Understanding what audiences want from local news

Photo: AP

One of the most common recommendations local news organizations hear today, as they search for a viable business model, is to build stronger connections with their communities. This call for more responsiveness to audience needs and interests is a reaction to the upheaval in the news business, but it’s also part of a long tradition: As American University’s Jan Schaffer has written, contemporary efforts to better engage with audiences recall the civic journalism movement that flowered briefly in the 1990s. Going back further, we can hear echoes of the community ascertainment activities that used to be part of local broadcasters’ public interest obligations, which the FCC eliminated in the early 1980s.

Building these connections, though, is easier said than done.  The news industry “has gone for years without needing to examine who its audience is or what they want,” according to McClatchy’s Damon Kiesow, and digital-savvy readers have different expectations than their predecessors. So one of the key tasks for news outlets is first to develop better understandings of their own audiences: how those audiences see the news and information ecosystem, and what they want from local news organizations.

My colleagues and I at Rutgers University’s Media + the Public Interest Initiative have been collaborating with local news outlets in New Jersey on this task. Through a series of focus groups with local news audiences, designed with the input of local news outlets, we have sought to help publishers address gaps in knowledge and learn more about their communities’ needs and interests. Thus far we have conducted focus groups in three New Jersey communities: Newark, New Brunswick, and Morristown. (This project has been supported by the Democracy Fund, which also supports CJR, as well as the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.)

What has been most striking is how, despite the substantial differences between these communities, a number of common themes emerged. These focus groups also provided insights into the participants’ attitudes and behaviors related to local news; how they get their news; and how they wish the news available to them was different.  Given the extent to which similar findings emerged across all three communities, we think they may represent broader insights about the nature of the contemporary local news audience. 

‘Outside’ news sources are seen as unreliable

Our focus group participants were universally critical of the local news coverage offered by sources from outside of their communities. New Jersey does represent a unique scenario, in which virtually all residents live in the shadow of one of two large, out-of-state media markets—New York City to the north and Philadelphia to the south. Our focus group participants seemed to feel that this proximity to large markets did little to enhance the quality or quantity of available local news.  Out-of-market coverage of their communities frequently was characterized as “spotty” or “sensationalistic,” with coverage tending to focus on crime, tragedies, and disasters.  This result was consistent with related research we have conducted that suggests that a community’s proximity to a large media market may do more harm than good in terms of the health of truly local journalism.

A desire for more ‘follow-up’ reporting

Our focus group participants were very consistent in their desire for more “follow-up” reporting—that is, reporting that revisits events and issues to determine if and how they are being resolved, in order to hold local governments, service providers, and leaders accountable for their actions (or inaction).  Across all of our sessions, participants repeatedly emphasized that they wished that their local news sources did more than report on events and issues as they occurred, but also that they circled back to provide details about how specific problems or issues uncovered in earlier reporting were being addressed. Residents wanted answers to basic questions such as why the rehabbing of a community pool was taking so long, why a building damaged by fire wasn’t being repaired, or what local government was doing about crime.

The self-reliant news consumer

Participants consistently expressed an understanding—and acceptance—of how the contemporary news environment works, particularly in terms of the increasing responsibility (or “burden” as some referred to it) that falls on the individual news consumer to stay informed.  Even at the local level, the media environment is much more fragmented than it once was, and tends to operate on more of a “pull” than a “push” model.  Consequently, focus group participants referenced “self-responsibility” and the importance of “taking matters into your own hands” when it comes to staying informed.  Participants felt confident that the information they need existed somewhere, and it was just a matter of investing time and effort to locate it.  As one said, “Seek and you shall find… . the information is out there… .  it’s [a question of] do you want to seek it?”  Another stated, “I don’t really feel that I have a lack of information … if there’s something that I want, that I need, I figure out a way to get it.”

The infrequency of citizen journalism

When we asked participants to discuss if and how they engage in activities related to sharing and producing news and information for their communities, we were struck by how brief these conversations were.  There tended to be at most one or two people in each group who were active in terms of aggregating and sharing local news and information on social media, or frequently commenting on news stories produced by local media outlets.  Beyond that—and in terms of actually producing news—the focus group participants had very little to offer, noting factors such as time constraints, lack of financial compensation, and even concerns about legal liability. Nationally, events over the past year have illustrated the tremendous benefits that can come from “citizen journalism.” But if we are going to rely, to an extent, on citizen journalism filling important gaps in local news, then our findings suggest that more needs to be done to encourage, support, train, and motivate community members to engage in this way 

Interpersonal networks are still important

Finally, we found it striking the extent to which, even in this era of seemingly abundant news and information sources, mobile access, and social media, interpersonal networks still play an important role the way we share and receive local news and information.  Our focus group participants frequently mentioned activities such as walking the dog, visiting the local coffee shop, and attending community events as important means by which they learn about, and share, what is happening in their community.

We hope that this research can serve as a useful tool for better connecting local news outlets in a more intimate and productive way with the communities that they serve. 

Love news about local news? Then sign up for the United States Project weekly email.

Philip M. Napoli is a professor of Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, where he is also the principal investigator for the News Measures Research Project. He is the author of the books Audience Economics: Media Institutions and the Audience Marketplace and Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences.