The days of relying on a print newspaper and a television anchor telling us “the way it is” are long gone. In 2011, Americans and citizens the world over consume news on multiple screens and platforms. Increasingly, we all contribute reports ourselves, using Internet-connected smartphones.
A new report on local news by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project provides reason to be hopeful about new information platforms. But the report also reveals deep concern about the decay of local newspapers, and what that will mean for local government accountability.
“Research in the past about how people get information about their communities tended to focus on a single question: ‘Where do you go most often to get local news?’,” noted Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Pew Excellence in Journalism project and co-author of the new report, in a prepared statement. “This research asked about 16 different local topics and found a much more complex ecosystem in which people rely on different platforms for different topics. It turns out that each piece of the local information system has special roles to play. Our research sorted that out and we found that for some things TV matters most, for others newspapers and their websites are primary sources, and the Internet is used for still other topics.”
Specifically, the report found that Americans rely on local TV for information about popular local topics, including weather (89% use TV for this information), breaking news (80%), local politics (67%) and crime (66%). Americans use newspapers for breadth and depth of many more topics, particularly with respect to local government information. Newspapers supply “broccoli journalism” about the least popular topics, including zoning and development information (30%), local social services (35%), job openings (39%) and local government activities (42%). These are topics that other local news institutions don’t often deliver.
The role of the Internet grows
In the latest confirmation of the growth of the Internet in modern life, we’re increasingly going online when we’re interested in gathering information about specific local services, searching for information about education, restaurants, and business news, logging onto social media and accessing mobile devices to find and share what we learn ourselves.
“The rise of search engines and specialty websites for different topics like weather, job postings, businesses, and even e-government have fractured and enriched the local news and information environment,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project and another report co-author, in a prepared statement.
Nearly half of adults (47%) now use mobile devices to get local news and information. The proliferation of smartphones, iPad apps and new platforms offers insight into a rapidly expanding mobile future.
“We don’t yet know exactly how important mobile apps will be, but it’s pretty easy to sketch out a scenario where they rise in importance, especially when it comes to breaking news, weather, traffic, local politics and some of the more popular local topics,” said Rainie in an interview.
The Internet has become a key source for peer-generated information. In fact, the survey showed that among adults under age 40, the Internet rivals or exceeds other platforms in every topic area save one: breaking local news. According to the study, the Internet has now become American adults’ key source for five broad areas of information:
- Restaurants, clubs and bars.
- Local businesses.
- Local schools.
- Local jobs.
- Local housing and real estate.
The websites of local newspapers and TV stations aren’t faring well, in terms of how the respondents rated their importance as a local news source. “Local TV news websites barely registered,” reads the report, with less than 6% of those surveyed indicating that they depended on a legacy media organization’s website for local news.
One clear finding from this report is that social media currently plays a small role in providing local information that citizens say they rely upon, with 18% using Facebook and 2% turning to Twitter. “Social media look more like a supplemental source of information on these local topics than a primary, deeply-relied-upon source,” said Rainie, in an interview. “That’s not too surprising to me. Local information is just one of the many things that people discuss and share on SMS and Twitter.”
While the report showed that citizens don’t rely on social media for local news, they are definitely discussing it there. “Participatory news” is a full-blown phenomenon: 41% of respondents can be considered “participators” who publish information online. That said, such information is frequently about restaurants and community events, versus harder news.
A digital generation gap
The question of what these trends mean for all levels of society is also critical to ask. “People under age of 40 are a lot more likely than those over 40 to use the Internet on a host of the topics we probed,” said Rainie in our interview. “The gap is quite striking across a number of topics. As this younger cohort ages, it will probably expect legacy news organizations like newspapers, TV, and radio, to have an even more robust online presence. And they are likely to want to be able to contribute to news and easily share news with others via social media.”
A generation gap could have profound implications for how informed citizens can be about their communities in the future, based upon their consumption habits and the availability of information.
“There is a disconnect in the public mind about newspapers, and that raises an important question about community information needs,” observed Rainie. “As we said in the report, ‘If your local newspaper no longer existed, would that have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact on your ability to keep up with information and news about your local community?’. A large majority of Americans, 69%, believe the death of their local newspaper would have no impact (39%) or only a minor impact (30%) on their ability to get local information. Yet, newspapers are the leading source that people rely on to get information about most of the civic topics on our list. So, if a local newspaper did vanish, it is not entirely clear which parts of the ecosystem would address those needs. Newspapers are deeply enmeshed in the local information system in ways that are pretty important to democracy. That’s why the economic struggles of newspapers matter.”
Veterans of local news operations know that reality well. “This is something that I faced way back when I was at The Molokai Times in Hawaii,” commented Kate Gardiner, responding to a question on Facebook. Gardiner is a new media strategist that works with Al Jazeera, Lauch and the Poynter Institute.
“We built a very robust online community to complement the hard copy and were experimenting with ways to make things even better for everyone — until the bottom dropped out and our major advertiser went bankrupt. The whole newspaper died. The community (about 5,000 people) was left with no alternative means of consuming news. Our competition sort of stepped up, but they weren’t doing straight news. It’s a problem on any number of levels — and there’s no really obvious way to do a community-funded replacement, online or off.
Given that context, do these findings add additional urgency to funding and creating new models for information aggregation and distribution online?
“There aren’t clear indications in our survey that speak to this question,” replied Rainie. “People say now it’s easier than in the past to get the local information they need, so we are not getting a signal in the questions about people thinking that data is hard to find.”
An uncertain future for local government information
As print fades and a digital future for news becomes more equally distributed, establishing sustainable local online information hubs to meet the information needs of our democracy will grow in importance, along with the means to connect those news sources to communities on the other side of the digital or data divide. Simply put, there’s an increasing need for local government news to be generated from civic media, libraries, schools, institutions and private industry. New platforms for social networking and sharing still need to be supplied with accurate information.
It’s not clear if local governments, already stretched to provide essential services, will be able to become robust information providers. That said, new lightweight tools and platforms are enabling ambitious towns to go through “Gov 2.0 city makeovers.”
For now, citizens are not relying on local government to be their primary information providers. According to the report:
… 3% of adults said that they rely on their local government (including both local government websites or visiting offices directly) as the main source of information for both taxes and for local social services, and even fewer cite their local government as a key source for other topics such as community events, zoning and development, and even local government activity.
The results of the survey leave us with significant questions and, unfortunately, few answers about the future of news in rural areas and towns. While local TV stations can focus on their profit centers — weather, breaking news, crime, traffic — it’s going to be tough for local papers to monetize the less popular but important coverage of civic affairs.
“Newspapers are not struggling in the information-dissemination part of their business,” said Rainie in our interview. “Indeed, other research shows many newspapers have a bigger audience than ever if you combine the print and web operations.” (Research data on the state of the media in 2011 may not fully support that contention.)
“But if newspapers cut back on coverage of local government because it is expensive and doesn’t pay for itself with lots of advertising, then local government information will be harder to come by,” said Rainie.
What these news consumption trends mean for local governments, in terms of getting information to citizens when and where they need it, is more difficult to judge.
“The bigger issue that others have raised — notably by Steve Waldman at the FCC in his report [on the Information Needs of Communities“] — is who covers city hall and the school board and the zoning board to help make local institutions accountable? Our report raises that question without answering it,” said Rainie. “If newspapers vanished, would TV stations or bloggers cover the bread-and-butter workings of local government, or do the kind of investigative pieces that newspapers have specialized in? We don’t know and can’t predict from these data. But it’s an important question.”
Steve Coll published an article in the Columbia Journalism Review prior to Waldman’s that provided a thoughtful series of recommendations to reboot the news.
Of the suggestions in the FCC report Rainie mentioned, perhaps the most important to the technology community was the recommendation to put more proceedings, documents and data online: “Governments at all levels should put far more data and information online, and do it in ways that are designed to be most useful,” suggested the FCC in its report. “Entrepreneurs can create new businesses and jobs based on distributing, shaping or analyzing this data. It will enable reporters to unearth stories in a day or two that might have previously taken two months.”
Notably, the Federal Trade Commission also has recommended publishing public data online to support the future of journalism.
There is no shortage of creative ideas for the digital future of journalism, as evidenced by the conversations and new projects generated by the dynamic community that came together last weekend in Boston at the Online News Association’s annual conference. The challenge is that many of them supply information to digitally literate news consumers with smartphones and broadband connections, not the poor, undereducated or disconnected. If local newspapers go away and local government information all goes digital, with primary access through mobile devices, what will it mean for the 21% of Americans still offline? In addition, will being poor mean being uninformed and disconnected from local civic life?
“In our data, people who are less well off are less connected,” said Rainie. “That makes it harder for them to use new tools for civic activism and to gather information easily and on-the-fly. “
Closing the civic gap
As citizens turns to the Internet for government information, government entities have to respond on some level. At the local level, however, resources are scarce. Local TV news is unlikely to fill the gap left by local newspapers. The economics and the medium don’t support using limited time to cover topics that aren’t popular, as the report discusses:
Past PEJ studies have found that local newspapers typically have 70 to 100 stories a day. The typical half-hour local TV newscast is closer to 15. So it is logical that newspapers would offer coverage of more topics in a community, while television might concentrate on a more limited number that attract the widest audience.
“Local government is one coverage area that will suffer immensely if daily newspapers go under,” commented Owen Covington, a reporter for The Triad Business Journal in North Carolina, in response to <a href="“>my question on Google+. “It can be mundane, but is necessary, and time-consuming to produce. Daily newspapers cover local government as a matter of course, while much of the online coverage from other sources is sporadic, and often opinionated and lacking depth. I’m not saying there aren’t alternatives that do as good or better a job than the daily print editions, but they are still rather rare and absent in most communities now served by dailies.”
The Pew report found that citizen-produced information (e.g. newsletters or listservs), commercial websites and newspapers all outweighed local government as news sources that readers relied upon. In that context, the work of e-democracy.org and other civic media platforms will be critical.
There are a growing number of free or inexpensive web-based tools available to city managers, including a growing repository of open source civic software at Civic Commons. Another direction lies in the use of local wikis to connect communities. Libraries will be important hubs for rural communities and will be a core element of bridging the digital divide in under-connected communities. Listservs will play a role in connecting citizens using the Internet’s original killer app, email. Platforms for participatory budgeting may be integrated into hubs in municipalities that have a tolerance for ceding more power of the purse directly to citizens.
“I would suggest that many of the citizen-powered information systems will not look like a newspaper website,” commented Jeff Sonderman, a digital media fellow at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, when asked for his opinion, fittingly, in a Facebook group on social journalism. It’s “more likely to be message boards, Facebook groups or email listservs.”
Many forward-thinking local governments will provide the means for citizens to obtain information by using the most common electronic device: a cellphone. Arkansas, for instance, has added question and answer functionality to mobile apps for citizens using text messaging.
Should small cities or towns invest in citizen engagement? The government-as-a-platform approach looks to nonprofits, civic coders, educators, media, concerned citizens and commercial interests to fill that gap, building upon the core web services and data governments can provide. An essay on newspapers and government 2.0 published earlier this year by Pete Peterson, a professor at Pepperdine University, explored the potential for media and local government to collaborate on citizen engagement:
The increasing use of these tools by local and state governments has created a niche within the burgeoning “Gov 2.0 field,” which now covers enterprises from participatory policy making to 311-systems. Although newspapers have been slower to employ these online engagement platforms, several interesting initiatives launched by newspapers from the San Francisco Chronicle and its water shortage game to the Washington Post’s city budget balancing tool indicate that news organizations are beginning to take the lead in online public participation. This can be seen as both good and bad.
On the positive side, these tools are interactive, allowing a new and participatory form of learning for participants. Matched with the popularity of online games in general, these online civic engagement platforms can create a real “win-win” for both news organizations and users alike — informing readers and driving precious online traffic to newspaper websites.
To date, however, that kind of cooperation doesn’t appear to be gathering much momentum as a complement to the press looking for fraud, corruption or scandal. And, as Peterson noted, there are other challenges for the media:
The way to build the most effective online engagement platforms is for news organizations and local governments to collaborate from their strengths: newspapers bringing their informed readership and marketing skills, working with a municipality’s budget and policy experts. Of course, these relationships demand both transparency and a lack of bias — qualities neither party is known for. But — and this may be hardest of all — these tools also need citizens who are both engaged on local issues and humble about the challenges of forming public policy.
The growth of a new digital news ecosystem populated by civic media, an evolving civic stack, and data journalism will generate some answers to these questions, but it won’t address all of the outstanding issues.
Local news readers write in
When I asked for feedback from readers on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, I received a wide range of responses, some expressing serious worries about the future of local journalism and a few that were hopeful about the potential for technology to help citizens inform one another. A number of people discussed new public and private ventures, including Patch.com, AOL’s initiative to fill the gap in local news, and NPR’s Project Argo, which is experimenting with regional news coverage through public radio.
“I expect people will come together in groups or neighborhoods, and things will be more fluid,” commented David Johnson, a journalism professor at American University, in response to my question on Facebook. “I don’t foresee commercially supported news and information on the local level until there is a valuable platform for advertising and exchange of various levels of services. Perhaps associations will fill the void.”
The “loss of local newspapers, dailies or weeklies, is not a new concern, and a concern in metropolitan as well as more rural cities and towns,” commented Robert Petersen, a software developer, in response to my question on Google+. Petersen continued:
Many years ago the early trend in smaller markets was loss of local ownership of both print and broadcast news sources, an event that leads to a focus on financial performance first, rather than the financial success that follows from producing a quality product. More recently the advertising dollars necessary to sustain local journalism have tended to flow away from local journalism outlets to the additional delivery mechanisms, including “shoppers” (those go way back), electronic (direct email, blogs, coupon or deal sites, shopping help sites with reviews and price comparisons, etc.), movement of advertising to regional radio and TV, not to mention the loss of local sales to online merchants.
This shift away from local journalism can also be seen in the journalism schools, where students are much more interested in journalism with perceived better financial prospects. That there can be substantial non-financial benefits to living in small cities and towns, i.e., quality of life, seems of less importance.
I fear losing the judgment, ethics, and dedication of small-town journalists will lead to a slow deterioration of the quality of local government, a reduction in the quality of life due to a lack of balanced reporting (as well as editorials) of local issues, and in too many places a return to the civic leaders in the “smoke-filled room” making decisions for the uninformed.
Jeanne Holm, Data.gov’s open data evangelist, shared her community’s hybrid news reality in a reply to my question on Google+:
In my small town in Southern California, we still support a local paper, but the frequency has changed. We supplement with online news from City Hall, and most importantly we use social media — a lot. We have fires and floods in our area, and everyone connects on Facebook and via our emergency website to get people organized, supplies where needed, and our firefighters the support they need. It works really well. The local reporters often lead those social media conversations. They are reporting, but just in multiple modalities and in ways that make sense to the situation.”
If states are the laboratories for democracy, towns and cities may be the Petri dishes that stress test the vitality of different species of online hubs. The ones that will stick around will have met the information needs of citizens better than the alternatives — or they’ll have found sustainable business models. In an ideal world, they’ll have both.
Appropriately, the conversation around the Pew report continues on a variety of online forums. If you have any thoughts on what’s next, please feel free to share them in the comments here or on Google+ and Facebook, and via the #localnews hashtag on Twitter.