In studies of the evolution in how Americans seek out news, the trends tend to be that we use search and other online methods for staying informed. The consistent exception is how we access local news. Despite the proliferation of hyperlocal blogging (my own neighborhood’s West Seattle Blog being an excellent example of how hyperlocal blogs can provide both high-quality journalism and to-the-minute breaking news about every local happening), we turn to TV and print far more often than online news sources and search for local news.
But stats can be misleading and a new Pew Internet & American Life Project and Knight Foundation study sheds some light on what’s actually going on. Typically, these studies ask questions such as “how to do you get local news”? But for this report, researchers asked “what sources do you rely on” for 16 specific subjects. They found that while it is the case that local TV is popular for news, Americans rely on it primarily for weather, breaking news, and traffic. But when looking for answers to other local issues, Americans are likely to turn to other sources.
The study also found that “for the 79% of Americans who are online, as well as Americans ages 18-39, the internet ranks as a top source of information for most of the local subjects studied in the survey.” In this context, “internet” refers to search engines, non-newspaper websites, and social networking sites. Reliance on the web properties of newspapers was categorized with “newspapers” and usage of a local TV station web site was categorized with “local TV”.
Other interesting findings include:
- Word of mouth is the second most likely way we get local information (after local TV). 55% of us get local news via word of mouth at least once a week. (This percentage actually seems surprisingly low to me. Do only 55% of us talk to people? I just found out from a cashier this morning that Obama was in town. That’s local news, right?)
- Near half of us get at least some local information from mobile devices.
- 64% rely on at least three media sources weekly for local news.
- Weather is the most popular local news topic (89% look for it), but only 5% use a mobile app for weather information.
- 41% consider local news “participatory” as they interact via methods such as social media.
- 17% of American adults get local news from social networking sites.
- For those under 40, the internet is the most likely source for 12 of the 16 topics queried. For those over 40, the internet is the most likely source for only 2 topics of the 16 (local businesses and restaurants).
- The websites of traditional local news platforms do not register at major levels on most of the subjects probed in the survey.
The Importance of Local Newspapers
69% surveyed felt that the end of the local newspaper would have little or no impact on their ability to get local information. But at the same time, newspapers were found to be the top (or tied for top) source for 11 of the 16 topics asked about.
Younger age groups were less reliant on newspapers and less concerned about their potential demise. The study found that “among adults under age 40, the internet is already the top source for local political information and news — 26% of adults in this age group name the internet as their top source for this topic, while 19% name local TV news.”
How the Internet Fits In
Many of the stats in the study focus on Americans a whole (both those with internet access and those without). When looking just at the 79% of Americans with internet access, things look significantly different. For this group, the internet is either the first or second most important news source for 15 of the 16 topics (TV and newspapers trumped the internet for local crime news).
“Interestingly, even as the web has gained traction, there is one major area where it still lags well behind—breaking news. Here, local television news (which includes local TV websites but is driven almost entirely by broadcasts) still well outpace online sources. Among all adults, 55% say they rely on local TV for breaking news, compared with 16% who say they rely on the internet and 14% who rely on newspapers.”
I do find that interesting as the internet can provide breaking news the instant it happens and the instant someone wants to know about it, whereas to get breaking news via TV, one must wait for the scheduled time of the news to begin. It makes a bit more sense when considering that “internet” in this context doesn’t include the web sites of TV stations and newspapers. In addition, if many of those polled think of breaking news as the news of the day that they don’t know to look for, then these numbers make sense.
For local businesses though, it’s all about the internet. The study found that:
“The two local topics for which the internet already takes the clearest lead, even when including adults with no access to the web, are restaurants and local businesses… In the past, reviews of restaurants and sometimes local businesses were provided by traditional news organizations – especially newspapers. At times, other companies provided guides that critiqued locale fare. Now, information services like Yelp, which offers citizen reviews and restaurant information, or Craigslist.com, which carries local classifieds, are mainstays of this information in many communities. Those services might have been developed by traditional news companies but were not and the audience has gravitated to the new platforms. The newer online services are also helped by the fact that their material is permanently searchable and therefore more comprehensively available to would-be patrons in ways that traditional newspapers and broadcasts are not.”
The internet and newspapers are tied for the most likely way Americans find real estate information.
This level of detail about how we access all kinds of local information is certainly useful for both journalists and businesses and reminds us that word of mouth (both in person and online) will continue to be key.