Pew Study: People Undervalue Their Local Newspaper


A new research report from the Pew Research Center reveals that while Americans get their local news from a variety of different sources, they far undervalue their local paper as a major source of that news. Authors Tom Rosenstiel, Amy Mitchell, Kristen Purcell and Lee Rainie write:

In all, the data in a new national survey show that the majority (64%) of American adults use at least three different types of media every week to get news and information about their local community—and 15% rely on at least six different kinds of media weekly.

The most interesting statistic lies in the mixed messages that people send about their local newspaper. While 69 percent of Americans claim that losing their local newspaper would have no impact, their reading habits show that people rely on print and online papers for 11 out of 16 major news topics. The authors write: “In other words, local TV draws a mass audience largely around a few popular subjects; local newspapers attract a smaller cohort of citizens but for a wider range of civically oriented subjects.”




The questions are misleading and not necessarily related.

There are 50 restaurants near my office where I could have lunch everyday. I only frequent half a dozen of them, with a heavy rotation on three of them. If one of my top three closed, it would have no effect on whether or not I eat lunch everyday.

People who get the news everyday wouldn't just stop getting news because the local paper shut down. They would try a handful of the dozen or so options they have available to them and settle in on their top two or three options.

Enter your name...

Depends on what you call "news".

If my local newspaper shut down, I honestly don't know where I would get information about the last city council meeting, what's going on with the library budget, or how the highway repairs are progressing.

If your idea of "news" is limited to which celebrity is getting divorced, or what happened in the Middle East yesterday, or who said something stupid in Congress, then sure: losing your local newspaper wouldn't harm you at all.

David Johnson

Without going into the syllogistic leap where you say the research is about local papers, and then you quote a statistic about online newspapers which could be local or out of market, I'd instead ask you to consider another issue in newspaper publishing. 60 percent of newspapers are generally composed of advertising content.

At the profit apex for corporate-owned newspaper publishing in the late 90s, classified advertising was responsible for between 4o and 50 percent of total industry revenue. This content, generated and consumed by people in the local community, was perhaps even more relevant to the product's consumers than fungible commodity newswire content or the few short anecdotal pieces of content that were originally produced by any paper's small metro reporting staff.

Even though the primary vertical categories were jobs, homes, and used cars, classified advertising content was people-centric instead of institutional-centric. It was an ocean of small transactions that connected people to the product, creating a comprehensive forum. It also provided a financial investment of a community that offset the financial sway of major advertisers who could afford large run of paper or display ads. Those advertisers, such as department stores, themselves have since contracted through mergers and acquisitions until only a few huge players survive. Big box chain stores have squeezed out locally owned businesses as well during this period, until only a few advertisers remain and many simply use the paper to circulate insert ads that are preprinted. The newspaper helped destroy it's own value and customer base as it helped these businesses gain the footholds in their communities. These companies were once the only operators in the local marketplace who could afford to capitalize infrastructure necessary to bring in information and distribute it widely. The value of that business proposition has been greatly diminished now that any person can access electronic information directly, and has no need for someone else to transcribe and print it or broadcast it to them.

It is important to understand that newspapering is a very different business proposition than local television or radio, if only because of the price point and barrier to entry to advertise on each platform is radically different. Regardless, many media companies in both print and broadcast now rely heavily on political and advocacy advertising for solid revenue -- which is often in direct ethical conflict with the editorial news product that shares space with it. Also, in the online space, publishers and managers early on resorted to using third-party advertising networks that offered scale, which effectively brokered the space of the product. The advertising seen in these online networks is frequently of the lowest common denominator, has little or no relevance to the local consumer, and can even at times be hostile and untrustworthy.

Finally, the aggregate philosophy of publishing and broadcasting that drove the editorial selection and judgement of the past fifty years depended not only upon syndication of comics and features that are no longer geographically hindered by distribution systems, but also offering stenographic and list information such as police blotters, transactions, community calendars, and fire calls among others as a community service. As these organizations have become more transparent and self publish in the online space, the need for a middle stage distribution mechanism has vastly diminished. Local blogs and social media have empowered people to tell their own stories, which bubble up to public awareness as people share them online with friends talking along an Internet fencepost. These people are no longer disenfranchised or distanced from their ability to tell their own stories, in their own words.

This leaves newspapers as a vehicle for distributing corporate news and information that is largely divorced and of little value to the community or the people who live in it. Instead, what passes for news is what the wealthiest and most powerfully connected people can deliver to the pages of a paper, which are wrapped in the opinions and biased analysis of a legion of syndicated columnists. It is a bloated diet of information that leaves communities obese and yet informationally malnourished and susceptible to making decisions about their lives and purchasing goods that are not needed or of significant value.

To say that the market undervalues the local newspaper requires a much stronger premise. This is a woefully juvenile thesis and completely unsubstantiated on the grounds you present.


Mike B

I'm usually surprised by sorts of information that is to by found in my town's (pop 13,000) current free weekly newspaper. It's actually a lot more informative than the free "Metro" daily distributed at the local transit station which seems to consist mostly of Infotainment and Infotizing. Most of the ads are from local groups and businesses so even they are more relevant to me than the sort of corporate schlock that pervades most low quality newspapers these days.

Up through the 1990s my town actually had a real newspaper type newspaper with a building and everything. I remember they had a staff photographer that I kept running into a various events. Predictably the paper folded as people's news options took off, but it was eventually replaced by a series of free papers that started as a "what's on in town" bulletin and eventually increased in quality to the point where it has an actual front page with articles and reasonably in depth coverage.

While changes in media consumption killed the old form of newspapers, new technology has drastically reduced the cost to actually publishing a newspaper. At a very local level it is entirely feasible for a high quality, low overhead, local publication to survive. Unfortunately it will never have the same sort of staying power the old "for profit" papers used to have and these more volunteer model may wax and wayne like other similar organizations.


Eric M. Jones

Years ago there were many times as many newspapers. Now the newspapers are just hanging on and supported by a few big advertisers...and whatever passes for the "Establishment" like the local banks and big box stores. Since perhaps one editors exists, his (or her) politics are predominant. And the reporters dare not cross them.

Typically in my small town, local news reporters can't write critically about the crooked banks, the questionable town council, the self-serving police, the town services or government. Period.

The nearest big town newspaper is owned by arch-conservatives, while the populace seems almost all liberals.

Lack of choice seems to be the issue here.

Basil White

If you look at news pragmatically as simply an information resource for making better decisions, losing the local paper would have little impact on my decisions. There's very little reality discussed in the paper that I can influence, so I admit that almost all the value of the news is entertainment value. I rely on the paper for major news topics, but I simply don't value the news in general. Any single random edition of my favorite paper has a less than even chance of influencing any of my decisions.