A graphic recording of the community forum Wmforo held on November 17, 2022 in partnership with BPR, NC Local News Workshop, and WNC Health Network. Graphic storyteller Caryn Hanna took illustrative notes of the conversation with community members. Photo: Lindsey Wilson / Wmforo

For the past year, Wmforo has worked on a data-based research project to better understand how people in rural parts of North Carolina receive their news and information. This project, called “NC Connection: Closing the News Gap,” specifically sought the opinions and insights of the most hard-to-reach communities in the state — those that don’t have reliable, affordable or accessible internet service.

The project asked these communities what news organizations they currently rely on, if it’s enough and how they actually prefer to reach their news.

The insights from the research will certainly help Wmforo move forward with testing ways to answer the challenges discovered and confirmed by the project. And we will share these findings nationally and statewide with those communication professionals and media organizations that are concerned with reaching and covering the news that’s important to hard-to-reach communities on the other side of the “digital divide.”

What are the news needs of rural North Carolinians?

Wmforo knows there is a digital divide in North Carolina and that many households lack access to broadband, 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 2004-18.

Lead researcher Lindsey Wilson set out to analyze the wealth of data that NC Connection generated after surveying more than 1,500 participants and holding several in-person and virtual focus groups and one-on-one interviews. Participants in the interviews and focus groups said that they had to work harder and harder to find reliable, trustworthy information about their local communities. Some participants described the lengths that they take to fact-check information from various sources. Others described their frustrations with local news organizations or expressed feeling ignored by news organizations in general. These conversations proved incredibly useful for CPP’s understanding of the individual issues surrounding news and information in a news ecosystem that is undergoing radical change.

The survey, which had a total of 1,594 participants and a completion rate of 48.8%, gave the team insights into the information barriers facing North Carolinians at a community level. The survey was completed in September 2022, and survey analytics software was used to segment the population by age, race/ethnicity and geography to identify trends.

Here are some of the highlights from the research.

Graph: The percentage of survey respondents who answered that a topic of news was very important or important to them. Topics pictured in the graph are: local and statewide government news (74%); local economy (68%); and news about the environment (70%). Source: Wmforo

Overview of survey participants

Among all project participants, 73% (945 people) lived rurally or in a small town. This number exceeded our expectations, as we knew that a major challenge would be reaching people who live remotely and might not have home internet access. The majority of participants (75%) had education beyond high school. Nearly 84% of survey participants were white, and 10% were African American, 6% Latino, 6% Asian/Indian and 3% other racial/ethnic groups.

More than half (52%) of participants use a computer at work, and 43% use a laptop or tablet in a place with free Wi-Fi. Another 27% used the internet at the library, suggesting that in rural communities and small towns, public amenities like libraries, cafes and workplaces provide an important link to online information and news.

How does age relate to news accessibility?

One way that we found to be helpful for understanding the news habits and needs of our audience was to segment the total population by age group. This gave us an understanding of generational differences that might be related to comfort levels with particular technologies for accessing information and the internet. We found that 18- to 24-year-olds had an internet connectivity rate of 87%, whereas participants 75 or older had a 100% internet connectivity rate at home. Age groups between these extremes had a home internet connectivity rate in the 93%-96% range. The youngest group surveyed answered unanimously that the internet was too expensive and 90% of 18 to -24-year-olds used their phones to access news online.

Only 70% of participants over 75 accessed news and information on a cellphone. Approximately 95% of participants aged 25-54 used cellphones to access news. This data suggests that there is a real generational gap in how rural residents access news and other information online. Different news delivery options appeal to different age groups, most notably in the older population, who preferred to get news on the internet at home (87%) and from newspapers (67%). Most participants younger than age 65 preferred to get their news on a cellphone or television.

How do race and ethnicity relate to news accessibility?

Another way to understand the data set was through the lens of race and ethnicity. Of those surveyed, 93% of participants had the internet at home, though this figure drops to 85% for Latino respondents. This gap was significant enough to warrant an investigation, and research dug deeper into the responses of Latino participants. Respondents were more likely to access news through television (59%) than were participants from any other ethnic group. Still, only 54% of our Latino participants reported having access to news in Spanish, suggesting that there are gaps in meaningful local news coverage for non-English speakers.

How does geography relate to news accessibility?

Data suggested that internet connectivity varied by region, with survey participants residing in the mountains reporting internet at home at a rate of 95%, and the coastal region reporting an 85% rate. Participants from the mountains who did not have internet at home were most likely to attribute this to a lack of internet service in their area (60%). Participants on the coast of North Carolina said that the internet was available but too unreliable (64%) or costly (50%).

Across all of the categories of news (health care, local interest, economy, entertainment, etc.) people heavily favored the internet at home and on cellphones for news delivery. Mountain participants were most likely to say they rely on a local newspaper for information.

Graph: The preferred news delivery method of survey participants (how would you like to get your news?). The internet at home and cellphones are the categories with the highest rankings, followed by local newspapers and TV. On the radio and, more specifically NPR stations, is also a significant category, suggesting that survey respondents prefer to get their news in a variety of formats. Source: Wmforo

How to reach North Carolinians on the other side of the ‘digital divide’

Overall, this study provided a wealth of information about how rural North Carolinians get news and information, how they access the internet and how they would like to have news delivered in the future. Our news organization is working with this information to inform the direction of our newsroom and how to expand the much-needed coverage of news related to rural communities across the state.

For example, while the NC Connections project was underway, CPP’s newsroom was reporting on how the American Rescue Plan Act funds were being distributed and spent in Western North Carolina. As a result, and to test early survey findings, CPP asked participants if they had heard about ARPA. Sixty-one percent of participants said they had heard about ARPA funding, while 29% had not, and another 11% were not sure. In a follow-up question, 60% of those surveyed said they would like to hear more about ARPA from CPP.

In a mini-test using an opt-in text message platform, CPP launched a news-to-text experiment and signed hundreds of people up for a trial SMS newsroom, where we provided links to stories about government accountability and voting information prior to the midterm elections.

This is just the start, both in our nonprofit newsroom and beyond. The project’s results have implications far beyond the borders of our state, and the findings can help newsrooms and public communications organizations across the country understand the unique needs, assets and challenges facing rural audiences. The CPP team will share the project’s methodology, results and findings publicly and freely, and team members are available to speak about and share input on the project and potential applications in newsrooms both large and small. Contact Lindsey Wilson for more information at [email protected].

Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to [email protected].

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