September 26, 2011

How People Learn About Their Local Community

While local TV news remains the most popular source for local information in America, adults rely on it primarily for just three subjects—weather, breaking news and to a lesser extent traffic. And for all their problems, newspapers (both print and on the web) are the source Americans turn to most for a wider range of information than any other source, according to a new survey out today.

The internet has a strong hold in the local community as well. Web-only outlets are now the key source of information on some key subjects such as education or local business and restaurants. And greater disruption seems to lie ahead. For the 79% of Americans who are online, as well as Americans ages 18-39, the internet ranks as a top source of information for most of the local subjects studied in the survey. 

These are among the findings of a new a new study produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project in partnership with John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The survey looks in a new and detailed way at how people learn about community by breaking down local information into 16 key topic areas. The result is a more nuanced understanding of the role each media plays in a community.

“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 PEJ and co-author of the new report. “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.”

When it comes to frequency of use, TV is still the platform that people visit most often for local information. Fully 74% of Americans watch local TV newscasts or look at local TV news websites at least weekly. But local TV ranks fairly low on the breadth of information that people rely on TV for. The key is that TV is the source of choice for the topics that almost everyone tends to follow. Indeed, 89% of adults follow the weather regularly and 80% follow breaking news, the majority of them via their local TV station.

By contrast, while far fewer people read newspapers and newspaper websites on a weekly basis — 50% of adults read newspapers or go to newspaper sites at least weekly to get local information. But for certain kinds of information newspapers and their websites are important. Newspapers and newspaper websites rank first or tied for first as the source people rely on most for 11 of the 16 key topics examined—most of them civically-oriented topics such as local government, taxes and zoning.

These are topics have a much smaller following than weather or breaking news.

Even though people say they rely on newspapers for an array of topics, 69% of Americans say if their local newspaper went out of business, it would not have a major impact their ability to access news and information about their community.

In this ecosystem of community news and information, very old and very new sources blend. For instance, word of mouth remains a key information source even in the digital age, ranking second as the source people use at least weekly to get local information, behind only local TV. At the same time, nearly half of adults occasionally now get local information on mobile devices, though it is still largely a supplemental platform for them.

The survey was administered from January 12-25 among a nationally-representative sample of 2,251 adults age 18 and older on landline and cell phones. It has an overall margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Among the findings:

  • Different people rely on different sources. Overall, local news consumption habits vary widely by age, and the survey demonstrates that no one platform is outpacing another in delivering all community news and information. Fully 64% of Americans use at least three sources of media every week to get local news—15% rely on at least six weekly. And 45% say they do not even have a favorite local news source.
  • Weather is most popular, zoning ranks last. The most popular local news topics that people get are weather (89% of people get it), breaking news (80%); local politics (67%) and crime (66%). The least popular on our list of topics are zoning and development information (30%), local social services such as housing and health care (35%), local job openings (39%), and government activities (42%).
  • Mobile has become a local news medium. Nearly half of adults (47%) use mobile devices to get local news and information of some kind, but it is largely supplemental. Even now, though, 5% of Americans say they rely on a mobile app for weather information.
  • Local News is highly participatory. Fully 41% can be considered local news participators because they contribute their own information via social media and other sources. Both these groups are substantially more likely than others to use the internet to get local news and information on almost all topics.
  • Small percentage share local news. Social media is becoming a factor in how people learn about their local community, but it is not as popular as other digital forms. In all, 16% of adults say they share local information on social networking sites like Facebook.
  • Minorities are a source of stability for local TV news. Hispanics are more than four times more likely to name local television as their top source for local politics as they are to name newspapers (37% versus 9%). African-American adults also prefer local TV over local newspapers as a source for this topic, though not quite to the same degree (36% versus 19%).

The survey and report show how dramatically digital technology has disrupted the traditional information system of localities. “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.

Still, the future of some digital activities is up in the air.

“Our survey raised some important questions about the future of local information systems,” noted Kristen Purcell, head of research at Pew Internet and co-author of the report. “Mobile apps draw very little attention at this point on the local scene, but it isn’t hard to sketch a scenario where they will matter more in coming years. Plus, the utility of news organization websites is still unsettled. They are important to some people, but the sites don’t score nearly as high as the tradition platforms – the TV broadcast and the printed newspaper.”

“The Pew-Knight report shows that local news ecosystems in the digital age are far more complex than is commonly understood,” said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation.  “People are mixing and matching media and content in new ways — and in different ways across generations.”

The Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project are a part of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit fact tank that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Research Center does not take positions on policy issues. It is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

Read the complete study