April 19, 2022

This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Of the 820 people who completed the new online survey from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, 647 said they don’t pay anything for access to local news and 583 said no one should have to pay. Just 50 people said everyone should pay.

Invited to write in comments, one respondent advised media organizations to “stop hiding articles behind paywalls.”

Survey respondents were mostly heavy consumers of local news, who said they stay informed by tapping an average of eight local news sources, including TV broadcasts and niche media outlets. Practically all respondents said they had used at least one newer media brand.

The anti-paywall sentiment resonates with Jason Schumer, managing director of the South Side Weekly, a free nonprofit community news publication, who sees limits to the media’s increasing reliance on subscription revenue instead of memberships and donations.

While the broader survey uncovered resistance to any form of payment, market research specific to the Weekly “overwhelmingly suggests the membership model is the way to go,” said Schumer, who also is publisher of the Hyde Park Herald, a legacy newspaper on the South Side.

The reluctance among survey respondents to pay for news comes as no surprise to Penny Abernathy, an expert on business models that support community journalism. Understanding the audience is critical in determining how to raise revenue from it, she said.

“You have to convince them you’re the best source for the news they want,” said Abernathy, a visiting professor at Medill who has pioneered research on the expanding number of local news deserts in the U.S. “You have to convince them there is value in paying, and you don’t give away really high-value information for free.”

The finding about survey respondents using multiple sources of local news suggests an unmet need in the marketplace, she said. “They have to go to eight sources to piece things together. There is a very strong need for this, but nobody is providing it.

Wanted: More crime coverage

Survey respondents said they wanted more news about the issues they care about and were generally unhappy with the coverage that did exist.

They said coverage of crime and law enforcement is by far the most important single issue facing Chicago. (The city experienced a 60% spike in gun violence over the past two years in the wake of the pandemic and a national reckoning on policing in America.) Yet nearly 38% of respondents said local news operations are doing “not well at all,” or only “slightly well” at keeping them informed about that pressing issue.

The survey measured the opinions of residents in 16 Chicago ZIP codes who received an emailed questionnaire in late 2021. Only those who said they consumed news at least once a month were invited to participate, but most of the respondents were much more engaged. Of those who completed the survey, more than three-fourths said they checked the news at least once a day.

While the survey was not directed to a particular demographic group, the respondents were more likely to be young, Black, female, lower-income and less educated than the city’s adult population overall. Additional details on survey methodology and characteristics of the respondents can be found here.

Qualtrics, a national market research company, conducted the survey on behalf of the Medill Metro Media Lab at Northwestern. Project manager Sam Cholke oversaw the survey. Providing logistical support was Medill senior associate dean and professor Tim Franklin, the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News, who leads the Medill Local News Initiative. Some of the questions were adapted from a 2017 survey of Chicago residents by the University of Texas at Austin, which used a different methodology.

The results suggest that media organizations aiming to reach an engaged, youthful audience aren’t always covering the news in the most relevant way, Franklin said.

“News consumers on the South and West sides don’t believe Chicago media are meeting their information needs, despite the growth in new neighborhood and niche news outlets,” he said. “But the general unhappiness covers up nuances about how some organizations do well and others not.”

Asked to select the legacy news outlets they use to keep informed from a list provided in the survey, respondents most often cited ABC-Ch. 7 and WGN-Ch. 9, followed by the nonprofit Chicago Sun-Times. More than 400 said they rely on Facebook community groups. Of the 820 survey participants, 534 said they use smartphones to access news “a lot” or “a great deal” and 404 said the same of television. Only 106 similarly relied on printed newspapers.

Among news outlets launched over the past five years, Block Club Chicago, Chicago Public Square and The Daily Line were at the top of the list. Of Chicago news outlets shuttered in the last five years, survey participants cited Chicago RedEye, a free daily tabloid produced by the Chicago Tribune, as the one they had relied on most.

Asked to select the five most important issues facing their neighborhoods from a list of eight, survey participants ranked crime and law enforcement first, followed by education, business and employment, health care and housing, zoning and land use.

In some instances, respondents from certain ZIP codes were more critical of certain news coverage than others. West Siders, for instance, were more likely to be dissatisfied with housing coverage, and Far South Siders with reporting on education.

Opinions were most sharply divided about the quality of crime and law enforcement coverage. While more respondents were dissatisfied with it more than any other issue, a larger proportion also rated the coverage more highly than that concerning other issues. More than 200 respondents said the media cover crime and law enforcement in their neighborhoods “very well” or “extremely well.”

And while opinions varied among survey respondents about what aspects of crime and law enforcement deserve more attention, 78% said they want a bigger spotlight on police accountability, followed by larger crime trends, underlying causes of crime, individual violent crimes and white-collar crime or crime by businesses.

Among respondents who said important issues were being covered poorly, too little coverage was the biggest problem: 56% said local news does not cover the issue frequently enough. About 36% said news reports were biased or did not reflect their experience, 31% said coverage was incomplete or got crucial facts wrong and 26% said coverage was inaccessible because of paywalls or other impediments to free access. About 14% cited a need for reporting in other languages.

“To get at what the audience would like requires real digging and, at the moment, nobody has the staff for that,” said Bruce Sagan, chairman of the management committee at the Hyde Park Herald, which circulates in a relatively affluent and racially diverse part of the South Side.

Reader complaints about crime news partly reflect how few reporters regularly visit police stations as well as the Chicago Police Department’s hostility to the press and refusal to share timely information, Sagan said. “You have an agency that’s not interested.”

Invited to write in comments about how local news covers the issues, more respondents addressed crime and law enforcement than any other topic. The brief comments suggest a range of thinking:

  • “Crimes are always covered, but never the root cause or possible connections between crimes.”
  • “Injustice gets covered up. We need help with it.”
  • “News outlets just take law enforcement at their word.”
  • “Report the good things people and police do.”
  • “Crimes covered are mostly white victims.”
  • “Cover the role gangs play in interrupting neighborhoods and the dysfunction effects.”

In analyzing the responses by news platform, Medill found that smartphone users were more likely than others to take a dim view of crime and law enforcement coverage. Focus-group interviews suggest that people don’t like getting negative or upsetting news pushed to them on their phones, according to Medill’s Cholke. Similarly, he said, the ability to package newscasts and warn audiences of potentially upsetting stories could be a factor in the more positive view of crime coverage on local TV.

Convincing the reluctant to pay for news

Dissatisfaction with how news is covered, along with the preference for free, local TV brands, may help explain why these heavy users of local news were so resistant to paying, Cholke said. In some respects, such as their heavy use of local news and trust in it over other news sources, he said, “People in the survey have all the hallmarks of people who pay for news.”

The survey results should come as a warning to local news organizations that increasingly rely on reader revenue, Franklin said.

“Many people have grown accustomed to news being free,” he said. “Other folks have subscription fatigue from all of the direct-to-consumer media services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max. And many people simply can’t afford subscriptions or memberships, especially with staples like gas and food prices soaring these days.”

Still, people are in the habit of paying for subscriptions for entertainment and information, and digital subscriptions at regional and local news organizations have grown across the country, Franklin noted.

“That was driven, in part, by huge interest in coverage of the pandemic, but news outlets also have gotten much more savvy with their digital subscription strategies. Still, these survey results illustrate the challenges and limitations of a reader revenue-based business model.”

The Hyde Park Herald and South Side Weekly are planning to embrace the challenges — together.

Under a merger plan that isn’t yet finalized, the older, for-profit Herald will become a nonprofit like the Weekly, while maintaining separate editorial staffs and experimenting with new ways to reach readers by, for instance, changing the mix, depth and length of stories.

The move reflects changing times that greatly undermined demand for community newspaper advertising, said the Herald’s Sagan, who at age 93 began his Chicago journalism career seven decades ago.

“The economics have changed radically,” he said. “The old structure is dead.”

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Burns served as Editorial Board member, columnist and business editor at the Chicago Tribune and as a reporter for BusinessWeek magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times.…
Greg Burns

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