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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.

Details

Project Type
Collaboration, Community Research, Data Analysis

Date
December 2021-November 2022

Location
North Carolina

Newsroom
Carolina Public Press, Asheville, N.C. (headquarters)

Collaborators
The NC Rural Center
The Border Belt Independent
NC Local News Lab
Carolina Demography

Funding
Google GNI Innovation Challenge
Dogwood Health Trust

Contacts

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. The NC Connection project is ongoing throughout 2022. This web portal will be continuously updated as new activities and learnings occur.

Introduction

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.

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. In the meantime, more than 1 million North Carolinians don’t have access to high-speed internet. USDA photo by Preston Keres

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.

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.

Testing distribution methods in WNC

In addition to the overall research project, CPP will test outreach methods to Western North Carolina residents on 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, will provide the critical backbone to ensuring overlooked communities have opportunities to participate in and benefit from relief funds.

A statewide news outlet, such as Carolina Public Press, with the ability to distribute community focused news and information, particularly to those without accessible, reliable and trustworthy news outlets, is a critical component. The project is focused on reporting and innovative distribution models that will be needed to reach underserved areas, such as rural and minority communities where broadband is either not accessible or very expensive.

Survey

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 asks 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 specific topics such as health care, local politics, schools information, investigative reporting, etc., are,
  • And, what kind of news would respondents like to see more of.

To complete the survey, visit https://bit.ly/cppgni22

Or text survey to 866-716-1266.

Project Updates and Posts

Weekend Newsletter, May 7, 2022

By Lindsey Wilson

Rural North Carolina, like many other areas of the country, is facing a serious decline in local journalism. Already, nearly half of North Carolina’s counties have become news deserts, where there are fewer options for residents to find information about local news, politics, events, community issues and more. Additionally, only 40% of North Carolina households have access to reliable, high-speed internet, making it difficult for those with limited internet connections to access online news organizations. It is in this challenging climate that Carolina Public Press is launching its study “NC Connection: Closing the News Gap,” which aims to help us, and in turn newsrooms across the state (and even beyond), understand how best to serve rural communities.

This week, the project launched a quick but important survey, in both English and Spanish. Using mapping and data provided by the N.C. Department of Information Technology, we identified 30 high-needs counties where we’ll focus our outreach and in-person activities. Concentrated in the far western and eastern parts of the state, these counties have limited broadband accessibility and more limited access to local news sources. But we want to know what are the gaps in news? And how do people want to get that news?

If you live in a rural community in North Carolina, we want to hear from you.

The NC Connection survey takes less than ten minutes to complete, and will provide us with valuable information that will help shape the future of our newsroom and other newsrooms across the state. Our results will be transparent and published widely, with a landing page coming soon to host our data and methodology. It has never been more important to give voice to rural communities, especially those without accessible high-speed internet, and we hope you’ll participate in this unique opportunity to shape the future of news in your area. 

Our goal is to reach around 1,000 rural participants statewide. Already, responses are beginning to come in. We are using a combination of outreach methods, including online, in person, and text messaging to spread the word about the survey. We are conducting extensive outreach to local community organizations, media outlets, and government agencies to reach as many stakeholders as possible.

But if we are to reach our goal of hearing from as many rural residents as possible, we’re going to need your help. You can access the survey here in English and Spanish. Please share this survey with your neighbors, family members, coworkers, networks and any local organizations that you think we should be working with. Additionally, we are in the early stages of planning two focus groups, one in the mountains and one on the coast, and we are seeking individuals who are interested in participating in this way. The survey project will wrap up in the fall, so it is crucial that we use the summer months to collect as much information as we can. 

Thank you for your help in making this project a reality. We at Carolina Public Press are so excited to collect this valuable information as part of our mission of public service to the people of North Carolina. If you have questions or comments, or need more information about the project or survey, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me

Lindsey Wilson is the rural engagement manager for Carolina Public Press.

Weekend Newsletter, April 26, 2022

By Lindsey Wilson

Carolina Public Press received a grant from the Google News Initiative to undertake an innovative news research project in North Carolina. Next month, we will launch a survey that will examine how folks in rural N.C. access the internet, how they receive their news and what kind of news they want and need. Our goal for the project is to better understand how news outlets such as ours could help fulfill these news needs for rural community members across the state.

Why? Because we know there is a digital divide in NC and that many households in rural communities lack access to broadband, cannot afford an internet subscription and/or do not have an adequate device. 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 the state’s 100 counties are, or are at risk of becoming, news deserts. More than 40 newspapers closed from 2004 to 2018. Covid-19 highlighted the disparities in rural areas and other underserved communities in accessing critical news and information, and solidified the need for robust local journalism that is freely accessible, reliable and of high quality. 

Our research will be analyzed 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. Discovery may provide a wealth of potential innovations. Survey results and analysis will be available to the public through a webpage that we are currently developing.

We plan to launch the survey in April, and we hope to collect around 1000 survey results from across the state. Our survey will be available on our website and through an opt-in text messaging service for people whose primary point of internet connection is mobile phone. The survey is designed to take under 10 minutes to complete and will be gathering data from across the state, with a focus on the western, eastern and border belt regions of North Carolina. It will be available in both English and Spanish.

This week, our Rural Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson attended the N.C. Rural Center’s annual Rural Summit to talk with community leaders about the NC Connection project. She participated in the exhibitor hall and attended workshops about the state of broadband in N.C. and strategies for resilience. We are excited to foster partnerships with the N.C. Rural Center and the Border Belt Independent newspaper group, and are looking for additional partnership opportunities among community-based organizations, media groups and community leaders.

We are interested in connecting with community members who can help spread the word about this project in rural communities where they live and work. If you’d like to help, please reach out to lwilson@carolinapublicpress.org to speak with Lindsey Wilson about how you can help.

Weekend Newsletter, Feb. 19, 2022

We’re listening

by Ellen Acconcia

“We believe every North Carolinian deserves access to reliable and fact-based local news and information.” ~Angie Newsome, Executive Director
 
Since joining Carolina Public Press in March of 2020, I’ve learned a lot about you, our readers, the news you want to receive and how you’d like to receive it. I know our audiences want accurate, nonpartisan news that often reveals things that some might prefer to keep hidden. I have a keen interest in learning how we can reach new N.C. audiences in order to meet one of the most important tenets of our mission—public service—especially in communities without a bridge to local news and those who are on the other end of the digital divide.

With our participation this year in the Google News Initiative, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more about how to serve these folks, and I invite you to come along for this journey of discovery.
 
We told you in November 2021 that we were among 25 organizations nationally that were selected to receive funding from Google to support an innovative project. With additional support from Dogwood Health Trust, we’ll aim to gather data on how people without high-speed broadband access get their news, what they miss and how (and if!) they want to engage with news organizations. Our hope is that we’ll be able to develop a news product (or products) to serve these North Carolinians. And we know that there will be hundreds of uses for this information in this state and beyond, which is why we’ll share our methodology and data widely here and on our website (watch for a special page to launch).
 
As the director of audience and engagement, I will manage this project with the help of our new Rural Engagement Coordinator Lindsey Wilson. With her experience in a variety of capacities as a community organizer, research facilitator, and environmental educator and her work on small-scale produce farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, Lindsey brings a deep interest in issues facing rural people. Lindsey has a dual major in anthropology/sociology and creative writing from Kalamazoo College and she lives in Buncombe County. Please help me welcome Lindsey to the team.
 
Lindsey and I will work with our partners to make this project a success. They include the NC Rural Center, whose varied initiatives strive to develop, promote, and implement sound economic strategies to improve the quality of life of rural North Carolinians, especially those with low to moderate incomes and communities with limited resources. We’ll also work to reach audiences through teamwork with the Border Belt Independent, a nonprofit, online news site that follows the issues in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties in southeastern North Carolina with a focus on poverty, health, mental health, adverse childhood experiences, race, education and the economy.

Our partners will help us with outreach efforts in representative rural communities so that we may develop a robust list of people to survey in various ways (including online, via smartphone, texting and in-person or virtual focus groups), to learn about their news needs.

 We need to figure out the logistics of talking with—and listening to—diverse groups of people (Yes … Surprise! … N.C.’s rural communities are extremely diverse!) and then get down to the business of asking, listening and interpreting the responses we receive. And we are ready!
 
Watch this space for more from me and Lindsey as we move through the stages of the project. We’ll soon share our timeline, but expect to hear from us again in late March/early April with some preliminary learnings.
 
If you identify as rural or work within a rural community, on a community advisory board, at a food bank, at a faith-based organization, etc., or if you’d just like to get in touch and cheer us on, please let us know. Please reach out to either me or Lindsey with ideas, community resources, issues you already know about, or just to say hello. There are also ways you can help this project along the way. We’d love to hear from you as we move forward!

Ellen Acconcia is the Director of Audience and Engagement at Carolina Public Press.

Funding Support

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 N.C. 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 will allow CPP to incorporate fact- and input-based alternative distribution methodologies to our journalism and community engagement efforts.

Additionally, this work will provide the basis for growing innovation among our team to think beyond the mini-publisher framework. How can we reach those without the internet? How can this news be even more accessible to low-tech and hard-to-reach communities? These are fundamental questions that this project will help answer and that can help boost diversity, equity and inclusion in our journalism.

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 webstie and with content-sharing partners, we will begin the process of researching the feasibility of implementing innovative means of news distribution.

Outreach

In-person

  • Event attendance

Carolina Public Press Rural 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 wa was used as an opportunity to network with rural professionals from across the state and conduct initial outreach.

  • Community listening/focus groups: 

Aug. 9, 2022 – Carolina Public Press and the NC Local News Workshop are interested in learning how folks in communities like yours find and use the news and information you need.

The Swain County Focus Group is an informal, small-group session aimed at uncovering where the news gaps are in this community. Representatives from Carolina Public Press and the NC Local News Workshop will lead the group in a structured conversation, so that participants can share their thoughts and experiences in an open and relaxed environment.

Sept. 1, 2022– Listening session at University of North Carolina Pembroke

With a goal of 70-80 participants, this is planned as a large “world cafe”-style listening session on news needs and trustworthiness of news organizations. Partnering with NC Local News Workshop, Border Belt Independent, Carolina Demography, and UNC Pembroke

Outreach as of July 31, 2022

As of July 31, 2022, we are working with other advocacy and community organizations to develop more in-person and/or virtual events within communities. Current outreach includes:

Flyer distribution

  • 10 physical locations in Bryson City, N.C.
  • Five physical locations in Weaverville, N.C.
  • Weaverville Tailgate Market and Mars Hill Farmers Market vendors

Digital distribution

  • Approximately 2,600 email addresses
  • 75 community organizations

Telephone/email

  • Email listservs reaching approximately 2,500 people
  • Outreach to past CPP event participants: 123 people
  • Telephone interviews with five opt-in subjects.

Advertising 

  • Nextdoor: Produced a digital ad. Currently showing 16,793  impressions and 51 click-throughs.
  • Radio
    • 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
  • Scheduled/to come
    • WRGC and WBHN (sister stations in WNC) 4-week campaign, digital and on air
    • Curtis media group (2-3 stations on N.C. coast) 1-week campaign, on-air and link on website

Media Relations

Outreach to more than 30 local and regional newspapers (Spanish and English) and regional public radio stations in Western, Central and Eastern N.C.

Read the press release.

Interviews 

Conducted five interviews toward a goal of ten on-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

Milestone One – reporting as of July 31, 2022

Demographics: 46% of respondents were from Western N.C., almost 10% from Buncombe County, where CPP is headquartered. 47.2% of respondents identify as living in a rural community, while 29.4% live in a small city or town. 71.6% of respondents are 55 or older. 88.8% of respondents are Caucasian/White. 

Internet access: Only 6.5% of respondents currently do not have internet at home. Of those who do not have internet, 52.4% said that it was because the internet was not available and 14.3 % said that the internet was too expensive. 38.1% said that their local internet service was not reliable. 9.3% of respondents use the internet on computers at the library, and 26.3 % only use their phones for internet access. 83.5% of respondents use their phones to access the internet. 

Respondents reported that they did not receive enough information about local government (38.6%), the local economy (35.3%), investigative stories (49.3%) and the environment (43.5%).

News Consumption Habits: News about local healthcare (49.2%), local and statewide government (54.2%), and the weather (52.8%) were listed as issues of top importance to respondents. Local social entertainment (8.6%), local crime (21.9%), and local schools (20.3%) were identified as the least pressing issues to respondents, with the percentage noted finding these issues to be very important. 84% of respondents felt that they got enough information about the weather, 63.3% have enough information about public interest stories, and 61.9% have enough information about local crime. Respondents reported that they did not receive enough information about local government (38.6%), the local economy (35.3%), investigative stories (49.3%) and the environment (43.5%).

Spanish Language Media: 15.4% of respondents had access to Spanish language media, with 44.2% getting Spanish language news on television, 48.8% online, 20.9% on their cell phones, and 18.6% from local radio or NPR stations. 

News Preferences: 77% of respondents would prefer to get local news online, 54.4% prefer local news to come from a newspaper, 44.8% on their phones, and 28.5% from television. 

ARPA: 41.5% of respondents had heard of ARPA funding, 47.4% had not, and 11.1% were not sure. 

Pivots as of July 31, 2022

When we started the project, we expected to do more in-person outreach at farmers markets in Western N.C.; however, we learned that many markets no longer allow outside organizations to table or hand out information. This new policy is gaining popularity in the region, and so far we have only done outreach to two farmers markets. In both instances, a staff member was willing to hand out flyers at the information booth. We are willing to explore this as an alternative option for flyer distribution at other farmers markets if there is a staff member who is able to help us out. 

We anticipated that North Carolina County Extension agencies would be very interested in the project and willing to help us spread the word in rural communities. Of the 30 county agents that we reached out to, none responded to our initial inquiries. We decided to reach out to a local organization that works directly with farmers in Western N.C., and they were willing to put information about the survey out to their listserv. We are researching similar organizations in other parts of the state for additional outreach outside of the western region. 

We initially coded the survey to include responses from rural-identifying participants only, but upon hearing feedback from multiple survey takers, we decided to open up the responses to those living in small towns as well. This increased the number of people who took the survey and gave us a more complete picture of the news and internet needs of people in sparsely populated areas. 

Conclusions as of July 31, 2022

Early conclusions

The survey respondents skew heavily toward an older, white demographic and are also disproportionately from Western N.C. Additional outreach should focus on target younger audiences of color, who live in other parts of the state. The majority of respondents are from rural communities or small towns, so we have been effective at targeting these populations. 

Only a small percentage of respondents do not have internet at home. Additional outreach will target libraries and other places where people use the internet while away from home. Most respondents use their phones to access the internet, so we can trial additional outreach through focused text messaging strategies and campaigns. 

Respondents use a variety of methods to access news information, but in almost all categories, the internet was the most common method. This indicates that those who have internet access are more likely to use this method to get their news and information.

The next most-used method of news access was on phones. Interviews and focus groups are asking follow-up questions about how people get their news on phones, including social media, aps, newsfeeds and news organization websites.

Additionally, many respondents still access local news through traditional newspapers, whether online or in print. Where they are still available, these news sources prove very valuable in informing people about local politics, social and entertainment news, and public interest stories. 

Vendor partners

Market Research

Voccii: Charlotte-based market research firm, Gayle Ireland, Principal

Translation

Partners in Language Access (PILA) is a Durham-based, woman-owned translation company. Sarah Green, co-founder.

Graphic Design

YSSRS, Durham-based, woman-owned, principal Julienne Alexander

Web Design

Rosebud Designs, California-based, woman-owned, principal Jenn DeLaFuente

Survey platform

Alchemer 

Texting platform

Simple Texting

QR Code

Flowcode 

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 Rural Engagement Manager Lindsey Wilson.