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Less of less: FCC-commissioned report finds a “surprisingly small audience for local news traffic”

Local news outlets get less than one half of one percent of all pageviews in a typical market, according to a new report (pdf) called “Less of the Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet.”

The report, commissioned as part of the FCC’s quadrennial mandated review of broadcast ownership regulations, was intended as a comprehensive look to evaluate just what the rough times in the news industry have meant for local news, according to Matthew Hindman, the author George Washington University professor who authored the report. A particular aim of the study was to assess how the Internet, and new online news sources, were (or were not) contributing to the FCC’s stated goals of “localism, competition, and diversity” in local news markets.

Using comScore panel data for February, March, and April 2010 for the top 100 broadcast markets, Hindman looked at local online news outlets and found that local news represents just a tiny portion of overall Internet traffic.

That in itself isn’t entirely surprising — local news has always been a niche within a much larger universe of overall information. What’s especially notable, though, is that what sometimes seem to be good numbers for news organizations — new unique visitors, for example — may mean little in the context of the broader news ecosystem. Traffic is unstable and, for better or for worse, consumers’ relative lack of attention to local news suggests that local news outlets may be losing out to national news sites.

To put it in terms of news sustainability and news diversity, the report has this to say:

The big picture is that there is little evidence in this data that the Internet has expanded the number of local news outlets. And while the Internet adds only a pittance of new sources of local news, the surprisingly small audience for local news traffic helps explain the financial straits local news organizations now face.

In terms of media diversity, it seems, we are in a situation of same-old, same-old, with big players like broadcast and mainstream news still commanding the most attention — albeit the limited attention — of readers.

The real headline here, however, is what Hindman has to say about traffic patterns and news consumption. While the report doesn’t broach the subject of economic implications of low local news traffic, it does document a US news ecology in which there is an average of just 11.4 monthly pageviews dedicated to all local news in the median market. That’s not an optimistic finding.

To lay the setting for its claims about local news traffic, the report offers a summary of some of the frequently raised problems with web metrics. Monthly audience reach is not comparable to newspaper circulation, for example, because a user can go to huge numbers of sites and still count as a visitor to a site. Pageviews don’t represent anything more than a click on a page, and so aren’t a useful proxy for true engagement with a site. Similarly, the report critiques the over-counting of unique visitors as they move across devices or clear cookies.

With that in mind, though, a brief look at market data is quite sobering for anyone hoping for a renaissance of news online. In terms of audience reach, the largest local news organization reached, on average, 17.8 percent market share. But sites’ reach, however, quickly diminishes as you move down the rankings; the fifth-ranked site reached an average of only 4.3 percent of users in its market.

Here are some takeouts on local news traffic itself (bearing in mind that each market features an average of ten different options for online local news):

  • Online local news sites received only 11.4 monthly pageviews per person in the median market.
  • Local news sites were between 0.30 and 0.62 percent of all monthly pageviews in half of the observations, equivalent to between 8.3 and 17.0 pageviews per person.
  • Less than one in five news pageviews goes to a local news source.

Time spent, one of the ways that some people have started talking about “engagement” online, also reveals a sobering statistic:

  • In the median market, only 9.1 monthly minutes per user went to local news sites, equal to just 0.45 percent of time online.

As Hindman notes (perhaps grimly for those concerned about the fate of news and democracy, a subject of interest to him), “Measured by pageviews or minutes, local news outlets get just a tiny portion of citizens’ attention.”

The report also provides some sobering news for those who might be championing the birth of niche news outlets that are completely unaffiliated with mainstream news. Only 17 out of 1,074 local news outlets that appeared in the data were both web-native and devoted to local news. “Perhaps the single most surprising finding in this study,” the report notes, “is just how few such outlets there are.”

The online-only sites examined included some former newspaper sites: the Seattle PI (by far the most successful in terms of audience reach), the Tucson Citizen, the Kentucky Post, Voice of San Diego, and MinnPost. Perhaps unsettling but not surprising, the nonprofit sites had relatively small traffic — so small that, at some points, their traffic was immeasurable during the data period.

To dig deeper, Hindman culled together a list of local news sites, both small and (relatively) big, from the Columbia Journalism Review, the Hauser Center, and the Reynolds Institute — a list that includes the Bay Citizen, Baristanet, The Gotham Gazette, the Minnesota Independent, and others of the same vein. For these sites, traffic patterns do not meet the 1 percent traffic threshold established at the outset of the report (and elsewhere) to compare across markets. And on the for-profit side, Patch makes almost no appearance in the data at all, suggesting that local and commercial online-only news enterprises aren’t reaching significant traffic numbers.

Perhaps not all is doom and gloom from what Hindman dubs “null” findings, however, when one remembers that a comScore respondent represents about 600 people, and there are certain social science issues with what are called “panel studies.”

To confirm the data, Hindman did case studies of market areas to map out blogs that might not be found in the comScore data. Basic search terms turned up the big local online players found in the comScore data, as would be expected.

Digging deeper into the heart of Cincinnatti, Dallas, Houston, Portland, and Charlotte revealed both encouraging and discouraging news. There were good local news sites that provided comprehensive information to people. On the downside, as the report put the case for 11 Portland blogs with 20 or more subscribers:

These blogs produced approximately 27,400 words worth of content. That is slightly less than 4,000 words a day, small enough to be printed on a single page of a full-size daily newspaper.

Hindman tried to make some predictions about the prevalence of local news sites, media diversity, and audience consumption. From an array of variables, he was able to draw some conclusions about both the type of online news and also the kind of people who might be clicking (or not).

  • Greater numbers of Internet-only news sites are found in markets with lower per-person print circulation…but the report contained no best guesses on whether the news that exists online can supplement gaps in local print coverage.
  • With everything else being equal, markets that are large and heavily Hispanic, or large and heavily African American are likely to have fewer Internet-only local news sites.
  • Communities with a proportionally larger Latino population consume less local news than cities that would be comparable along other factors.
  • Oddly enough, markets that have higher per capita income actually consume less news than poorer markets.

To answer the question of whether the Internet has led to new voices, the report adds:

“Has the Internet significantly expanded the number of local news voices? The answer that emerges from the comScore data is firm but qualified “no.”

[Disclosure: This fall, Nikki Usher will begin work as an assistant professor at George Washington University, where Matthew Hindman is a professor.]

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
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  • Chanders


    I won’t bother you with all the potential problems with Hindman’s lovely quantitative data (primarily the discrepancy between what he’s measuring, what he finds with what he is measuring, and the questions he thinks he is answering) because you know them all already. But someday I will bother Matt with them.

    My primary frustration with this sort of research is that it answers questions based on available data, rather than working with interesting qualitative researchers and journalism thinkers to come up with interesting questions and then use the best data to answer those interesting questions. Perhaps grounds for future research between enterprising but methodologically distinct journalism scholars in the DC area. Hint. Hint.

    Still- data is data. But we can do better in 2011, right?

  • Joshua Benton

    C.W., if you don’t want to bother Nikki with your problems with Hindman’s paper, bother the rest of us then! I posted some of my thoughts, which I suspect may line up with some of yours, but I’d be curious to hear yours.

  • Chanders

    Hi Josh,

    A few things. First off, I think your post is fantastic and is similar to a lot of my own (half-formed) thoughts.

    To comment further on the substance of the paper I’d want to read the whole thing again, in more detail, and probably also read the response by Chyi … and hopefully that will happen … er, someday ;-). But on the basis of your post, and Nikki’s post, I do feel confident in letting loose with some methodological gripes, which I hinted at in my response above.

    My main concern is with academic and “future of journalism” culture. Or rather, with their non-intersection. The future of journalism world has incredibly interesting insights and is asking questions that are so much more interesting than the questions normally pursued by professional scholars in the academy. But they don’t have data, or at least, they don’t have data that answers the specific questions they are trying to ask. And the academics have “data,” but often their questions are often not all that interesting because they are asking them based off the data they already have, or the data can reasonably get. Or, they are so disconnected from the larger journalism conversation that the questions they are asking, and the answers they come up with, seem like “old news” to people working on these issues at close range.

    Indeed, your post shows part of the solution to the problem. There used to be a cliche about journalism school- the hostility between the green eyeshades and the chi-squares. And while we’ve been lucky to see these hostilities fade, I think the new divide is between the “post-then-filter” folks and the peer review for 5 years” folks. In an ideal world, folks like Hindman would build their research agenda based part on the types of posts and issues raised here at the Lab, or  at CJR, or Buzzmachine, or PressThink. In an ideal world, there would be more of a connection between the bloviators and the number crunchers.

    For any number of reasons, these partnerships are hard to foster and even harder to sustain, but they are worth making, I think.  And the folks making them are primarily in industry, which has its own needs and biases and is far less likely to make findings and data public than the academics or regulatory bodies.

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  • Tim Schreier

    This study simply proves a given fact; the smaller the universe, the smaller the reader size.  In other words, the more local you go, the less you have to write about. Hence, the more local you go, the less people have to read about.  It does not paint a very bright picture for hyper-local sites wishing to capitalize on mobile/local nor does it bode well for Google, AOL Patch and other larger aggregators wishing for the “holy grail” in local.

  • Dick Byrd

    Does anyone anywhere consider that the selection of news stories to cover has something to do with this?  A nightly display on air, and thus a display on the station websites of “cheap and easy” police blotter mug shots, maps of where tiny robberies occurred, relatively meaningless house fires occurred, and other such “handouts” are not necessarily news.  At least these were not “news” when local news tried to do two things:  1.  tell stories that mean something to the viewers, affect their lives, and cause them to stop and think  (2) actually serve the public “interest, conenience, and necessity.”

  • Matt Thompson
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  • TR

    Sorry I can’t quote anything scientific on this. But in my market, it’s not even remotely applicable. Our regular weekly readership hits more than half the population of our coverage area, and anecdotally, believe me, we know we have quite an audience. You can’t break out data this way and make any sort of extrapolation. There is no standard for how a site produces news (thank GOD) and so time on site, page views, etc., can’t be compared. We publish in blog format, publish at least a dozen stories a day (and no, we do NOT have less to write about because we’re in a local area – on the contrary, I just run short of time and staff to write about everything, we could easily do 40 stories a day, there is no shortage of material), and get 900,000 pageviews a month. We collaborate with our community – it’s not always one-way top-down reporting, some of the news tips come from them. I could go on but I have to say, this just doesn’t compute in some areas, including ours. – Tracy Record, editor, West Seattle Blog

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  • Joshua Benton

    Hey Tracy — I think the exclusion of sites like yours is a very reasonable critique of the study’s methods. By using the television DMA as the basis for analysis, a site like WSB that focuses on only one slice of the entire metro region is going to have trouble showing up in the comScore data as they’re crunched.

    Still, I think there’s a broader truth to the study’s point that, even if every hyperlocal site, neighborhood blog, and other local news site were included, you’d still be looking at local news being a tiny fraction of overall web usage. 

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  • Michael V. Marcotte

    One more question about the data. In my own experience, I read a lot of local news on my devices without ever clicking on news sites. I’m reading what they send as e-mail. Very convenient. Is that kind of use measured in the study?

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  • Emily A.

    This was an interesting article. As a young adult with a degree in print journalism, I am always saddened about the already bad fate of print journalism. 

    Most people my age don’t even buy an actual newspaper and why would they? It’s free to view them online. And yes, most bloggers who might actually write about local content don’t have enough readers and usually are not professional journalists. Any blogger can ramble on briefly about something local that occurred.

    Most people my age say they read Yahoo News or AOL News, which to me, isn’t actual news; furthermore, most people in general, especially my age, only have time to read the first paragraph or two of a story or don’t want to read in-depth pieces because they have a short attention span or just don’t care to read the entire article. Most bloggers, rather than reporters, write incredibly short pieces about local things like stated above – the average words on a blog can fit on a one page of a daily.

    And yes, most internet-based news articles are from popular, national newspapers, rather than local ones. I constantly notice editing mistakes, grammar mistakes, lack of credibility, etc, so it does make me sad – this is why journalists (especially in southern California where I live) can’t make a living. It’s a dying profession because in this day and age people don’t want quality, local news written by professionals.

    Anyways, that’s my spiel – it was an interesting read.

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