Two new reports underscore the growing challenges of fragmented news viewing preferences and increased media concentration.
A Pew Research Center study, unveiled on Wednesday, showed that nearly a third of U.S. adults (31%) follow local news very closely, but various demographic groups have widely different media preference. Few Americans ages 18 to 29 (15%) follow local news very closely, according to Pew, compared with 28% of those 30 to 49 age bracket and 39% of those 50 and older.
"Older Americans, black adults and those with a high school education or less show considerably more interest in local news than their counterparts," the Pew report concluded. Those categories prefer getting their local news via the TV rather than online.
Meanwhile, a Gallup Panel survey issued on Thursday concluded that more than nine out of ten Americans are "very" or "somewhat" concerned that the consolidation of news organizations will mean that owners' political views will influence coverage of local and national news. The Gallup study also found that 77% of viewers are concerned that new owners would cover less local news.
The Gallup analysis is part of the Gallup-Knight Foundation series on trust, media and democracy that seeks to better understand Americans' evolving opinions of the media.
Pew: TV's role is solid, but its audience is aging
According to the Pew assessment, news consumers older than 50 years primarily turn to the TV set, while those younger than 50 mostly prefer online pathways to local news. Black Americans and those with a high school diploma or less education also express a far greater preference than their counterparts for getting local news through the TV set rather than online, in print or on the radio, Pew found. About half of those with a high school diploma or less prefer the TV set (52%) compared with 29% of those with a college degree and 39% of those with some college education.
Those groups who are less likely to prefer TV tend to express a greater preference for the internet, Pew said. It found that 60% of people ages 18 to 29 prefer the internet, along with about half of 30- to 49-year-olds (47%).
Among the questions in Pew's survey was a question about how much influence local news media have within a community. Thirty-seven percent said "a lot" and 61% responded "not much."
The Pew research also delved into the emerging preference among digital news consumers, distinguishing between social media and "news websites. Not surprisingly, about 30% of audiences in the 18 to 29 year old age group prefer both digital formats to legacy delivery systems (print, radio, TV). But the differences become very distinct in the 30 to 49 age bracket, when 17% favor social media versus 30% choosing news websites. For audiences older than 65, only 3% go to social media compared to 11% who use news websites.
Not Interesting Enough to Pay for News
Pew also found that younger Americans are less likely to pay for local news, which is tied to their explanation that they are not interested in it. Overall, very few U.S. adults (14%) pay for local news, but among younger age cohorts the willingness to pay is even lower: 7% for ages 18 to 29 and 9% for ages 18 to 29. Pew noted that 29% of people above age 65 have paid a local news organization either via subscriptions, donations ore membership.
Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than white Americans to say they want to see/hear or read about local topics such as crime, schools, jobs/employment, sports, traffic/transportation, prices and government/politics, Pew said. For example, Black and Hispanic adults are about three times as likely as white adults to say they want to be informed about jobs and unemployment for their daily lives. These minority audiences are about twice as likely as whites to call schools and local events important, according to the Pew survey. The Pew Research Center is allied with the Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support from the Google News Initiative, the Silicon Valley company's effort to work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age.
As usual, Pew did not offer analyses or recommendations to accompany its findings - but it is clear that there is still sizable, albeit dwindling, interest in and support for local news. Pew's findings augur the drastic changes in the ways people want to obtain it.
The new Gallup research for the Knight Foundation (which backed the recent Knight Commission report on democracy, media and trust) focused on another aspect of the same issue: the credibility of media companies in a consolidating world. In addition to last week's Gannett/ Gatehouse newspaper merger, Knight's report cites the scuttled Sinclair Broadcasting Group effort to acquire Tribune Media. During that failed merger process, critics assailed Sinclair's policy to broadcast its conservative political commentaries via local stations.
The Knight Foundation, in a statement, said that the Gallup poll confirmed that local news consumers are aware of this "very real trend in local news" in which local outlets are covering more national stories than in the past.
"But this shift appears to stem from decisions made by local news organizations, rather than a response to increased consumer demand for such news," according to the Knight Foundation. It cited a recent Pew study that found that most Americans think their local news media are doing well financially, despite evidence to the contrary.
"The results are similar among all relevant demographic subgroups of Americans, including party, age and education, as well as by different levels of attention to local news," Knight said. It emphasized that all categories of news consumers "express concern over ... [the] risks of national news ownership of local news" and emphasized that there is "particular concern about the potential for political bias."
Taken together, the Pew and Knight research projects recognize the fragmenting local news opportunity at a time when many local media operations are struggling to find a role in the evolving mediascape.