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June 30, 2021, 10:05 a.m.
Audience & Social

The great unbundling of local news

Local news’ bundling of hard news, soft news, and other information used to be a major selling point, but the audience now believes there are better sources elsewhere for most of it.

Traditional local news sources, especially local newspapers, used to bundle news and information on a whole range of local topics. Local politics comes first to mind. But they have also covered stories that help build community, featuring local people who participate in local sports and local events, in addition to providing information such as weather forecasts, traffic updates, or shop opening hours. In the last year, local news has also been tremendously important in covering the local consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

This bundle of some hard news, some soft news, and other information was a major selling point in the past. Even if people didn’t care that much about local politics, they had to get the local paper if they wanted to know where to go, what to do, or what jobs were available in the area. But as this year’s Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows, audiences no longer think that the local paper is the best source for most of this.

[Read: Many people worldwide say they’re losing interest in news … but more are paying for it]

The survey data was collected in January and February 2021. The survey looked at the local topics people are interested in across 38 markets and also at the sources they think are best at providing this information.

The study started out by asking people which local topics they had accessed in the last week. Out of a list of 15 topics, coronavirus updates and the weather were sought after most in every market. Local politics ranked third, but only a third of respondents saying they looked for it. Self-reported access to local political news was highest in Romania (45%) and Norway (43%) and lowest in the UK (17%) and Japan (18%). In the U.S., local news about crime was on par with local politics, with about a third saying they looked for either either. Access rates were lower for all other topics, with never much more than 25% accessing them, except in a few countries where local news is generally stronger (like some Scandinavian countries).

When asked which source was best for the selected local topics, no single source came out strong across all. Rather, people’s preferences varied strongly depending on the type of information they were looking for. Traditional sources are often considered best for politics, crime, and the economy, and the local newspaper remained unrivaled when it came to local announcements. However, a majority of respondents preferred to rely on social media and search when it came to finding local jobs, housing, or information on shops and restaurants.

This picture varied slightly when we looked at individual markets, but the digital disruption was visible even in stronger local news markets like Norway, where 45% are paying for digital news and out of those 57% pay for one or more local outlets in digital form. The United Kingdom is among the markets where traditional sources struggle the most. There, social, search and other websites were preferred by half (and often much more than half) of the respondents across the 15 topics placed in the survey. And among those that subscribe to digital news in the UK, just 3% subscribe to a local newspaper.

In the United States, we saw a somewhat different pattern, partly due to the strength of local television, which respondents saw as the best source for both local politics and coronavirus information. Only 21% of our U.S. respondents still felt newspapers were best placed to provide information about things to do. RISJ found that 21% of U.S. respondents subscribed to some form of digital news; of those, less than a quarter (23%) were paying for a local newspaper.

While the local newspaper used to solve problems and performed many jobs for readers, many users now find that other sources are better able to fill these roles. The data lays bare a great unbundling of local news that undermines traditional business models and underlines the importance of a much clearer value proposition for local news media companies that want to stand out from the many alternative sources of local information available today.

According to the “jobs to be done" theory formulated by the late Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, people don’t buy products for the sake of buying them, but only to solve a problem they have. Our data suggests that traditional local news media could focus on critically covering local politics, health, and businesses as people still consider them the best source for these. Doubling down on a few things, rather than trying to provide information on all topics we asked about, could help channel resources and avoid potentially investing in audiences that have since turned to specialized providers that do only one thing, but do it very well.

This won’t be easy in the current financial environment, but it is critically important to avoid a situation where local governments and local politicians are not subject to scrutiny from local media. While it might be less of an issue that the local paper is no longer considered the best source for the weather, it will be crucial for local journalism and local communities to not lose the battle over political information.

Anne Schulz is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. She is researching questions surrounding news audiences and digital news with a focus on local news, social media, news literacy, and trust.

Photo by armin djuhic on Unsplash.

POSTED     June 30, 2021, 10:05 a.m.
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