The Pew Research Center surveyed more than 3,600 news consumers in three cities last summer with a cluster of surprising results reported today.
Top of that list: Minorities — African-Americans in Macon and Hispanics in metropolitan Denver — follow local news more intently than do whites. Moreover they were twice as likely as whites to “feel they can have a big impact on the city.”
Past surveys, including Pew’s own, have found minorities less educated, less wealthy and slightly less avid news consumers. But those findings were for news generally rather than local matters.
Amy Mitchell, lead author of the report and director of Pew Research’s journalism division, agreed with me that the result jumped out. “The numbers are pretty striking there,” for both interest and impact, she said in a phone interview, a much wider gap than is typical in demographic comparisons of news consumption.
My reaction was that the pattern makes sense once you think about it. Wouldn’t black residents of an economically challenged Southern city care more about schools, policing, local politics and job opportunities than about Netanyahu’s speech or the color of the dress?
“These are the questions of day-to-day life,” Mitchell said. “People are looking for ‘what will impact me'” and care about what local government is doing on those issues.
The report comes with the caution that while the three cities (Sioux City, Iowa, was the third) were chosen for variety, the findings cannot be projected over the whole United States.
In Macon two-thirds of the city population is black. In Bibb County, of which Macon is part, the split is about 50-50. So minorities are not exactly a minority there. Macon Telegraph editor Sherrie Marshall is African American. Pew found ethnic outlets were not a significant source of news in Macon.
But the pattern repeated in Denver where Hispanics are a little less than 20 percent of the metro’s population. There, 60 percent of Hispanics said that they followed local news closely compared to 43 percent of whites. (In Macon, the split was 70 percent of African-Americans versus 43 percent of whites).
The Pew Research study, titled Local News in a Digital Age, also echoes a report last fall from the American Press Institute. Contrary to received wisdom about the”digital divide,” minorities are as likely as the white population to own smart-phones and use them to locate news. So if anything, digital transformation, particularly social media options, may be making it easier to follow the news than in the days when newspapers and local TV were the only game going.
Some other highlights of the report:
*Citizens turn up as sources in many stories. Some of the hottest topics, but not the majority of stories, generate a good deal of discussion on Facebook and Twitter. But in all three cities, no more than 1 percent of stories — print or digital — had citizen bylines. So the notion that in the digital era, news has become a dialogue rather than a lecture, remains to a degree unrealized.
*Local television, as in most such surveys, turned up as the top source for local news. However Pew’s content analysis found that the majority of newscast stories were brief anchor-read items with no additional reporting. Weather and sports were heavily represented. Local dailies and other text-dominant media were much more likely to cover civic matters and to initiate coverage of a given topic.
*In sampling local digital sites, the report found non-journalistic entities were often among the most popular. County government in Macon and the sites of Congressional representatives in both Macon and Sioux City had substantial followings. They hosted a number of discussions of civic matters, even while originating no news reports beyond press releases. The governmental sites were also a good source of data sets.
The report also includes what it calls an “exploratory, experimental” foray into measuring how Twitter and Facebook interface with local news in the three cities. It describes the two as “new but limited parts of the local news system.” Specifically,
Analysis of public Facebook pages of news outlets, public figures, government departments and facilities, and civic groups finds that while a number of nontraditional providers compete with large legacy outlets in popularity, the stories they are covering are in many ways the same as those in other, more traditional platforms. The analysis also suggests that user comments focus on a minority of posts and tend to peter out after the first 24 hours of a post’s life.
The more public nature of Twitter compared with Facebook allows for a different kind of analysis focused more on the organic ways in which local news providers and residents use the platform….
Overall, the analysis found little discussion of the local news stories covered most by the local news providers. Instead, conversations tended to focus on content that would not be classified as news—such as conversations between local residents. When posts did relate to news and information, they were more often national in scope than local—and most often tended to be political in nature.
During the week of stories monitored in Macon, Pew did discover a robust discussion of a local band participating in a VH-1 contest that wasn’t covered by news media..
This study picks up some of the themes of a 2010 Pew report on local news outlets in Baltimore. That study’s main finding was that legacy outlets, especially the Baltimore Sun, were the source of most original reporting. Other publications and sites were more likely to offered summary and commentary.
This research was broader and turned the focus (as have other recent Pew Research projects) away from providers and more toward consumers — what they want and where they get it.
Pew Research describes itself now as a “fact tank” and does not advocate for particular platforms or kinds of coverage. I nonetheless asked Mitchell what advice she would give news organizations, legacy or newer digital alternatives, looking for actionable nuggets in the report.
“The first thing we see is that local news is very important — everything from land use to what new restaurants are open,” she said. But even the small sample also “indicated clear differences between cities.” So providers need to know the particulars of what matters most to their communities.
I would add that the finding of high local news interest hits hard at newspaper organizations and others that are continuing to thin out their staff of editors and reporters.
Plus it is doubly regrettable that progress building minority presence in newsrooms has stalled out in light of this fresh demonstration of the potential high interest coverage of serious local matters has among that growing demographic.