Local Newspapers Hold Ground Against the Internet

Local newspapers might seem like the deteriorating historical landmarks in the local media landscape, but new research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates they are still a key source for local information — even as more people turn to the Internet for the same types of information.
While 69% of the 2,251 adults who participated in the study say the death of their local newspaper would either have no effect or only a minor effect on their ability to get local information, newspapers (both print and online) are still the top source for 11 of 16 specific information categories including crime, taxes, local government activities, school, local politics and local jobs.
Television, not newspapers, was the most popular source of local news. TV tops the list because its key coverage areas — weather and breaking news — are also the most popular to follow. Newspapers draw a smaller audience across more diverse coverage areas.
This raises questions about what would happen if (or as some people might phrase it, “when”) local newspapers shut down their presses.
“…will television begin to cover taxes and zoning and education if the local newspaper no longer exists?,” the Pew researchers wonder. “Would new digital sources emerge to cover the hole if a local newspaper cut back its coverage or vanished altogether? And would the approach of these new sources be fully journalistic in nature?”
AOL hopes the answer to these questions is Patch, a network of more than 800 local news sites it has set up in neighborhoods across the country. The sites cover topics like local politics and community events — the types of content for which a local paper has traditionally been a top source. They have not, however, shown any signs of profitability, and their page views remain low.
Despite popular belief, social networks have not gained much steam as an alternative to local news either. In the topics for which they ranked highest, restaurants and community events, just 2% of respondents named social networks a top source.
Young people are, however, turning to online sources (not including websites of newspapers or television stations) for information about many topics newspapers traditionally have provided in one comprehensive publication. While the Internet was the top source for just five of 16 information categories among all adults, it was the top source for 12 of these categories among adults under age 40.
The Internet is replacing newspapers for local news for the 79% of Americans online, which includes young people. Among online Americans, the Internet was the first or second most important source for news about all but one information category. As that young group gets older and more people connect, reliance on the Internet for local information will likely emerge as the leader in most categories newspapers currently dominate.
Right now, however, local newspapers are still the most important source of local news in the majority of local topics — and their disappearance would leave a hole that might never be filled again in the same way.
“The strength of newspapers comes from aggregating an audience by offering a wide range of information, even if each subject or story has limited audience,” the researchers write. “That model may be vital from a civic standpoint, but it is traditionally expensive and it is not clear what the incentive is to replicate it if newspapers were to disappear. ”
Image courtesy of Flickr, Zoetnet

Date: Friday, Nov. 4, 2011
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