Can Interest Groups Fill the Gap Resulting from the Decline in Newspapers?

Written by Hall Institute Press Office Hall Institute Press Office

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Thursday, 15 July 2010 05:39

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(TRENTON) - Interest groups have a unique opportunity to use their websites to fill the void resulting from the decline of newspapers, but they have much more to do in order to reach their potential, according to a study posted today on the Hall Institute website.

"Our research strongly suggests that interest groups have much more to do in order to improve the informative capacity of their websites," the study concluded. "If these sites are to have a strong presence amid the cacophony of voices on the web, they must do a better job not just of providing information, but connecting it to activism and adding value to the larger web conversation."

The report, which focused on Internet activity during New Jersey's 2008 campaign for U.S. Senate, was conducted by Bob Sommer, a lecturer at the Institute of Planning and Public Policy Communications at Rutgers' Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy; and two recent graduates of the school -- John R. Maycroft and Stephen Van Maren.

"Interest groups in our New Jersey study as a whole could have done more to maximize the potential of their websites to convince their audiences of the relevance of the Senate election to their particular issue and in doing so, provide more useful policy information to these consumers," the authors wrote.

The researchers identified eight issue areas pertinent to New Jersey listed on the campaign sites of the two major party candidates – incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Republican challenger Richard Zimmer – and then examined 63 websites of groups with an interest in those issue areas, which included the economy and taxes; homeland security and chemical safety; transportation; healthcare; the military; education; energy and the environment, and immigration.

The researchers used a grading scale that ranged from 5 points for an A to 1 point for an F, and also gave incompletes to organizations that failed to fulfill any of the study criteria.

"Interest group websites generally proved to be less than robust sources of campaign-related information," the authors said "Among the 67 total interest group website evaluations conducted, the average grade was a 3.47, which falls just between a C and a B. Many of the interest groups whose websites were examined did not fully take advantage of the opportunities of the medium and leave much room for improvement."

The study found great variation in levels of quality. Several prominent groups across issue areas did have informative websites, among them AARP, the New Jersey Public Interest Research Groups, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO. Unions such as the Communications Workers of America and New Jersey Education Association only received C's, as did the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and the New Jersey Hospital Association. Some sites, including the New Jersey Bankers Association, New Jersey Credit Union League, and Nuclear Advocacy Network, had little more than a logo and received grades of incomplete.

The complete study, The Next New Newspaper? Analyzing Policy Information and Advocacy in Interest Group Websites, is available on the Hall Institute website.

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