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May 7, 2024, 2:19 p.m.
Audience & Social
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Most Americans say local news is important. But they’re consuming less of it.

Just 15% of Americans paid or gave money to a local news source in the past year, according to new research from the Pew-Knight Initiative.

On Monday, the Pulitzer Prizes recognized some of the best journalism by American news outlets, including brilliant examples of local reporting.

In the Breaking News category, the award acknowledged “detailed and nimble” coverage of devastating flooding and mudslides by digital startup Lookout Santa Cruz, which is not even four years old. Chicago-based City Bureau and the Invisible Institute teamed up for a two-year investigation by Sarah Conway and Trina Reynolds-Tyler that earned the prize for local reporting. Their series about missing Black girls and women in the city dissected systemic issues with the Chicago Police Department’s handling of those cases, and examined solutions. And the Invisible Institute, an independent audio studio, earned a second Pulitzer in the audio reporting category in collaboration with USG Audio for its series revisiting a local 1990s hate crime.

This work is reminder of the ambitious, impactful reporting that’s possible on the local level, even in the merciless cycle of layoffs and newsroom closures (my colleague Josh Benton has more historical context and analysis of this year’s awards in his story.) And these inspiring examples of local journalism were on my mind as I read through a new report that provides a sobering big-picture reality check about how Americans are (and aren’t) consuming, perceiving, and paying for local news in 2024.

This report, the first installment from the Pew-Knight Initiative supporting “new research on how Americans absorb civic information, form beliefs and identities, and engage in their communities,” surveyed 5,146 U.S. adults between Jan. 22 and Jan. 28, 2024. Researchers asked questions that follow up on a similar Pew study conducted in 2018.

Good news first: Americans (still) believe local news matters. Eighty-five percent of U.S. adults say that local news outlets “are at least somewhat important to the well-being of their local community,” including 44% who say they’re “extremely” or “very” important. On top of that, most respondents say that local journalists are performing well in their jobs, in terms of core obligations like reporting news accurately and covering the most important stories. In a time of eroding faith in institutions, declining trust in news, and a loss, or fracturing, of a shared reality, that’s an encouraging baseline.

But while Americans may say local news matters, they are engaging with it less and less. Since 2016, “the share of Americans who say they follow local news very closely has fallen by 15 percentage points” — from 37% to 22%. Eight years ago, 78% of Americans said they followed local news at least “somewhat” closely; that figure is now down to 66%. That decline has more or less mirrored a similar decline in national news interest, and it’s most pronounced among younger Americans.

In 2018, 14% of Americans said they’d paid for local news in the past year. This year, 15% said that.

Paying for news?

Since 2018, we know that the local news crisis has accelerated (and while many startups are doing outstanding work, the growth and proliferation of these newsrooms is not currently keeping pace with the closure of other local newsrooms). That begs the question: Do Americans realize that the news is in such dire straits financially?

According to this study, the answer is that more Americans are waking up to the financial crisis of local news (especially college-educated Americans) — but a majority still have no idea. In 2018, 71% of Americans said that they thought their local news outlets were doing “very” or “somewhat” well financially. In 2024, that figure is down to 63% — a change that, the report notes, “may be linked with real downward trends in the local news industry” in terms of both audience and revenue. Americans with more formal education are more likely to be aware of the financial challenges local news faces; 52% of Americans with at least a college degree say their local news outlets are doing well financially, compared to 72% with a high school degree or less. In 2018, 65% of Americans with college or postgrad degrees reported believing local news outlets were doing well financially, while for Americans with a high school diploma or less, there’s been negligible change in the past six years, with 73% saying the same in 2018.

While we’re breaking data down by education level: More educated Americans are less likely to follow local news than less educated Americans, and that gap has narrowed, with both groups less likely to follow local news closely today than they were in 2016. Seventeen percent of college grads say they follow local news very closely, compared to 28% of those with a high school diploma or less.

Consumers who prefer TV local news are the most likely to think their local news outlet is doing well financially (75%), while news consumers with a preference for print are the least likely (with 52% believing outlets are doing well financially).

More than half of Americans say there’s at least one news source covering “their local area,” with newspapers being the source most often perceived to be present.

Why do people say they aren’t paying for local news?

The two top reasons are the same ones respondents cited in 2018, according to this study. The most common: Why pay for something you can get for free? Almost half (49%) of respondents cited free alternatives as their main reason for not paying; the runner-up main reason, cited by three in ten respondents, was a lack of interest.

When you examine reasons for not paying by age, though, these figures change a bit. For Americans over 30, free alternatives are still the main factor cited for keeping them from paying for news. But among those aged 18-29, 46% cite lack of interest — a figure that’s consistent with a lower interest in local news expressed by that age group throughout the survey. (Eight-three percent of adults 65 or older follow the news at least somewhat closely, in contrast to 47% of adults under 30. And while less than one in 10 American adults under 30 follows the news “very” closely, 35% of those 65 and older do.)

Perceptions of local news and its role

Beyond following local news less closely, young Americans are less likely to perceive news as important to the community. Whereas about half (51%) of adults over 50 say that local journalism is extremely or very important, just 38% of adults under 50 say the same, and 34% of adults 18-29.

The disconnect between older and younger adults’ feelings about news is also clear in data about what they want the role of local news to be. Though most Americans of any age (almost seven in 10) say they want local journalists to remain neutral on local issues, the minority — about three in 10 — say that local journalists should be advocates. Among young people, around four in 10 see advocacy as a key role of a local journalists, compared to two in 10 among adults 65 and older.

Across different ethnicities, Black Americans express the most support for an advocacy role for local journalists (44%), followed by Hispanic and Asian Americans, with white Americans the least likely to support that role. Lower-income Americans, Democrats, and city dwellers are all also more likely to support an advocacy role, though a majority of all three groups still support neutrality.

On the whole, about seven in ten Americans say “local journalists in their area are mostly in touch with their community,” a slight increase from 2018. Most Americans positively perceive their newsrooms’ ability to report the news accurately, cover the most important stories, be transparent about their reporting, and keep an eye on political leaders. A quarter of Americans say local media does not report the news accurately, while a little over a third say that it does not do a good job monitoring local leaders. Those who are already attached to their local community are most likely to hold their local media in high regard across all four areas.

While a majority of both Democrats and Republicans see local media as reporting the news accurately, 78% of Democrats say they do so, compared to 66% of Republicans.

Getting news digitally, but not necessarily from journalists

Across the board, most Americans now prefer to get their local news digitally. That’s corresponded with a decline in the percentage of Americans who get this news from other traditional platforms. In 2018, 41% of Americans said they preferred to get local news from television; now, 32% do. The preference for print consumption has declined further, from 13% to 9%. (Radio has remained roughly stable compared to other mediums, fluctuating from 8% to 9%.)

The percentage of Americans who prefer to get their news from social media has grown, over the same period, from 15% to 23%.

Not only are more Americans getting news digitally — they’re increasingly turning to information sources other than journalism for their news. The percentages of Americans who are getting news from TV stations, radio stations, and daily or non-daily newspapers all decreased from 2018 to 2024. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans getting news from friends, family, and neighbors; from online forums or groups; from local organizations, like churches; from local government agencies and officials; and from “other online-only sources”, such as Nextdoor, all increased in that same period. (There are some variations by region in which news sources are most prominent, or present; suburban Americans, for instance, are more likely than urban or rural residents to say there is an online forum in their area.)

Friends, family, and neighbors are an especially key source of news, with 73% of Americans getting news that way. The survey notes that a growing amount of this news is specifically transmitted via social media, though phone or in-person word-of-mouth are still the most common ways people share news with one another.

Everyone (still) loves the weather, but the rest is trickier

As in 2018, the news topic Americans can’t do without remains the weather. Nine in 10 Americans follow news about local weather often or sometimes, and almost seven in 10 follow it often.

But weather is the only subject a majority of Americans say they follow often. The second most popular news topic — crime — is followed often by just one in three Americans. Traffic, and government and politics, are the next-most-followed subjects of news, with, of course, some variation — traffic news is more popular in urban areas. (Among my favorite details: “Midwesterners are more likely than people in other regions to often get news about local sports (29% vs. 22% or lower in other regions).”)

Despite Americans understanding the importance of local news writ large, and generally being satisfied with its accuracy and other measures of quality, there’s more clear ambivalence on the subject-specific level. Weather is, again, the exception; 63% of news consumers are “extremely” or “very” satisfied with weather, but the numbers drop for all other subjects — with only about a quarter of news consumers comparably satisfied with news about the local economy, and about government and politics.

Photo of a stack of newspapers by Kheng Cheng TOH on Flickr.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     May 7, 2024, 2:19 p.m.
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