June 15, 2020

The digital audience gap between big national papers in the U.S. and their local counterparts is becoming a chasm, according to the annual Digital News Report of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University.

The Reuters survey, a leading statistical source published Tuesday, is international in scope but broke out a question to U.S. readers who pay for digital news about what publications they access. The top three results:

  1. New York Times (39%)
  2. Washington Post (31%)
  3. Local (30%)

Principal author Nic Newman emailed me that the measure includes both digital-only and print plus digital subscribers and does not differentiate full-pay from trial offers. And it was done in January and February, before local subscriptions surged as publications provided their communities with pandemic coverage.

Still, the result reinforces the idea of a high level of attention to national versus local. Presumably that reflects growing staffing at the Times and Post as financial shortfalls force regional publications to shrink the number of editors and reporters and their volume of coverage.

For this question, Newman wrote, his group surveyed two other countries and found a marked range:

In Norway we see 64% saying they subscribe to a local paper (local news is valued to a greater extent in Norway and there is a long tradition of subscription). Whereas in the UK only a handful of our respondents said they subscribe to a local paper (5%). So big differences (are) partly linked to interest in local news and partly to the strategies of publishers themselves.

I would say the Reuters finding is one data point among many to test whether the Times and Post are prospering at the expense of troubled local organizations. The two organizations certainly are loading up on journalists and a capacity for video storytelling, digital mapping, databases and a variety of other features.

The Times has 1,700 in its newsroom, the Post at least 800.

The publicly owned Times reports paid digital subscription growth in the hundreds of thousands each quarter. It now has a total of 6 million, counting its crossword and cooking verticals. The privately owned Post does not report its figures but a reasonable estimate is 2 million.

However, other evidence is ambiguous on whether much or any of those gains are coming at the expense of local outlets. I have not seen a demonstration that large numbers are dropping local subscriptions in favor of national subscriptions.

Newman’s report was not all bleak about the drive to build paid digital subscriptions at local papers’ sites. He told me that 130 different local outlets were mentioned by the sample of 584 respondents. Also, the report presents data on how newsletters, podcasts and video are all extending the reach of legacy media digital journalism.

A separate section of the report with a broader sample of nations provides stark data on media polarization in the U.S. In response to the question, “I think you can trust most news, most of the time,” the U.S. was in the bottom quarter of 40 countries. (Finland was first.)

Conversely, the U.S. was near the top in a measure of concern about fake news. (Brazil was the worst.)

The report concludes that news brands, with the added dilution of attention siphoned to big social media platforms, face an uphill climb for recognition, especially among younger consumers. However:

Despite this, there are some signs of hope. The COVID-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated the value of reliable trusted news to the public but also to policymakers, technology companies, and others who could potentially act to support independent news media.

A summary of the report can be accessed here.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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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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