The U.S. media environment has changed considerably in recent years and the local news landscape is no exception, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of nearly 35,000 U.S. adults. Just as it has nationally, the rise of digital media has reshaped local news when it comes to the information sources people turn to.

Even as the public remains deeply divided in its views of the national news media, the survey finds that most Americans believe their local news outlets are doing a good job in areas such as reporting the news accurately (71% say this), keeping an eye on local political leaders (66%) and dealing fairly with all sides (62%).

Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Center, oversaw the study. In this Q&A, she discusses some of the report’s main takeaways and what the survey tells us about the connection between Americans and their local media.

In a nutshell, what does this survey find about the way Americans consume local news and how they feel about the journalists who produce it?

Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew Research Center

One overarching takeaway is that even as TV stations continue to have the widest reach when it comes to local news, digital outlets are an important part of the equation. Nearly as many Americans today prefer to get their local news online as from their TV set.

What’s more, news providers in the digital space don’t just consist of the websites of traditional news organizations. Americans are staying up to date through other kinds of digital information sources, too, ranging from local government agencies to online forums and discussion groups to community newsletters and listservs. Individually, these sources can’t compete with TV, radio and newspapers in terms of audience, but together, they’re a substantial part of the local information diet for many people.

When it comes to the public’s attitudes, Americans tend to give their local news media fairly high marks, but there are clearly some areas of tension. One is the sense among many Americans that their own area is not being covered by local news outlets. Almost half the public says the local media mostly cover other areas, not the one they live in. And just 21% have ever spoken to a local journalist themselves.

These figures stand out in part because Americans overwhelmingly believe local journalists should have a strong connection to the communities they report on. Vast majorities, for instance, put importance on local journalists being personally engaged and knowing the history of the community.

Does the study draw any conclusions about how well local news outlets are covering the subjects Americans want them to cover?

The survey explored 11 topics that frequently come up in the local news, including weather, crime, schools and sports. We asked Americans whether they find each of these subjects important or interesting and – if so – whether it’s easy for them to stay informed about that subject.

When it comes to the public’s attitudes, Americans tend to give their local news media fairly high marks, but there are clearly some areas of tension.
Amy Mitchell

In some cases, the level of importance and interest Americans place on a given topic lines up closely with how easy it is for them to stay informed about that topic. For instance, nearly all respondents say the weather is important or interesting, and around three-quarters of these people say it’s very easy to stay informed about it.

But there are also some mismatches. For example, nine-in-ten Americans say changing prices are an important or interesting local news subject, but relatively few of the people who believe this say it’s very easy for them to stay informed on this front. The opposite is true in the case of sports: A little over six-in-ten Americans see sports as important or interesting – the lowest share among the 11 subjects we asked about – but a comparatively large percentage of these people say it’s very easy for them to stay informed about sports.

What, to you, is the most surprising finding from the survey?

Journalists tend to be quite familiar with the the financial struggles facing their industry – it’s not much of a secret to them. As Pew Research Center has reported in past analyses, the number of people employed in U.S. newsrooms has fallen by nearly a quarter over the past decade and layoffs remain a common occurrence, particularly at city newspapers.

But the public seems largely unaware of these difficulties. In fact, 71% of the people we surveyed believe local media are doing well financially. That’s a striking disconnect. And few Americans are offering financial support: Only 14% say they’ve personally paid for local news within the past year.

What implications does this disconnect between public perception and financial reality have?

Journalists tend to be quite familiar with the financial struggles facing their industry … but the public seems largely unaware of these difficulties. In fact, 71% of the people we surveyed believe local media are doing well financially.
Amy Mitchell

The journalism industry has been struggling for over a decade now to find a revenue structure for the digital era, so it’s a huge challenge for the industry to see such a large share of the public believe that local news media are doing well financially and not participate in the revenue model themselves.

Why do people not pay for news? Americans cite a variety of reasons in the survey, but quality of coverage isn’t a big one. Instead, the explanation that rises to the top of the list is that there is so much free content out there. The question for the industry then becomes, “What can we do to get audiences to want to make a financial commitment to us?”

Nationally, Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided about the news media. Does this partisan divide exist at the local level, too?

There are some partisan divides in attitudes about the local media, but they don’t tend to reach the levels seen when we ask Americans about the national news media or the media in general.

One of the biggest gaps between Democrats and Republicans in this new survey emerged on the question of whether local journalists should share their views on local issues. Democrats are largely divided on this question, but a clear majority of Republicans believe local journalists should not share their opinions. There are also gaps in a number of other attitudinal questions we asked, but they tend to be relatively small.

It’s not entirely clear why partisan differences over the media are more muted at the local level than at the national level. Part of it may have to do with the focus of what’s happening locally. We know from the survey, for instance, that politics ranks below several other subjects – including weather, sports and traffic – in terms of how easy it is for people to keep up with. But it also could relate to a sense of personal connection that Americans have to local institutions and outlets. Just as Americans often feel more connected to their own member of Congress than they do to Congress in general, there seems to be greater trust, and less of a divide, when it comes to attitudes toward local media.

You surveyed nearly 35,000 respondents. What made you survey such a large sample of Americans?

We did it for two reasons. First, we felt it was important to look at the local news environment on a national scale, particularly since it’s been a long time since anyone has done this kind of study. Our own most recent work has focused on case studies of particular cities.

Second, we wanted to take a detailed look at how attitudes about local media differ around the country. Local news, after all, is local. Conducting a survey with almost 35,000 respondents gave us enough of a sample size to explore regional differences. In fact, the interactive feature that goes along with our report allows readers to see results for 99 different local areas around the country.

While this was a major undertaking for us, we also want to let other researchers work with our data. That’s why we are also releasing our entire dataset. That will include not just the attitudinal data collected in the survey, but some external data about the characteristics of the communities we studied, such as their demographic composition and voter turnout patterns.

John Gramlich  is an associate director at Pew Research Center.