March 26, 2019

Television remains the most popular outlet for local news, with digital sources a close second, and weather is the favorite topic by a wide margin, according to a huge new survey of 35,000 adults released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

The study finds broad satisfaction with local news but simultaneously a reluctance to pay for it. Only 14 percent of those surveyed said that they have directly paid for a local news source, while, strikingly, 71 percent think that their local news media are doing well financially — a very different perception than journalists have in an era of buyouts and layoffs.

In terms of the overall landscape, television is the preferred source (38 percent often get news there), as past Pew studies have shown, but various digital sources are moving up fast to parity. Radio is used often by 22 percent of those surveyed and local daily newspapers by just 17 percent.

Some other headline findings:

  • Those surveyed expressed a strong preference (81 percent) that those providing local news live in or be personally engaged in the community. But only a little more than half (51 percent) say the local news they get mostly covers the area where they live.
  • On topics of interest, the findings could suggest some refocus to assigning editors. Weather was the highest area of interest among 11 choices. Seventy percent said that is was “important for daily life” compared to just 44 percent for the next most important topic — crime. (The two are certainly covered heavily, especially on television).

However, while nine in 10 found “changing prices” in their community interesting or highly interesting, third among the 11, they said that it was the second hardest to stay informed about.

Conversely, sports was of compelling daily interest to only one in 10 surveyed. And 34 percent said that they have little or no interest in sports coverage, but it was second easiest to find out about. (My sense is that the intense interest of sports fans explains the big sports sections in metros and nightly sports reports on TV.)

  • When consumers talk about local digital news, they do not exclusively mean the websites of newspapers and TV stations. The sites of government, businesses and interest groups were mentioned, as were online forums, neighborhood newsletters and listservs.
  • Forty-two percent of those surveyed indicated that they get local news alerts.

Amy Mitchell, director of journalism at the Pew Research Center, said in an interview that the unusually large number of respondents enabled a breakout by market and an analysis of how areas with different demographics might view their local news.

“Also, I am not aware of a full-scale national look (at local news),” she added, “and we thought it was time for that.”

The study includes an interactive tool for those who want a profile of their community’s local news habits and interests. And there are a series of findings along the lines of communities with above-average percentages of minority population having a higher-than-typical daily interest in news on jobs and unemployment.

For the study’s purposes, communities monitored were defined as 99 “core-based statistical areas” (CBSA’s) — a federal government term for a central city and its surrounding area. So rural areas and small towns, often the focus of various studies of news deserts, do not figure in this part of the report.

On the other hand, Mitchell pointed out, the closure of a weekly might contribute to a consumer’s sense that the area in which he or she lives, even in a metro, is not well-covered. So would the reduced effort that newspapers put into news from outlying suburbs compared to 15 years ago.

And there was some latitude for respondents to have their own definition of their “community.” Local TV markets correspond pretty closely to CSAs, Mitchell said, but residents might have a narrower geographic focus of interest.

I wondered about definitions, too, in the questions about the financial health of local outlets and willingness to pay. A consumer of television might correctly think that local stations are doing just fine as businesses, and have little awareness or interest in the deep deterioration of the financial side of newspapers.

Many studies have shown that readers prefer not to pay — for digital news particularly. But it was surprising to me that only 17 percent said they did. Those who preferred print as a source were more aware of financial pressures and more willing to pay, but the gap remained.

Another set of findings treats political views and the consumer take on trust and bias. As in a Poynter study last fall, Pew found that the public is much more satisfied with local than national news. Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats to see bias in local outlets. And a strong majority — 61 percent — said reporters should keep opinion out of their local coverage.

In a press release, Mitchell (with whom I worked for a decade on Pew’s annual State of the News Media report) said that the most troubling finding was the pair of questions on finances and willingness to pay:

“The journalism industry has been struggling for over a decade now to find a revenue structure for the digital era, so it’s a huge challenge for the industry to see such a large share of the public believe that local news media are doing well financially and not participate in the revenue model themselves.

“Why do people not pay for news? Americans cite a variety of reasons in the survey, but quality of coverage isn’t a big one. Instead, the explanation that rises to the top of the list is that there is so much free content out there. The question for the industry then becomes, ‘What can we do to get audiences to want to make a financial commitment to us?’ ”

I strongly agree. Unwillingness to pay collides with the current heavy push by local newspapers to build back revenues with a base of paid digital subscribers. Also, I would guess that most TV news watchers think of those reports as free — not making the connection that they are paying for access in their cable bill.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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