How do readers feel about local news outlets in their own communities, what makes them want to engage, and why do they prefer certain digital publications to others?
To answer these questions, and gain a better understanding of how local news organizations can be more transparent with readers, the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin recently teamed up with the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Together, the two organizations surveyed more than 4,500 people in three areas in the United States — Fresno, California; Kansas City, Missouri; and Macon, Georgia.
What they discovered through their survey should be enlightening to anyone who has been tracking the local news industry in the past few years. It turns out that readers have better impressions of local news than news in general, but their opinions skew more negative when asked about specific publishers in their own communities. Here are other key findings from the survey:
Readers consume national news more frequently than local.
In News Co/Lab’s survey, “most” people said they consumed national news about once a day, on average, and local news “slightly less often.” That’s not what most digital publishers will want to hear, but it is valuable information nonetheless.
Knowing that readers are less likely to visit a local news website multiple times a day, publishers should be looking for ways incentivize that behavior. For example, rather than publishing all of the day’s stories at once each morning, the publisher could dole out content on an hourly basis throughout the day. This publishing schedule requires readers to visit multiple times during a 24 hour period in order to stay up-to-date on the latest news around town.
Engagement has become an issue for local publishers.
Survey respondents rated local news outlets poorly when asked how they engage with their communities, giving them an average score of just three-out-of-five.
Why does that matter? For one thing, recent research has shown that engagement is tied to perceptions of bias in local news. The more engaged a digital publication’s readership is, the less editorial bias is perceived by readers. Therefore, local news outlets that can engage readers are shrinking the perception bias that often plagues the industry.
Here at Web Publisher PRO, we’ve talked a lot about reader engagement, and we know that digital publishers thrive when they have devoted audiences. A few of the ways we recommend that digital publishers work to improve engagement are by inviting readers to become active participants through commenting and guest posts, covering local stories that other outlets are missing, and adding job boards as a way to position their websites as community portals.
News literacy skills are often lacking.
Almost across the board, News Co/Lab found that survey respondents were overconfident in their ability to understand the news. Readers who showed the lowest news literacy skills were also the least interested in receiving help.
Local publishers shouldn’t be surprised by these findings. In a separate survey, researchers at the American Press Institute found that almost one-third of Americans can’t tell the difference between news and opinion articles.
Frustrating as it might be, these findings actually show us that a great opportunity exists for digital publishers. When local news outlets increase transparency and utilize tools to improve engagement, they create more informed news consumers. Those news consumers have a greater understanding of how local journalism works, and with that information, they should have an easier time pinpointing which news sources are credible and which are not.
On a smaller scale, we recommend that publishers consider web design as a tool for improving news literacy. Simple changes to a digital publication, like drop down navigation bars and a more functional layout, help readers find the content they are looking for on the first try.
Although the News Co/Lab’s findings show that trust in the local news business is low, digital publishers should remember that there are ways we can increase reader confidence. Seemingly minor changes to web design, such as adding visual breaks and getting rid of large pop-up ads from third-party websites, go a long way in changing reader perceptions and improving trust in the local news industry as a whole.