New study: Americans rely on newspapers for local coverage of crime, community events, government

A new Pew Research study, released Monday morning, paints a fresh and detailed picture of “How People Learn About Their Local Community.” But among a broad range of findings, one paradox stands out.

On 11 of 16 topics that more than 2,000 respondents were asked about in January, newspapers and their websites ranked first or tied for first as a relied-upon source of local information.

But when asked if their local newspaper no longer existed whether that would have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community, 69 percent of those surveyed said no.

The authors hypothesize that newspapers’ greatest strength is in civic topics like taxes or zoning and development that comparatively fewer Americans follow regularly.

For the highest priority topics — weather, breaking news and traffic — people turn to local television. Local TV and newspapers are virtually tied in first for political news. Newspapers are the leading source for coverage of crime, community events, culture and arts, local government, social services and taxes. They’re also the leading source for school news, housing and jobs, followed closely by the Internet. And the Internet is now the leading source for information about restaurants and night life as well as other local businesses.

The study was co-sponsored by the Knight Foundation, whose programing focus for several years has been on community information needs. It suggests that the digital experiments in investigative reporting and other serious coverage, which Knight funds extensively, have not yet risen to the level of a top source for very many Americans.

In the breakdown of top local information sources, the report provides these details:

  • Like earlier Pew studies, this one found that few respondents rely entirely on a single platform. Many people regularly sample five or six news sources. Almost half the respondents — 45 percent — said they do not even have a favorite local news source.
  • Nearly half of adults — 47 percent — get some local news and information on mobile devices. And 41 percent “can be considered ‘local news participants’ because they contribute their own information via social media and other sources, add to online conversations and directly contribute articles about the community.” (One caveat, that percentage includes people who share stories by emailing them or posting them on a social network.)
  • Neither social media nor mobile apps yet rate as a leading source of local information. Newspaper websites are more valued than those of broadcast outlets but “do not score highly as a relied-upon source on any topics.”
  • Word-of-mouth is still an important source of information, especially for neighborhood topics, local businesses, restaurants and schools.
  • For adults under 40, the information preferences are markedly different than for the whole sample. Predictably, the Internet rises to first on 11 of the 16 topics and is a close second on four others.
  • Weather is king, the single most followed topic.  And despite the ready availability of such information on the Web, local television is the preferred source.
  • Minority populations, Hispanics especially but African Americans to a lesser degree, prefer television to newspapers as their top source on local politics.
  • Local television, healthy now, could be vulnerable in the future. “Local TV has thrived by developing a franchise around a handful of topics that have the widest appeal,” according to the report.  But over time, attention on weather and other breaking news topics could shift from television to “mobile platforms that are even more easily accessible.”
  • The Internet is not even close to overtaking local TV as the top source for breaking local news. However it is already first on information about restaurants and local businesses and is the key source for peer-generated information.
  • Radio is the top source for traffic information but is well down the list for all other local topics.
  • Newsletters and listservs are gaining some traction as an important source for information on local schools. Local government itself is a minor source for most adults; even for information on social services Americans are more likely to rely on word-of-mouth.

This report, a collaboration of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its Internet and American Life Project, is just the latest in a stream of studies from the two groups. Last week, Pew issued a new edition of a report it has been doing since 1985 documenting a mixed picture of press credibility.

This report, the first of its kind Pew has undertaken, also seems to me worth repeating every couple of years to see how “top sources” evolve. Tom Rosenstiel, PEJ executive director, agreed in an e-mail exchange.

“I think the survey reveals not only that the ecosystem of local news and information is more complex that we have understood before but also how quickly it may change…The striking differences between younger and older adults, while not necessarily surprising, suggest more change is coming.  The fact that mobile has gained a foothold but is still largely supplemental at this point is important to watch. At the same time, the data also suggests that old platforms for local information do not become irrelevant as much as they take on a different role in people’s lives.”

I’m both a fan of and (disclosure) a paid collaborator on the PEJ’s annual State of the News Media study. On this one, I do have one quibble and a thought for a related question worth examination. The list of 16 information topics struck me as somewhat arbitrary, especially in its exclusion of sports and health/medicine/fitness.

Rosenstiel explained that a preliminary sampling had a wider range of topics but the list was winnowed down to 16 in the interest of not wearing down respondents with too many questions.

I am also left curious about the sample’s relative interest in local topics versus national and international. Rosenstiel told me that a March 2010 study provided “intimations” but no solid proof that national/international/finance may be getting an increasing share of attention.

Specialized Washington outlets and the huge Reuters and Bloomberg services have been adding journalists as newspaper staffs continue to contract. And the Internet gives newshounds access to an array of quality sources including foreign websites like the BBC or Al Jazeera.

But there is important good news/bad news here for the embattled newspaper industry. On the one hand, newspapers and their digital products ought to be able to capitalize on being the top source on a broad range of important topics for 30 to 40 percent of adults.

On the other hand, their websites badly lag local TV on the highest interest topics of weather, crime and other breaking news. And the Internet has already become dominant in all manner of shopping information.

Newspaper organizations in recent years have promoted themselves as “the essential local source” or “the hub of community information.” Admittedly “essential to many but not so much to others” is not a catchy slogan, but it may more accurately capture the current state of affairs.

Extracting an up-to-date business model from what the report terms newspapers’ “complex role in the civic life of communities” is likely to remain challenging, to say the least, just as each new round of disappointing quarterly financial results has suggested.

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