A national phone survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Program found that the majority of adult Americans habitually follow local news. According to the report, 72% of the 2,251 adults surveyed said they follow local news “most of the time, whether or not something important is happening” while 25% said they follow local news closely “only when something important is happening.” Three percent did not respond.
Of the 72% of adults labeled “local news enthusiasts,” 32% said the disappearance of their local newspaper would have a “major impact” on their lives, while 34% said they would feel “no impact at all” the report said. In contrast, 19% of adults who do not follow local news closely said the disappearance of their local newspaper would have a major impact, while 51% said it would have no impact, the report said.
The survey also found that local news followers age 40 and above were most likely to report that the disappearance of their local paper would have a major impact on their lives (35%), though younger readers were not far behind (26%).
While from one perspective the statistics seem promising for proponents of local news, Steve Meyers of Poynter describes the survey results as “one of those glass-half-full/half-empty situations,” countering that by Pew’s numbers, 68% of local news enthusiasts would not feel a major impact if their local newspaper disappeared, and 34% would feel no impact at all. While a valid point, the wording of the Pew survey appears to be a bit misleading in this case, as the report does not specify any middle ground. Only the percentages of “major” and “no” impact are reported, but what of readers who would declare “some” or “minor” impact upon losing their local news source? This lack of clarity poses problems with drawing strong conclusions in either direction.
Poynter also highlights the survey’s reportage of adults who would be willing to pay for local news. The report reads, “Local news enthusiasts are twice as likely as other adults (38% v. 19%) to have a paid subscription for delivery of a local print newspaper, led almost entirely by the 46% of older local news enthusiasts who currently pay for this service…While nearly three quarters (72%) of local news enthusiasts say they would not pay for online access to their local newspaper, nearly one-quarter (23%) say they would pay a monthly subscription fee of $5 or $10 to get full online access to their local newspaper.”
Here, Meyers’ “glass-half-full/glass-half-empty” characterization is much more visible in the report’s wording: though local news enthusiasts are more likely to pay for print subscriptions, a mere 23% would pay a monthly subscription for online access.
What seems most important to take from this survey, however, aren’t the vague quantifications of overall consumption of local news, but rather the demographics of local news readers—more specifically, which age groups follow local news and how those groups are responding to changes in media platforms used for local news coverage.
For example, while local news enthusiasts age 40 and older are more likely to get their news from traditional sources like print newspapers and television broadcasts, local news followers under 40 are more likely than older followers to use non-traditional sources, such as search engines (54%), local news websites (33%), and social networking sites (21%), according to the report.
While the percentages of younger readers obtaining local news through digital platforms could be higher, the potential for these readers to drive local news in a digital direction is promising. The study found that 70% of younger local news enthusiasts surveyed own a laptop, 91% own a mobile phone, and 73% use social networking sites.
Indeed, various digital platforms such as Patch have embraced local news in hopes of reaching younger, tech-savvy readers, focusing on “hyperlocal” coverage in blog-like formats, as previously reported.