Oklahoma Media Center released a comprehensive academic study today designed to fuel data-driven training this month from the nationally known Trusting News nonprofit to help collaborating newsrooms execute experiments aimed to increase trust and support of local news.

The groundbreaking ecosystem engagement project is designed for local newsrooms with local pollsters, local academics and trainers with local ties funded by a local foundation. The multiphase project’s goal is to find out where underserved rural and metro communities get their local news, why they believe or trust information and what would make them financially support local journalism. 

The qualitative exploratory study was designed, implemented and analyzed by Rosemary Avance, assistant professor at the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University, and Allyson Shortle, associate professor of political science and co-founder of the University of Oklahoma’s Community Engagement and Experiments Lab. It’s the first qualitative observational study of both news deserts and underserved metro communities statewide in Oklahoma.

Here is a summary of the study:

Social media, word of mouth still primary news sources

State residents mainly rely on social media and community word of mouth for local news, according to the study.

Rosemary Avance

“Most participants either claimed that they turned to Facebook for ‘ease’ or that Facebook is ‘more reliable and if you wait for the newspaper the event has usually passed by the time you read about it,’” Avance and Shortle wrote.

“Most participants also use word of mouth to find out about local events, stay involved in community happenings, and engage with community processes. This includes information exchanged through social media, text message, email, telephone, and in-person, face-to-face communication with people the participant actually knows.”

Drilling down into seven underserved rural and metro Oklahoma counties, researchers conducted hundreds of community interviews, focus groups and open-ended surveys to understand factors influencing local media use and perceptions.

Allyson Shortle

“Oklahomans’ reliance on traditional news coverage is shifting,” Avance and Shortle wrote. “Not only do Oklahomans across counties rarely subscribe to local newspapers, but they also report accessing a variety of types of news from various sources for free on social media. Few are interested in subscriptions to any news source, let alone local sources. The types of local news they tend to see are bound by social media algorithms as well as the echo chambers of their own online social ties.”

According to the study, small-town residents express more trust in local news when a local person is in charge of it.

“Respondents value free, accessible news and want to access it via social media,” Avance and Shortle wrote. “For the most part, they will not pay for access, especially in the form of a subscription.”

Although Oklahoma and Tulsa counties have more options for local news, most surveyed participants still reported not subscribing or otherwise paying to access news, citing subscriptions as too expensive and news found free elsewhere. As one participant explained, “I don’t want to pay for something I can get for free from the internet.”

Pioneering research expands on scientific polling

This on-the-ground research to understand perceptions and consumption of reliable local news was contracted by the nonprofit Oklahoma Media Center and supported by a grant from the Oklahoma City-based Kirkpatrick Foundation. 

“As a native Oklahoman, it was an honor to visit communities across the state to learn more about our local news ecosystem,” Avance said.

“Journalism is central to democracy and civic engagement. But between the economy, political upheaval, crime, illegal drugs and many other issues, many parts of the state are struggling to stay afloat. The overwhelming lack of reliable, relevant local news coverage in many rural communities compounds every single one of these local issues. It’s true that there is much to be concerned about in Oklahoma. But anyone who’s spent much time in Oklahoma knows that pride and resilience are central characteristics of our state. Nearly everywhere we went, we met wonderful people willing to share their experiences and ideas because they love their communities. These folks are invested.”

Merging the quantitative with the qualitative, the hyperlocal second phase research builds on OMC’s initial polling contracted by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates. That polling, also supported by Kirkpatrick, was conducted by the Oklahoma-based firm in a scientific survey of 500 registered voters in December 2022 with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3%. According to the polling, 75% indicated they would trust a news organization more if journalists were transparent and prominently acknowledged mistakes. Additionally, 56% said an outlet recommended by friends would earn more trust.

Preliminary recommendations of the study

The goal of the study has always been to come up with actionable items for news organizations to move the needle on trust in their local communities.

OMC is uniquely positioned as an umbrella group to shed light on misinformation from media sources. This involves community engagement with education on local journalism’s role in facilitating informed citizenship. The ecosystem engagement project was the primary recommendation from the nonprofit’s strategic planning.

In the study, Avance and Shortle made five preliminary recommendations for news organizations to increase engagement with local news:

Commit to ongoing investments in local communities: Distrust of outsiders and news organizations’ failure to understand a community’s priorities and contextual dynamics can cause even well-funded news media ventures to fail, especially in tight-knit rural communities. News media organizations cannot simply report on a community from afar nor can they rely on past knowledge of community dynamics. They must continually engage with communities to understand decision-makers, influencers, and political dynamics influencing the culture and context in which any other interventions will occur. Trust is hard-earned and easily lost in both rural and urban areas; investment and engagement in the local community is time-intensive but worth the effort. 

• Identify ways to continually communicate the importance of civic engagement, local politics and journalistic reporting to populations at risk of disengagement from local news: In many areas with low access to reliable news, participants reported that they did not need or want it. However, after engaging in conversation about the types of news and information that the community may not be able to access, most ultimately came to the idea that more news would benefit their communities. 

• Shift news communication models to prioritize social media: While it is apparent that general interest in print publications has declined, we also found that people are less enthusiastic about visiting websites to access information. Instead of clicking through a post on social media, they prefer to gather information from their social media feed itself. Media organizations that do not include vital information in posts on social media and instead “bury the lede” in a website (whether or not it is behind a paywall) will see less engagement and more frustration from viewers. 

• Partner with area individuals and organizations: Each area we visited had one or more individuals or organizations who were considered reliable sources of information. These influencers already have social capital and can serve as vital entry points for community engagement. 

• Experiment with community-engaged journalism solutions: Many respondents talked about former town newspapers run by a trusted local citizen who cared enough and was embedded enough in the community to offer a reliable source of information. While this model is not feasible today due to economic constraints, the concept of a community paper is still relevant. Partner with local high schools, colleges, and universities to develop and deploy customized community journalism models. 

Trusting News training

Joy Mayer

For the next phase, Trusting News Director Joy Mayer will interpret findings from the academic analysis and construct a comprehensive training plan for all OMC’s partners to put the study’s recommendations into practice. This kicks off with OMC hosting a daylong training led by Mayer with students and professional journalists scheduled Sept. 22 at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication on the OU campus in Norman, Oklahoma.

“This research sheds light on challenges that local newsrooms are facing across the country,” said Joy Mayer, the Trusting News director and founder.

“It’s a gift, though, to have such specific insights from the communities they serve. This investment in local knowledge will set newsrooms up to innovate and evolve based on data, not assumptions.”

Mayer, an OU alum, said she is excited to return to Oklahoma to build on these insights through specific actions for journalists to shore up credibility and be more responsive to local communities. 

News organizations will need time and financial resources to execute on the training, which is why OMC will provide financial support in the form of grants to outlets applying for a project related to the study. 

The Ecosystem Engagement Fund will distribute a minimum of $100,000 for the projects. This fund is supported by the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, which launched OMC with the Local Media Association in 2020.

For those news outlets participating in engagement projects, Trusting News will provide office hours, one-on-one coaching and online support to execute measurable, meaningful projects. This will help local journalists navigate obstacles and implement strategies to bridge the divide based on the study’s comprehensive data.

Funding timeline

Applications open for the fund Oct. 2 and are due Oct. 16, with judging completed by Oct. 31. OMC will notify applicants Nov. 3. Trusting News will present two trainings before the end of 2023 and resume training January through March 2024 when the projects are due.

As Avance and Shortle analyzed the phase two data, the researchers spent a lot of time talking about history and socio-political factors that make Oklahoma unique. Historian Angie Debo wrote: “Any state of the American Union deserves to be known and understood. But Oklahoma is more than just another state. It is a lens in which the long rays of time are focused into the brightest of light. In its magnifying clarity, dim facets of the American character stand more clearly revealed. For in Oklahoma all the experiences that went into the making of the nation have been speeded up. Here all the American traits have been intensified. The one who can interpret Oklahoma can grasp the meaning of America in the modern world.”

Avance said Debo’s words from 1949 still ring true today.

“Journalists, academics, government officials and interested citizens who want to understand national trends should pay attention to Oklahoma and invest in solutions here in the heartland,” Avance said.

Rob Collins

Rob Collins, executive director of OMC, said the collaborative’s statewide ecosystem engagement project is scalable in other states. 

“If we can do this project in Oklahoma, it can be done anywhere,” Collins said. 

OMC is hoping to get support beyond the $100,000 for this fund to distribute more dollars to its collaborative news orgs.

For more information, email rob@oklahomamediacenter.com.