< Pew Looks At The Local News Ecosystem

Transcript

Friday, September 30, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

For two generations, studies have consistently shown TV news to be America's number-one source of local information. But now a new Pew study paints a far more nuanced picture of our local information ecosystem.

Pew broke down local news into specific topics—from politics to restaurants—and researchers found evidence of TV's dominance in only three of 16 categories: weather, breaking news and traffic. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project co-authored the study. Lee, welcome back to On The Media.

LEE RAINIE:

Hi, Brooke. Thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The big innovation here is you divided local news into these 16 different topics — zoning, local art scene, government…. What difference did that approach make?

LEE RAINIE:

Previous studies had tended to ask a single question, where do you get local news? And people would say either television or newspaper. But when you unpack the idea of news, it turns out that the ecosystem delivers different results depending on the topic that you're seeking.

So, for instance, the most popular topics—weather, traffic, breaking news—are pretty well covered by television, and people say television is the source that they rely upon for those things. Newspapers are really important for civic kinds of news — what the government is doing, what the school board is doing, what's going on at local schools, what's happening in neighborhoods. But those are topics that are not as popular as the things that TV covers.

And when we asked just a direct question, if your local newspaper vanished from the scene, would it have a major impact on your ability to get local information, a minor impact or no impact, 69 percent said it would have a minor or no impact on their ability to get information.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But newspapers and newspaper websites ranked first or tied for first as the source people relied on for 11 of the 16 key topics that you examined, right?

LEE RAINIE:

That's right. That's the paradox of our finding, newspapers — in the imagination of people — is a primary source for lots of things, don't necessarily fit very high, but on particular topics, they matter a lot.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Why did you ask that question — how important would it be to you if your newspaper disappeared?

LEE RAINIE:

There are two reasons we asked that question. The first is that newspapers are under financial stress. The other reason that we asked it is that some research by our colleagues in this study and in the past, the Center for Excellence in Journalism [sic] tudied the role of newspapers in the information ecosystem and found out if you actually take newspapers out of the mix, the amount of raw material there is for community information diminishes.

The PEJ studied Baltimore and found that the newspaper was the originator of more than half the new information in the community on any given small time period, and that it was the raw material around which community conversation, community events, community activities and politics were discussed.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In most previous studies, people count newspaper websites as the internet, but in yours, newspaper websites were counted as newspapers, which seems to make sense.

LEE RAINIE:

What we wanted to do in this survey is have people think about the source of the information. If it came from a newspaper or a newspaper website, we wanted to give credit to that legacy organization for producing that information no matter what platform people used.

And so, for us, the Internet category only consisted of people who said they relied on search engines, on specialty websites, on social media, and other sort of local websites that only existed in the web environment.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And how popular was the digital space? Did it win out for any of these 16 categories?

LEE RAINIE:

Oh, yes, the Internet itself was the most relied-upon source for five of the subjects that we asked about. It's very popular for getting information about local businesses, for local restaurants, for housing, for schools and for jobs.

And one of the most striking things that we saw is that if you're under age 40, you're much more likely to say the Internet is a primary source for you than if you were over age 40.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And in the there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sun category, word of mouth ranks as the second-most popular source of local news, right behind TV.

LEE RAINIE:

Seventy-four percent said on a weekly basis, they used local TV to get some local news. Fifty-five percent, the second-highest ranking went to word of mouth. And that's when people said, “I rely on my friends. I go to my neighbors. I go to trusted colleagues.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Word of mouth is not limited to words shared across the backyard fence. You're talking about Twitter and Facebook, one-to-one communication on every platform.

LEE RAINIE:

That's right. When a person's at the other end of the exchange, no matter what way they did that, if they — if they mentioned a person as the source of the information, we scored it as a word of mouth activity.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So what do these results suggest about future results?

LEE RAINIE:

One of the most interesting things — mobile users and people who actually participate in the news, people who have actively used social media platforms to contribute to news, to comment on news, to post pictures or videos — both of those audiences, the participators and the mobile folks are way more into local news than everybody else in all of its forms —encouraging news as conversation, encouraging people contributing their own stories to news operations and doing it in real time.

In the mobile environment, both those things might have a significant payoff both to the audience and maybe even the business of news organizations.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Lee, thank you very much.

LEE RAINIE:

Thanks, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Lee Rainie is the director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.