Understanding the news ecology and the future

If you live in Denver, Macon or Sioux City, where are you most likely to get your local news? Hint: It’s not yet Facebook and it’s not yet a website.

It’s local television.

The Pew Research Center also found in an extensive report released Thursday that African-American and Hispanic populations appear to be more interested in local news — a finding that seems to contradict past Pew studies.

Despite massive technological changes and economic disruptions to local news, Pew found residents in these three communities rely on local television to get community news. At the same time, at least a third of all residents say the Internet is an important source of local news.

The report, Local News in a Digital Age, is the culmination of a yearlong project to understand the “news ecology” of three very different metro areas — Denver, CO; Macon, GA and Sioux City, IA. Their report compiles multiple forms of research, including:

  • Surveys fielded in each city last summer
  • An analysis of a week’s worth of news from all outlets in each city
  • Site visits and interviews with community leaders in each city
  • A media audit
  • A social media audit

While Pew specifically counsels against reading the report as anything larger than an analysis of these three communities, a lot of it hit home for us at the Workshop, where we have studied the news landscape for years.

Over the years, we conducted four research studies for Community News Matters, a multi-year, multi-funder initiative managed and supported by The Chicago Community Trust with additional support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and The Woods Fund Chicago.

Items that rang true to us were the high viewership (yet relatively shallow content) of TV news, the limited engagement readers have with social media and the niche role of digital-only news in the media landscape.

Here are some of our key take-aways from the Pew report released on March 5, 2015:

TV and daily newspapers are the top local news sources, but the Internet is growing.
Television news is the number one source of local news for residents in each of these three cities, followed by daily metro papers. Pew hints that the quality of coverage on local TV news is not great, noting that most stories are “short anchor reads that require little reporting” and that in the metros studied, the local daily newspapers tended to be the outlets most likely to seek out their own stories to cover.

At the same time, at least a third of respondents in each city said the Internet was “very important” in keeping up with local news, with 45% of respondents in Denver saying the Internet was very important in keeping up with local news.

Racial and ethnic audiences pay more attention to local news than whites. And many believe they can make more change than white residents.
In two of the three metros Pew studied — Denver and Macon — there were large enough populations of non-white racial and ethnic groups to do a deeper study of habits and attitudes. In Denver, Pew did a deeper study of its Hispanic population, and in Macon, of its African-American population.

Pew found that Hispanic residents of Denver and African-American residents of Macon had a greater interest in local news than white audiences and talk about different topics. For example, Hispanic residents talk about crime and jobs more than white residents of Denver. African-American residents are more interested in neighborhood news than white residents of Macon.

In addition, both groups felt they had greater ability to improve their communities, according to Pew. Forty-two percent of Hispanic survey respondents said they felt they could have an impact on Denver, compared to 21% of white residents. Likewise, 36% of African-American survey respondents in Macon said they could have an impact on the region, compared to 14% of white respondents.

Social media plays a muted role in sharing news and generating discussion.
Pew undertook a large-scale review and analysis of both Facebook and Twitter usage for news for the three regions researchers studied, and they caution that their methods are exploratory and shouldn’t be over-analyzed. What they found, though, is that while non-traditional news outlets (such as local government officials) share stories, the stories shared are often similar in content to what local news is already covering. They also found that commenting on social sites is concentrated (in the case of Facebook) to a handful of pages and overall is rare. For Twitter, conversations were mostly between residents. When news came up, it was often national, often political, and not local.

We are excited to dig further into this report to see how it can inform our work and our future research.