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Local news unbundled: where audience value still lies

Local news unbundled: where audience value still lies

Local and regional news media are under immense financial pressure as audience attention and advertising budgets increasingly flow to big platforms and other competitors. Local newspapers in particular have been hit hard by disruption to both consumer behaviour and business models and the pandemic has only increased pressures. Across the world we have seen a spate of cutbacks and layoffs, and longstanding titles closing down. This is troubling because local and regional news media can play a critical role in informing citizens and underpinning democratic processes.

In this chapter we focus on identifying which local news topics matter most to audiences today and where they think they get the best information on each of them. This will help us see where local media still provide value and potentially where it would be most missed. Secondly, it will identify areas where people feel other sources such as social media, search engines, various websites from businesses and government, and even individual politicians, are providing valuable local news and information. Finally, we explore some of the country differences around the perceived value of local media to draw out lessons on why some local and regional news ecologies fare better than others.

Asking about local and regional news consumption across markets that vary strongly in terms of their geography, political and media structure is particularly difficult. To give respondents from everywhere a chance to relate to our questions, we opted for a broader understanding of what local and regional news can mean, covering ‘news from the city or town, municipality or region that people currently live in’. However, it should be kept in mind that some markets vary considerably in terms of news supply at the local and regional level, so comparisons are not always straightforward.1

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What do people want to know?

One important function of local and regional journalism is to hold local and regional politicians to account. But local journalism can offer much more: providing stories that help build community, featuring local people who participate in local sports, weddings, or anniversaries, or service information such as weather forecasts, traffic updates, or shop opening hours. And of course, covering the local consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic has been added to this list of tasks in the past year.

But what information about the area they live in do people actually care about? To find out, we asked respondents which local topics out of a list of 15 they had accessed in the previous week. Across 38 markets where we asked this question, two topics stuck out as most important. Around half said they had sought out local information about Coronavirus or other health news (53%) and just as many said they had accessed local weather forecasts (50%). But, for all other topics, reported access rates are low. Only a third said they had accessed news about local politics (32%), which comes third in the ranking across all markets. For all other topics we asked about, often less than a quarter of our respondents said they had accessed them in the last week. In last year’s Digital News Report survey, we found that many say that local news is important to them, but when asked about what types of local information people have actually accessed, the figures are much lower – the difference between abstract interest and practical engagement is striking.

Things look slightly better for local news media in some countries. Among the markets where we find relatively high self-reported access rates across all topics are some of the Nordic countries as well as some Eastern European ones such as Romania and Croatia. Many of the Latin American countries sit somewhere in the middle as does the USA. Countries that tend to access less local news include the UK and Japan, but also Denmark, where between 21% and 24% told us they had not accessed any of the topics on the list.

The role of community attachment

A sense of attachment to one’s local community is one factor that previous research has documented is associated with higher local news use (e.g. McLeod et al. 1996). Of course, country differences in local and regional news consumption can have many other causes, ranging from a country’s geography, the degree of political centralism in a state, or cultural factors such as the importance of the family and local roots, but at the level of individual markets, research has long documented that higher community involvement is associated with higher local news use. Our data allow us to study this across markets by comparing the average access rate across our 15 local topics in a country with the aggregate local attachment levels.

The next graph shows a clear connection with people in Austria (76%), India (77%), and Romania (80%) – who are on average more attached to their area – being also among those that have accessed most local topics on average. Where attachment is lower, as is the case in Japan (37%) or Peru (32%), people also access fewer local topics on average.

Of course, as is always the case with correlations, it is difficult to say if there is one variable that causes the other and, so far, research has been unable to produce evidence for a causal relationship between these two (Hoffman and Eveland 2010). Therefore, we have to consider that, while a well-functioning local news ecology can create community attachment, community attachment can also create demand for local news. And surely, where community attachment is missing to begin with, local and regional media will always have it harder.

Local news everywhere and nowhere

But attachment to local news is only one part of the story. Traditional local and regional media have seen growing competition in the past decade from big platform companies and specialised websites and apps that focus on providing one particular service, like forecasting the weather or finding a job. More recently social media feeds and groups have enabled communities to form around specific subjects and areas. Local authorities, businesses, and politicians also now often provide regular news of their own on local issues using their own websites and social media pages.

In the following chart we can use our data to learn which of these sources people consider the best source of information for each topic. Traditional media – including newspapers, TV, and local radio – are valued most for hard-news topics such as local politics, crime, the economy, or Coronavirus, as well as local sport, with between around 50% and 60% in our sample thinking these offer the best information for them on these topics. Newspapers are also valued as a place for publishing formal announcements such as births and deaths. But for other topics, alternative sources tend to be preferred.

Social media and search take the biggest shares for information about shops and restaurants (49%), local services (47%), or things to do in the area (46%). Of course, some of the time search and social might function as a route back to local news content, but in many cases the information being sought is contained within the platform, making them a destination in their own right. For housing, jobs, or the weather we also see about a fifth of users turning to specialised websites or apps. It is clear that these types of information – integral to the old local print newspaper bundle – have been unbundled.

In the case of Coronavirus news, although local and regional news media are considered best by many, around half say they preferred to get their Coronavirus news from social media, search, and other internet sites and apps that often source official statistics and present data conveniently at a glance.

Local market differences

In some of our countries the local newspaper continues to dominate across a wide variety of topics. This is especially visible in Norway and looks similar in Sweden and Finland. (In some cases, local publishers like Schibsted own some of the platforms to find jobs or real estate.) But even here, unbundling is under way with consumers often preferring to find ‘things to do’ or weather through alternative websites or social media.

Traditional local sources are deemed best across a series of topics in Germany, but our survey data show that respondents find local newspapers somewhat less important in a country where public service broadcasters offer a variety of regional radio and TV channels and where people are more hesitant to turn to social and search more generally.

In the USA we see a slightly different pattern, partly due to the strength of local television, which is seen as the best source for both local politics and Coronavirus information. Strong competition from these free TV outlets may be one reason why local newspapers in the USA have had such a hard time in monetising their business. Highly developed internet sites mean only a fifth (21%) still feel they are best placed to provide information about things to do. In the UK and Chile alternatives to traditional local media are often considered the best source across topics for more than half of our survey respondents. The UK is also among the countries where a significant proportion prefer to get their local politics news directly from politicians (12%).

Conclusion

In the past, traditional local news media have been used for a wide range of local news and information. Today, as our analysis has shown, they are seen as the best source only for a minority of topics, with people preferring platforms and specialised websites for most others. This ‘great unbundling’ has further undermined traditional business models, underlining the importance of a much clearer value proposition for local news media who want to stand out from the many alternative sources of information available.

Local news media still come out top when it comes to information about local politics. But we also saw that only a third say they have accessed such information in the past week. So local media have clear strengths, but in a very competitive media environment, effective demand may be limited. A sense of attachment to the local community is associated with higher engagement with local news, but even in countries with relatively higher levels of attachment, people have come to rely on traditional local news sources for only a very limited set of topics which will be difficult to monetise on their own.

Longstanding local publishers are moving forward in the face of these challenges, with local newspapers across the world working to develop new editorial products and distinguish value-added journalism from the abundant information available online, from Ouest-France’s new Minuit Sport offer to Westfalenpost’s Mutmacher (Encouragement) series, featuring stories of local people overcoming difficult circumstances. Digital entrants are also active in local news, from aggregators such as News Break, to single-topic niche networks like Chalkbeat (education) or the Athletic (sports). We have also seen local editorial newsletters emerge, such as those run by Whereby.us, or those launched by Axios in Minneapolis, Denver, Tampa, and Des Moines, or acquired in North Carolina, where the company bought Charlotte Agenda for nearly $5m.

But it is uncertain how far these or similar efforts elsewhere will be able to solve the profound problems around the unbundling of local information that we have mapped with our data. Given the competition from platforms and other digital alternatives, local news media’s share of attention, and thus advertising and reader revenues, will be very different from a past in which newspapers in particular dominated local media markets.

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Footnotes

1 For this reason, we did not ask the local news questions in some of the smaller city states like Hong Kong or Singapore. For operational reasons we also did not ask local news questions this year in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.