Pew Research Center study says despite value in local journalism, readers lack awareness of revenue challenges
Most Americans think local news media are thriving despite decades of deep cuts to local newsrooms and steep declines in advertising revenue and audience.
According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans believe their local news outlets are doing well financially. The survey, which was conducted last fall, reached 34,897 adults in the U.S. It concluded that there is a “widespread lack of awareness about the revenue challenges facing many local news media operations.”
The study also showed a reliance by Americans on local media for a broad range of topics that helped them in their daily lives, and an expectation that journalists understand the history of a community and be personally engaged there.
Despite the level of importance and expectations they put on local news and journalists, only 14 percent of respondents said they had paid for local news in the past year, either through subscribing, donating or becoming a member of a news outlet. About half of those surveyed said they didn’t pay for news coverage because of the widespread availability of free content.
While the decline of local newspapers has become more commonly known in recent years, all types of news media are suffering. In 2017, the audience for every major type of media except radio decreased. Daily circulation for newspapers fell 11 percent that year and the number of viewers of local morning news fell 15 percent, according to the Pew study. The same year, advertising revenue for newspapers fell 10 percent and over-the-air revenue for local TV fell 13 percent.
The decline follows the longer downward trend. In 2001, total newspaper revenue in the U.S. was $44.3 billion. In 2017, the number was $16.5 billion, according to Pew’s analysis of Security and Exchange Commission filings of publicly traded newspaper companies.
Newsroom employment has followed the decline. Between 2008 and 2017, newsroom employment nationwide dropped 23 percent, or about 27,000 jobs, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This decrease was driven primarily by job losses at newspapers, where employment fell by 45 percent during this time period.
In Spokane, The Spokesman-Review has not been immune from such challenges. In 2001, the newsroom had a staff of 164 people and a Sunday circulation of 152,000. Today, there are 55 newsroom employees, which includes reporters, editors, designers and administrative employees. The average Sunday circulation for 2019 is about 71,000.
Statewide, the number of journalists was cut in half between 2008 and 2018 from 1,350 to 760, according to the state’s Society of Professional Journalists.
The collapse of the news industry doesn’t reflect the importance people place on local news.
Local topics such as weather, crime, traffic and transportation, sports, and government and politics were, to varying degrees, important to their daily lives, according to Pew. Only a quarter of respondents said they weren’t “interested enough in local news to pay for it.” The remaining people said they didn’t pay because they could either find the news for free, it was too expensive or the quality of the news wasn’t good enough to pay for.
The Pew survey showed that people prefer to get their local news on TV. About 4 in 10 Americans said they “often” get their news from local TV stations, while 13 percent said daily newspapers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey showed a growing reliance on the internet for news, with 37 percent of American adults saying they preferred online sources for local news. When people turn to the digital world, they do so through their smartphone. Overall, the survey found that 89 percent of respondents currently get at least some local news digitally, mostly through mobile devices.
“Even as the preference for digital delivery creeps up on that for news via TV, local television stations retain a strong hold in the local news ecosystem,” the survey said.