With a growing variety of ways to get local news, where do people turn first to find out what's going on in their community? Local TV news remains the most popular source for local information in the U.S., but adults rely on it mainly for just three subjects: weather, breaking news and traffic.
Despite their problems, newspapers (both print and on the Web) are where most Americans look for a wider range of information, according to a new survey.
The Internet also plays a key role. Web-only outlets are now the main source of information on key topics, such as education, local business and restaurants. That option is likely to gain ground, since for adults under 40 and the 70% of people going online, the Internet ranks as a top way to get information on most of the local subjects.
The study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project looked at 16 different topic areas to provide a more nuanced understanding of how the media ecosystem functions. The findings produced some interesting paradoxes.
TV, for instance, still reigns as the broadest outlet, with 74% of Americans watching local TV newscasts or local TV Web sites at least weekly. But the focus is narrow. TV is the choice for the topics that almost everyone tends to follow, like the weather and breaking news.
When it comes to newspapers, 69% of people said that if their local paper no longer existed, it would not have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community. But the research showed newspapers play a bigger part in people's lives than they realize -- ranking first or tied for first as the most-relied-upon source in 11 of the 16 news topics.
TV draws a mass audience around a few subjects, while newspapers attract a smaller share (50%) of weekly users but for a wider range of topics, such as government, taxes and zoning. Neither TV or newspaper sites by themselves have gained a strong foothold as a top options for local news, however.
The Internet is a main source for information about restaurants and other local businesses, and tied with newspapers as a top source for material about housing, jobs and schools -- all areas that place a special value on consumer input. (The study defines the Internet as Web-only sources, such as search engines, specialty-topic sites and social networking sites.)
The spread of smartphones and apps is elevating mobile as an option for local news and information as well. Nearly half (47%) of adults use mobile devices for that purpose, mainly for the types of information people also go to the Web for, like looking up restaurants. And 5% of survey participants said they use an app for checking the weather.
The Pew study found that although social media is becoming a factor in how people learn about their local community, it is not as popular as other digital formats. In all, 17% of adults say they get local information on social networking sites like Facebook at least monthly, which may explain why it nixed Places and Deals.
The emergence of new types of digital and mobile media has not crowded out time-honored ways of keeping up with events, however. More than half (55%) of us get local news from word of mouth at least once a week.
Overall, a majority of Americans (64%) rely on at least three different media sources each week for local news, and 45% say they don't even have a favorite outlet. Because younger users tend to rely more on the Internet as a top source, the Web is expected to play a more influential role in the years ahead.
The Internet has already turned 41% of those surveyed into what Pew calls "local news participators." These are people who share links to local stories, and comment or contribute articles and opinion pieces about their community online.
The survey was conducted from January 12 to 25 among a nationally representative sample of 2,251 adults 18 and over and landline and cell phones. It has a margin of error of 2%.