A new study shows that local news ecosystems are far more complex than is commonly understood. The digital transformation of news is causing us to mix and match content with media in new ways – and in different ways across generations. Mobile media, for example, are becoming popular for "out and about news" like restaurant tips or weather reports. The web is seen as especially good for education news and local business news. Local TV is popular for weather, breaking news and traffic. Newspapers are best for overall civic news, especially government news.
The study, released today, is a partnership between the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project in partnership with John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Let's hope this is the first of many such studies. In the digital age, news is no longer available only in tidy packages provided by news professionals. Nearly half of us, the survey says, don't have favorite news sources. Today, news stories live on beyond the 6 a.m. newspaper or 6 p.m. newscast – as individual stories, they exist on web sites in cyberspace. We tell each other about them through social media, by word of mouth, tweeting, blogging, etc. Some 41 percent of us are contributing stories or data of our own. Most of us get news from three or more sources. So all in all, we're consuming a lot of news ala carte – picking the correct vessel for each type of news, as one would use a bowl for soup. This study is a start, but we do not yet really understand the complexity of the ala carte flows of local data, events, issues and ideas, nor why they are different for different generations.
As study co-author Tom Rosenstiel puts it: "Research in the past about how people get information about their communities tended to focus on a single question: 'Where do you go most often to get local news? This research asked about 16 different local topics and found a much more complex ecosystem in which people rely on different platforms for different topics. It turns out that each piece of the local information system has special roles to play."
For those concerned about the future of self-government, there are worrisome findings. The newspaper comes out on top for local government news. But not that many people actually care about local government. (Just look at local election turnout). So most people – 69% – don't think the death of the newspaper would matter. Yet without government news, we can't mind our own civic store – and that's the reason towns like Bell, California don't know when their city leaders are making off with millions of tax dollars.
Related article in The New York Times (Sept. 26, 2011):
It has been conventional wisdom for decades that Americans rely more heavily on television than any other medium for local news and information. A study to be released Monday found that to be narrowly true — but also found ample reason not to count out local newspapers, Web sites and radio stations.