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June 15, 2011, 11:58 a.m.

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.]

POSTED     June 15, 2011, 11:58 a.m.
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