCAN
This event was attended by 49 community members, three AMEXCAN staff members and four CPP staff members. The session was conducted in English and Spanish, with participants encouraged to answer questions in the language in which they were most comfortable. A CPP staff member monitored the chat in both Spanish and English, where additional conversation took place.
Oct. 18, 2022
Presentation to NC Latino Resource Network
Lindsey Wilson, community engagement coordinator, provided an overview of research findings among Latino respondents, as well as analysis of how these findings compared to the rest of responses.
Sept. 1, 2022
Listening session at University of North Carolina Pembroke
This “world cafe”-style listening session focused on news needs and trustworthiness of news organizations. Partnering with NC Local News Workshop, Border Belt Independent, Carolina Demography, and UNC Pembroke. Read more.
At the conclusion of the NC Connection survey, outreach efforts included:
- 10 physical locations in Bryson City, N.C.
- Five physical locations in Weaverville, N.C.
- Weaverville Tailgate Market and Mars Hill Farmers Market vendors
- Approximately 2,600 email addresses
- 250 community organizations
- Email listservs reaching approximately 5,000 people
- Outreach to past CPP event participants: 123 people
- Telephone interviews with seven opt-in subjects.
- Nextdoor: Produced a digital ad that generated 16,793 impressions and 51 click-throughs.
- PRE (Public Radio East) digital and on-air, 6-week campaign
- BPR (Blue Ridge Public Radio) digital and on-air, 4-week campaign
- WKYK Radio (Mitchell and Yancey Counties) digital, 4-week campaign
- WRGC and WBHN (sister stations in WNC) 4-week campaign, digital and on air
Outreach to more than 30 local and regional newspapers (Spanish and English) and regional public radio stations in Western, Central and Eastern N.C.
Conducted five interviews toward a goal of ten one-on-one interviews with survey participants. Collected 3 hours of interview data, to be transcribed and analyzed by the end of August.
Letters to the Editor
Letter to the editor encouraging community participation in the survey as a public service sent to N.C. media list of ~150 print and digital publications.
Reporting and Results
Internet access is wide, though disparities exist
Our survey found that most people surveyed did have access to the internet, though there were racial disparities in the rates of internet connectivity. Additionally, some respondents reported that they had internet at home but that this was a mobile network on cell phones, which limits the amount and kind of information that can be accessed.
Our research found that many people in rural North Carolina still rely on local newspapers for information pertaining to local and statewide issues. Television and radio are also still fairly popular news delivery means, though more people accessed information online at home or elsewhere or on cell phones than any other delivery method. Spanish news media was most likely to be accessed by TV or online.
In one-on-one interviews with survey respondents, we heard repeatedly a concern with the quality of news media, and some people talked at length about doing their own fact checking on news articles. We learned that there is a significant gap in Spanish news media, and we hope to continue to build relationships with the Latino community to better serve this population.
The Latino Audience
According to the 2020 census, Latinos make up 10.2% of the total population of North Carolina, or 1.1 million people. Our survey was completed by 54 Latino people, making up 6% of the total respondents. Our data is limited to a small sample size; however, our findings suggest that Latino respondents have unique needs when it comes to news and internet connectivity.
To better understand the news needs of North Carolina’s Latino population, further outreach should be conducted. The outreach conducted to date has provided a better idea of the news needs of different sectors of this population. We now have a better idea of what bilingual Latinos want to hear about and how they would like their community news delivered.
The survey told us that Latino respondents had the lowest rates of internet at home, at 14.8% without internet access, compared to 6% of the total respondents. When asked why they did not have internet at home, respondents said that the internet was not available (39.7%), that it was not reliable (49.2%) and that it was too expensive (36.5%).
Thirty-two percent of the total population surveyed has access to Spanish-language news media, compared to 53.7% of Latino respondents. When asked whether they had heard about federal ARPA spending, 61% of respondents said yes, 28% said no, and 11% said they weren’t sure.
News importance and news gaps
In addition to the above information, the survey also provided insight into audience opinions about the gaps in news and information in these communities.
The survey asked respondents to reflect on the importance of and the quantity of the following news topics:
- News about local health care (COVID-related, maternity, eldercare, mental health and other health care topics)
- Local and statewide government news
- Local interest news on items that include organizations, roads, etc.
- News about the local economy and businesses
- Local social/entertainment news
- Local crime news
- Investigative stories
- News about schools
- News about the environment
When asked about which news topics were most important, participants showed a high interest in many of the topics listed in the survey.
Local and statewide government news (82.9%) and news about the weather (79.4%) were the highest ranked topics, with approximately 80% of respondents indicating that these topics were important or very important to them. Other topics of high importance to respondents included news about heath care (74.1%), local interest news (72.3%), news about the local economy/business (66.1%), investigative stories (64%), and news about the environment (72.4%).
We also asked survey participants about perceived gaps in news coverage. Our question on the survey read: How would you describe the amount of news you get on each of these topics?
Respondents identified the largest gap in coverage on environmental news, with 43.6% of respondents answering that they do not get enough environmental news. Respondents also indicated that they do not get enough local government news coverage (38.9%), local economy/business (33.6%), or investigative stories (40.8%).
When the population of respondents was segmented by age, some clear trends emerged. The youngest group of respondents, aged 18-24, indicated the lowest rates of importance on every topic listed by the survey. Respondents aged 55 and older ranked almost every topic as being of higher importance than the other age groups. We also found that the perceived news gaps were higher in adults aged 55+ than they were in younger adults.
Our data also indicated that there are racial disparities in how news is perceived by survey participants. Racial and ethnic minorities ranked almost every news topic as being of greater importance than their white counterparts. In the case of Black participants, this trend was especially clear. However, white respondents generally had a higher perceived gap in news coverage. White participants answered that they did not get enough news about every topic in higher percentages than Black respondents. This insight warrants further investigation in future reader surveys, as it is difficult to attribute this trend to any particular difference in news consumption among minority and majority racial/ethnic groups.
The NC Connection research has important implications for news organizations nationwide, but more research is needed to further identify how to reach rural populations at the end of the digital divide, particularly marginalized people within these communities. Our partnership with AMEXCAN, including the conversation with the NC Latino Resource Network and our Virtual Focus Group for Bilingual North Carolinians, helped us identify additional research and development opportunities with North Carolina’s Latino community.
CPP will work to identify and develop novel news products, including newsletters and direct-to-consumer text messaging newsrooms, that will be tailored to specific audiences in need of investigative journalism. We are working to secure funding for additional reporters who could contribute to the organization’s mission to serve all of North Carolina’s residents and we are looking for partners who are interested in funding news products that would serve North Carolinians beyond the digital divide.
The following list is a set of suggestions for CPP, communities and journalists based on the NC Connection research project. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it reflect the extent of our post-project activities as an organization.
What can Carolina Public Press do?
- Develop additional unique novel news products, including newsletters specifically designed for rural communities.
- Expand the text message news delivery system to reach more digitally challenged rural residents, including the use of Whatsapp to send micro-stories/short weekly round-ups.
- Develop additional audio options, including the reading of stories, and a podcast.
- Utilize community-based news distribution methods such as through school systems, community health networks, food banks, community organizations.
What can communities do?
- Develop relationships with journalists in your community that go beyond press releases.
- Train community members as citizen journalists to cover local news topics.
- Start a community listserv or text message chain in rural areas to disseminate reliable, accurate and trustworthy news that’s independent of social media.
- Learn more about issues related to high speed internet access in your community, county and state.
What can journalists do?
- Use Whatsapp, Signal, and other text message services to connect with sources in hard-to-reach locations.
- Report on broadband issues in your communities, including the barriers to access.
- Take an audience-first approach and review audience data from this survey and others when planning beats, coverage and projects.
- Challenge assumptions and stereotypes about rural communities and look for their inherent diversity, complexity and authenticity.
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’s 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 Community Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson.