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PEW RESEARCH: Local News Still Matters



Wednesday, May 6th, 201


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The Pew Research Center recently completed an in-depth study exploring the radically changing landscape of local media. The report focused on three different cities of varying size and demographics: Denver, CO; Macon, GA; and Sioux City, IA. The report is quick to note that its findings should not be extrapolated to the rest of the country, but rather seen as three case studies through which we can gain some insight into how Americans value and consume local news.

The value of local news

The first and most important finding from the Pew study is that even in our globally-connected world, Americans in these cities still deeply value local news, with almost 90 percent saying they follow local news closely and half following it very closely.

Additional findings from the study paint a picture that is neither decisively favorable nor unfavorable to the state of local news. Clearly, citizens are involved and invested in their communities and care about the news, but for many, their media consumption is narrow and shallow.

Most respondents said they did not get their local news from their main daily paper. Forty percent of Sioux City residents said they got their news from their main daily, 36 percent in Macon, and just 23 percent in Denver. This corresponds inversely to digital engagement. In Denver, which has the highest rate of broadband access among the three cities, residents are five to ten percent more likely to say the Internet is very important in keeping up with local news. That said, digital access is fairly strong across the board, with 68% of Denver residents, 66% in Macon and 56% in Sioux City accessing at least one local news provider digitally.

shutterstock_241933117In spite of the rapid growth of online news, television remains the dominant news source, especially in markets with fewer alternative news outlets like Macon and Sioux City (Denver’s 140 news providers are about two and a half times as many as Macon and Sioux City combined). Two thirds of people in these latter two cities rely on local TV for news, whereas Denver clocks in at a bit less – 58 percent.

Citizen participation

In each city, direct participation in the news process is fairly equal. About 10 percent have called in to a local TV or radio show in the past year, and about 20 percent have commented on a local news blog. When it comes to speaking with a reporter, the numbers diverge more between cities. Sioux City residents are nearly twice as likely as a Denver resident to have spoken with a journalist, 29 percent versus 16 percent, while Macon is right in the middle at 23 percent.

The numbers look a little less positive, however, when it comes to direct citizen engagement. Fewer than 10 percent of respondents in any of the three cities have submitted content to a local news provider in the past year. Twenty percent of local news stories in Denver, 13 percent in Sioux City, and 18 percent in Macon featured at least one citizen source, but stories with citizen bylines were extremely rare – fewer than one percent in any city.

One encouraging finding is that many people appear engaged in important issues that affect their lives, with at least four-in-ten in every city saying they frequently talk about local government, politics, and the economy.

What does it mean for journalists?

What should we take away from this study? For the Franklin Center, it highlights both the value and the relevance of our state- and local-focused journalism. Clearly, a huge segment of Americans still care about what is happening in their communities, and they depend on local news outlets to bring them stories that hit closest to home. True impact journalism doesn’t cover unrelatable policy debates in D.C., hundreds of miles away from Main Street. Instead, it shows how those government agencies and programs impact you and your neighbors, and it seeks to shine a light on abuse and overreach when those institutions betray the public trust.

The low citizen engagement seen in the Pew report means we still have a lot of work to do. More citizen bylines and citizen-supplied content would almost certainly make local news more engaging, substantial, and impactful. Politicians always try to at least appear like they can connect with and understand the average citizen, and the press should strive to do the same, speaking to readers in an engaging way that reflects the interests of the typical taxpaying citizen. One of the best ways they can do this is by involving citizens more directly in the newsmaking process. That is the chief focus of the Franklin Center’s citizen team, Watchdog Arena, which has empowered citizens to spark debates and effect change through the power of the press.

To learn more about how you can become a citizen journalist in your community, check out our citizen stories at Watchdog Arena, and download our free Video Tipsheet for advice on capturing newsworthy moments from politicians, public meetings, protests and more.

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