September 26, 2012

How people get local news and information in different communities

Local News and Community Types

In January, 2011 the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the Knight Foundation, conducted a nationally representative telephone survey of U.S. adults exploring local news consumption habits.  Overall, the survey indicated that most adults follow what is happening in their local communities and that the local news ecosystem is complex.  Rather than relying on one or two main sources of local news, most adults use a wide variety of both traditional and online sources depending on which local topic they are seeking information about.1

This report reexamines those data with an eye toward how local news consumption practices vary by community type.  Specifically, it focuses on the ways residents in large cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas compare in their levels of interest in local news, the topics they are most interested in, and the sources they rely on to learn about those topics.

The results indicate that from large urban areas to rural communities, Americans often report similarly high levels of interest in news in general, in local news and information, and in national and international news.  Moreover, similar percentages of adults report following the specific local topics asked about, regardless of the type of community in which they live.

Still, community differences do emerge in the number and variety of local news sources used, as well as the degree of “local news participation” and mobile news consumption.  Many of the differences in local news consumption emerging from these data reflect the varying demographic composition of different community types in the U.S.

Some of the main differences include:

Urban residents: People who live in large cities rely on a wider combination of platforms for information than others and are more likely to get local news and information via a range of digital activities, including internet searches, Twitter, blogs and the websites of local TV stations and newspapers. Urbanites were also those least tied to their communities in terms of how long they lived in the community and how many people they know. They were the least interested of all groups in information about local taxes. At the same time, those who live in large cities, along with suburban residents, are the most likely to be digital “news participators” who email local stories to others, post material on social networking sites, comment on news stories online, or contribute to online discussions on message boards.  Also along with suburbanites, they are more likely to get news via mobile devices. Additionally, they are the most likely to rely on local TV news for information about breaking news, weather, crime, politics, and traffic.

Suburban residents: Those who live in suburban communities are more likely than others to rely on local radio as a platform (perhaps because of relatively longer commuting times); they are more interested than others in news and information about arts and cultural events; and they are particularly interested in local restaurants, traffic, and taxes. Like urbanites, they are heavy digital participators who comment and share the news. These suburban residents rely mainly on the internet for information about local restaurants, businesses, and jobs. They look to television news for weather and breaking news.

Small town residents:  Along with rural residents, people who live in smaller towns are more likely to rely on traditional news platforms such as television and newspapers to get local news; newspapers are especially important to them for civic information. Small town Americans prefer the local newspaper for a long list of information—including local weather, crime, community events, schools, arts and culture, taxes, housing, zoning, local government and social services. Residents of smaller towns are also the most likely to worry about what would happen if the local newspaper no longer existed.

Rural residents: Those who live in rural communities generally are less interested in almost all local topics than those in other communities. The one exception is taxes. They are also more reliant on traditional platforms such as newspapers and TV for most of the topics we queried. And they are less likely than others to say it is easier now to keep up with local information.

It is important to note that the choices about information acquisition are not necessarily the same in all communities. For instance, it might be the case in rural areas that the local newspaper and broadcast outlets are not online or have a very limited online presence and that is a determinant in whether residents get local information online or not. Our survey asked what consumers do in terms of information acquisition and what sources they “rely on.” It did not ask what they could do—that is, what information and sources are available in their communities. In many respects— but not all respects— people generally want similar types of news and information. In some communities, they have many choices and are quite deliberate in which platform they use to get which kind of information. In other communities, they have fewer choices.

Across the four community types, residents report similarly high levels of general interest in news, attention to local news, and interest in most specific local topics

The percentage of Americans who indicate they enjoy keeping up with the news ‘a lot’ ranges from 53% to 60% across the four community types, and similar percentages follow international news closely regardless of what is happening (ranging from 54% to 58%).  More residents in all community types follow local news this closely, with percentages ranging from 68% in large cities to 73% in rural areas.  Interest in national news is highest among suburban residents, with three quarters (74%) following closely regardless of what is going on, compared with two-thirds (67%) of residents of other types of communities.

Across the four community types, residents also report similarly high levels of interest in most of the 16 specific local topics asked about

The survey asked a nationally representative sample of adults whether they ever get news and information about 16 different local topics.

For 11 of 16 local topics that we queried, there are no statistically significant differences in interest level across residents of different community types.  The five local topics for which interest levels differ are arts and culture, restaurants, traffic, taxes, and housing.  Residents of suburban communities show the highest interest level in all five of these topics, while rural residents show the lowest interest level on all but taxes.  In the case of taxes and tax issues, residents of large cities are the least likely to say they follow the topic.

Residents of different community types differ in the sources they rely on for their local news

Residents of large cities, who on the whole skew younger and are more mobile than populations living in other community types, are most likely to stay informed about local topics that interest them through a combination of online and traditional sources. They are particularly likely to get local news through internet searches, Twitter, blogs, and websites of TV and newspapers.  In contrast, small city (31%) and rural (34%) residents are more likely than those in larger cities (21%) and suburbs (16%) to rely solely on “traditional” forms of media for their local news such as local print newspapers and broadcast television.

Suburban residents are distinct in their higher dependence on local radio (likely due to longer commutes to work), while small city and rural residents stand out in their reliance on word of mouth for some types of local information.

Urban and suburban residents on average use more sources of local news than their small town and rural counterparts and are more likely to consume local news on mobile devices

In an average week, residents of large cities and suburbs use more sources of local information than others.  On average, residents of large cities and suburbs use just under four sources per week (3.63 and 3.72, respectively) compared to those in small cities or towns and rural areas who use closer to three sources per week (3.31 and 3.28, respectively).  In addition, more than half of urban (53%) and suburban (57%) residents get some kind of local news or information via cell phone or tablet computer compared with 45% of small city and 35% of rural residents.

The most active “local news participators” also tend to reside in suburban and urban communities

Suburban residents are more likely than any of the other groups (53% vs. 45% large city, 36% small city, 32% rural) to actively participate in local news and large city residents are more likely than small city or rural residents to be classified as local news participators, meaning they email local stories to others, post news or information about the local community on social networking sites or Twitter, comment on local stories they read online, contribute to online discussions on message boards about the local community, and the like.

Rural residents are the least likely to say it is “easier” to keep up with local news and information today than it was five years ago

Residents of large cities (59%), suburbs (60%) and small towns (55%) are more likely than those in rural communities (46%) to say it is “easier” to keep up with local news and information today than it was five years ago.   Yet at the same time, residents of large cities are the least willing to pay for local news content through a paid subscription to a local newspaper (22% vs. 40% suburbs, 33% small towns, 37% rural).

These are just some of the findings about Americans from different communities as identified in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the Knight Foundation.  The nationally representative phone survey of 2,251 adults ages 18 and older was conducted January 12-25, 2011 and included 750 cell phone interviews.

Cite this publication: Carolyn Miller, Lee Rainie, Kristen Purcell, Amy Mitchell and Tom Rosenstiel. “How people get local news and information in different communities.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 26, 2012) http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/09/26/how-people-get-local-news-and-information-in-different-communities/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. See “How People Learn About Their Local Community,” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Local-news.aspx.