Expert Commentary

Local news and citizen engagement in the Internet age: Pew Research Center report 2015

March 2015 report from the Pew Research Center examining the news ecosystems across three cities -- Denver, Colo.; Macon, Ga.; and Sioux City, Iowa.

The relative decline of local news — a result of slashed budgets and staffs at newspapers, where the majority of original reporting is still generated — has been an area of grave concern for members of the media as well as everyone who cares about civic health, from policymakers and social scientists to community groups and citizens. A lot of inputs are required to keep communities vibrant, and widely disseminated factual information — a common set of issues and understandings — turns out to be a key ingredient. The Federal Communications Commission spelled out some of these dynamics in its comprehensive 2011 report “Information Needs of Communities.”

Academic research backs up these concerns, too. A 2014 study by Lee Shaker of Portland State University, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” finds that at the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official; buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values; and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch. Likewise, a recent paper by Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer L. Lawless of American University, “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge and Participation in U.S. House Elections,” notes important implications for democracy: “Citizens exposed to a lower volume of coverage are less able to evaluate their member of Congress, less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote.”

“Hyperlocal” attempts to fill the local news vacuum have been tried, such as Patch, but many have struggled. Still, new efforts with new business models and strategies continue to surface. So where does the American local news landscape now stand, following about a decade of steady decline and a corresponding period of digitally native experimentation? A March 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, “Local News in a Digital Age,” looks at the news ecosystems across three cities — Denver, Colo.; Macon, Ga.; and Sioux City, Iowa — using survey data, news content analysis and interviews.

The report’s findings include:

  • Despite the sense that interest in local news is shrinking in the United States, the report finds that, among citizens in the three cities studied, “nearly nine-in-ten residents follow news about their local area very or somewhat closely, and roughly half follow it very closely.”
  • Local television continues to be the primary way that citizens report accessing news. TV stations outpaced local newspapers by wide margins in terms of how residents report getting news. While there has been hope that digital outlets would fill the news vacuum, “digital-only outlets, neighborhood associations and local government agencies register only in the single digits as sources that residents often turn to for local news.”
  • Data from certain cities suggests notable patterns according to the race of citizens: “Blacks in Macon and Hispanics in Denver express a greater interest in local news than do whites, and the local news topics these groups follow differ somewhat from those followed most closely by whites. In addition, blacks and Hispanics express a greater sense of agency when it comes to improving their community, and in Macon, blacks display a greater propensity toward using social media to get news.”
  • The survey results corroborate academic research on the relationship between news consumption and other indicators of civic health: “A consistent finding across these metro areas is that individuals with strong engagement in local civic and community life as well as those who give their city a high rating as a place to live display stronger local news habits.”
  • Social media play a role in news access, but still not a decisive one: “While the same share of residents in each city (8%) say that social networking sites are the most important way they get local news, Macon residents are more likely to name specific sources that they turn to in this space. Fully 35% of Macon residents access a news source through a social networking site, outpacing both Denver (25%) and Sioux City (27%).”

“Taken together, the data illustrate that when it comes to news ecologies, the greater digital orientation and array of providers in Denver widen the local news system somewhat with less reliance on the major legacy providers, especially the local newspaper, and a greater mix of coverage more often driven by enterprising work from journalists,” the report’s authors conclude. “The portion of the population finding that enterprising work, though, remains small.” It is worth bearing in mind that the report provides case studies, not a comprehensive national picture. They note: “These three cities are not meant to be extrapolated to the nation as whole, but they do indicate the degree to which local factors — from digital infrastructure to economics to civic engagement to race, ethnicity and education — contribute to the mix of providers that emerge, the public that supports them and the ways they interact.”

Related research: For more on attempts to address generational shifts in news access and consumption patterns, see a March 2015 report from the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC that looks at millenials and news; a 2015 report from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, “Youth and Online News: Reflections and Perspectives”; and the Charlotte Observer’s project to engage younger audience members.


Keywords: local reporting, news, media ecosystem, democracy

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