Digital Adaptation in Local News

Newspapers in black and white, Jon S. Photo: Creative Commons.

Introduction

More than a quarter century after the creation of the World Wide Web, nine in ten Americans get at least some news online. But in many ways, local news publishing is still adapting to the internet as a news medium. For many publishers, the internet is like an ill-fitting suit: functional, but not made for them.

On the whole, newspapers, broadcasters and digital-native publishers hold a few things in common: Most are online, serve advertising, and have a Facebook profile.

But not all share even those attributes. About one in ten local news outlets do not have a website. Some outlets do not have a presence on Facebook. And there are even some local news outlets that seem to have leapfrogged past web 1.0 and straight to social media.

In many other respects, the digital footprint of a local news outlet can be predicted by the identity of its legacy platform. Video and audio content makes an appearance on many local news websites, though mostly on those operated by broadcasters. Some local news outlets offer comment sections below their online news stories, but these skew heavily toward text-friendly newspaper websites, rather than those of television stations. Indeed, the notion of platform convergence, at least in local news, is only partially realized.

Media attention to the “duopoly” dominating the digital advertising market has focused more on Facebook than on Google. But the latter’s many tentacles in the online local news space are striking. Not only are publishers indexed in Google’s search engine and their pages’ loading times optimized by Google’s AMP project, but Google advertising services appear on many local news websites. Further, nearly half of all local news websites that offer online video host it on YouTube, which is owned by Google. It’s a reminder of the degree to which the fortunes of local news are bound up in the whims of a few big technology companies.

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Individual local media sectors find themselves in 2018 at varying stages of digital advancement. But the largest of these—community weekly papers—is in many ways lagging behind the rest. Weeklies are half as likely as their daily counterparts to offer digital video content and newsletters, and far less likely than dailies to offer an online subscription option. They’re among the least likely of all local media to offer podcasts as well.

To be sure, not all online features are desirable or ultimately beneficial for news audiences. And different publishers serve communities with their own sets of technology habits and preferences. Digital offerings advisable for an online publisher in a large metropolitan area might not be advisable for a rural community weekly newspaper. Still, the widespread adoption of smartphones and usage of social media across nearly all sub-populations in the United States suggests that some common priorities for news publishers should be coming into focus.

There are some signs that, at least on a basic level, publishers are seeing the writing on the wall and prioritizing accordingly. For example, only about a quarter of local news outlets maintain their own mobile app, which, with some exceptions, may simply not be worth the effort to build and update. But the vast majority offer a mobile browsing experience that is optimized for small screens—an important user experience feature. Individually hosted websites—as opposed to those hosted by Google’s AMP service—continue to be slow-loading, however; a problem that risks losing audiences in today’s highly mobile and competitive attention economy.

These are some findings from a study of the digital footprint of more than 2,000 US local news outlets. While many studies have explored digital transformation of newsrooms through direct interviews, case studies and ethnography, this report attempts to tell the story of that transformation by the numbers.1 The study also offers comparative perspective between various sectors of local media—including radio and television broadcast, daily and weekly print, digital-native publishers and collegiate press.

Key findings from the report
  • More than one in ten (12%) local news outlets do not have their own website; when outlets are accounted for that only offer a PDF of their recent content, that figure rises to 17%.
  • Most local media are on social media. Nearly eight in ten local news outlets have their own Facebook profile. Even outlets without their own website are on the social networking site—fully one in three (34%).
  • When it comes to mobile, responsive design is more common (84% of local news sites) than individual apps (27% of local news outlets). Fully 74% of local TV stations offer their own app.
  • Overall, a slight majority of local news outlets (57%) offer an online pathway to subscription, donation or membership. This varies wildly depending on the sector, with broadcasters highly unlikely to do so, and daily newspapers highly likely.
  • Local news websites are generally split when it comes to their commenting architecture—a small majority (56% of outlets) offer comment sections on their stories. (On local TV station websites, the share is just 29%).
  • Just under half (47%) of local news outlets offer video on their site. Of those that do, 44% host their videos on YouTube.
  • Links to live-streams of video or audio (16%) and podcasts (11%) are fairly uncommon among local news websites, though unsurprisingly, appear more frequently on sites operated by broadcasters.
  • On average, daily newspaper and local TV station websites are the slowest to load, at more than 20 seconds each, by one measure. Digital native publishers, and community weeklies and magazines tend to load faster, at a rate of between 13-15 seconds each.
  • Only about a quarter (23%) of local news websites redirect to a secure version. Overall, about four in ten (39%) local news outlets offer or promote a newsletter product on their website. Daily newspapers (65%) and digital native publishers (57%) lead the way here.

This study was conducted using several different methods between Fall 2017 and Spring 2018. A random sample of local news publishers was drawn from a database of outlets prepared by the News Measures Research Project, based off of the Cision Media Database.2 A range of digital attributes were coded manually by a team of researchers. An additional set of attributes were collected programmatically by Tow Center staff. More details on the methodology can be found below.


Methodology

This report looks at the digital attributes of local news publishers in the United States. The study was designed in August 2017, with data collection of varying methods taking place between September 2017 and March 2018.

Sample

The sample of local news outlets used in this project was drawn randomly from a large database of local publishers created by the News Measures Research Project based in turn on data from the Cision Media Database. The Cision database, while imperfect, is described by the NMRP authors as “the best available commercial database for identifying media outlets and media workers in the US3” While the Cision database is updated daily, the list of outlets for this project was extracted in 2016.

The research team further cleaned the NMRP data to eliminate a small number of duplicates and irregularities. This resulted in a dataset of 11,804 local news publishers. Each outlet was assigned a random digit using a random number generator, after which a 20% sample was drawn. While the dataset generally reflects the broader local media landscape, it is limited in some respects. Certain media sectors are likely underrepresented in total population, particularly, digital-native publications and collegiate press.

This sample resulted in a total of 2,361 local news outlets. During the process of analyzing those outlets, a number of publishers were deemed to be closed, dormant or not related to local news. (For purposes of this study, an outlet was considered “local” if it covered affairs in a single neighborhood, municipality, metropolitan area, and in some cases even state affairs, though few outlets fell into this latter category; publishers such as The Bitter Southerner were removed given their broad regional coverage.) These were eliminated from the dataset, resulting in a more refined sample of 2,072 outlets.

Of the 2,072 local news outlets studied, a total of 1,814 were found to have a website (following which, six outlets were eliminated due to hard paywalls that prevented any in-depth analysis). The final list of 1,808 sites were studied and evaluated for each of the attributes in the coding protocol.

Manual attribute classification

A coding protocol was developed and refined between two members of the research team (see Appendix B). Inter-coder reliability was tested on 50 local news outlets, with the following results (reported using Krippendorff’s alpha; calculations conducted with ReCal):

  • Paywall present: .77
  • Comment section present: .85
  • Video on the web: .84
  • Offers/promotes newsletters: .67
  • Offers/promotes podcasts: 1.00
  • Offers live video or audio stream on site: 1.00
  • Offers digital subscription/donate/membership: .93
  • Has a mobile app (iOS): .82
  • Offers mobile/responsive site: .90

A score of .67 is generally considered acceptable using this measure.

Two researchers analyzed the sample of outlets during the months of September 2017 through March 2018.

Programmatic attribute classification

A separate analysis was conducted using the 1,808 local news outlets with valid websites in the sample, to glean more information about the sites’ digital security, ad tech, social media profiles, and load time. This analysis resulted in valid data for 1,102 of those sites, or 61%.

This analysis was conducted using Google’s Lighthouse tools for developers.4

Mobile news offerings

News publishers are rightly concerned about how to best reach news audiences on mobile devices, given that the vast majority of the public are now engaging with news on their cell phones.5 Some in the publishing profession have moved into exploring chat apps such as WeChat and WhatsApp as a point of intersection with news consumers.6 In the US, major non-local publishers such as CNN got on board early when it came to Snapchat Discover, though now local broadcasters are finding a home on the app as well.7

While there are many possible ways to measure how local newsrooms are applying a mobile content strategy, this study offers two vantage points: mobile apps (in iOS) and responsive website design for mobile browsers.

Apps

Relatively few local news outlets offer their own mobile app, but the numbers vary widely from media sector to media sector. Overall, about a quarter (27%) of local news outlets offer an app in the Apple operating system (the Android platform was not evaluated for this project).

Apps are more common for broadcast outlets and in daily newspapers, but less so for smaller digital operations and community publications. Fully 74% of local TV stations, many of them supported by an owner with resources to scale, have their own app. In addition, some stations are offering niche products, such as weather apps.8 Nearly half of radio stations (46%) have a mobile app, and slightly more than half of daily newspapers (55%) do as well.

Aside from broadcasters and dailies, most local publishers do not offer mobile apps. For instance, fewer than one in ten (8%) community weeklies have one. And it’s entirely possible this indicates a wise allocation of resources: Priya Ganapati, head of audience product at Vox Media, made the case back in 2015 that unless an outlet is a large, leading brand, the cons outweigh the pros when it comes to mobile app development: It’s too much hassle for a product that most of your audience will not use.9

Responsive design

Instead, Ganapati and other strategists make the case for publishers improving their users’ mobile browser experience. One way to do that is by adopting a responsive design. According to Google’s Pete LaPage, responsive web design “responds to the needs of the users and the devices they’re using. The layout changes based on the size and capabilities of the device.”10

To gauge whether local publishers are adopting responsive design for mobile phones, researchers for this study evaluated a smaller, random subset of the larger sample—200 websites. Of this sample, the vast majority (84%) offered a mobile responsive version of their website.

Generating revenue online

With few exceptions, local news publishers are still struggling to build a sustainable online business model. It is now widely accepted that revenue from digital advertising will never approach the kind of money generated in the salad days of print. That acceptance has moved many newspaper publishers to pursue digital subscription models that place some of their content behind paywalls. Meanwhile, news outlets of all types, including broadcast television and radio, do what they can to generate some ad revenue online, though sometimes through means that degrade the user experience.

While there are many potential revenue streams for news publishers, and many variants on the common ones, three basic indicators offer a baseline sense of what local news outlets are trying to do: subscription or membership pathways; paywalls; and advertising.

Online pathways to subscribe, donate or join

This analysis finds that, overall, a slight majority of local news outlets (57%) offer an online pathway to subscription, donation or membership. This differs substantially depending on the type of outlet, however.

Print outlets (daily, weekly and magazine publishers) are most likely to offer a pathway to pay. Broadcast outlets (radio and TV) and collegiate media are least likely to offer one.

When it comes to print, daily publications and those that publish less frequently differ as well. Fully 94% of daily newspapers studied here offer an option to subscribe online. Yet little more than two-thirds of community weeklies (69%) and community magazines (68%) offer such an option on their websites.

Why the disparity among print outlets? There may be a couple of reasons. First, daily papers may simply have more advanced digital operations than other local print outlets, including pathways to pay. Second, daily papers may rely on subscription revenue more than these other types of publishers do, and thus prioritize it online. Circulation revenue is growing for the industry overall, but the data suggest that as advertising continues to wither as a primary source of local journalism revenue, these weekly and monthly publications will have more ground to make up in the race to create direct financial relationships with subscribers.

This is a problem that will seriously affect digital-native community publishers, who according to other research have been chiefly driven by advertising.11 This study funds that just one-third (34%) of these types of publishers offer an opportunity for a reader to contribute by donation, subscription or membership.

Commercial radio as well as local and network and television are historically almost entirely dependent on over-the-air advertising for their revenue (a recent exception for local TV is the rise of retransmission fees as a minor but growing source of cash).12 Thus it is no surprise that a minority of broadcasters offer online subscription, membership or donation options (21% of radio stations and 19% of TV stations). It is likely that almost all of those that do offer such options are public broadcasters, who rely on memberships and other types of donations for ongoing support.

Paywalls

Other studies have extensively documented the adoption of paywalls on newspaper websites. One report from 2016 found that 78% of large US newspapers (those with circulation of at least 50,000) have some kind of online paywall.13

This study does not duplicate that work, but rather takes a closer look at community weeklies—a large if sometimes overlooked segment of the newspaper world that has historically been less reliant than dailies on circulation revenue. About one in three (28%) of these types of papers gate at least some of their content.

In most cases, community weekly paywalls operate with a metered approach. A very small portion post a hard paywall, which means that all or nearly all content is accessible only to subscribers.

Among other types of local publishers, such as digital-native outlets and broadcasters, paywalls are quite rare.

Advertising

The vast majority of local news publishers serve digital advertising of one kind or another, though with the exception of some digital native publishers, this revenue accounts for a small share of the bottom line.

But what kinds of ads are served? Most of the time, it’s display ads, coming in the form of banners and still, sometimes, pop-ups. Some local publishers are also experimenting with native advertising.14

This study set out not to evaluate the entire range of digital advertising served by local publishers, but a specific subset of that: the viral ad tech that has found itself the subject of criticism lately. These content recommendation services—particularly Taboola and Outbrain—have put some publishers in a bind: Many journalists consider the material promoted by these services to be low-quality clickbait. Yet, for the last few years at least, publishers have generated a solid base of revenue in exchange for allowing content recommendation service widgets to appear on their websites.

To get a sense of how common it is for local publishers to use these services, once again we turned to a smaller random sub-sample of 200 local news websites. Of those sites, we found that only a small portion (17%) have the Outbrain or Taboola content widget on their home page. Contrast that to the presence of Google/Doubleclick ad tech on local news sites—a service that appears in 58% of local news websites.

Engagement with online audiences

There are many opportunities and platforms today through which local news publishers can foster meaningful engagement with their communities. Some are in person, such as events, meetups and community listening sessions. Others are primarily digital and include a variety of touchpoints such as texting, Facebook groups, Slack channels and message boards. To arrive at a basic measure of how local news outlets are doing when it comes to online engagement with their audiences, this study measured two values: the presence or lack of comment sections under news stories, and the presence or absence of social platforms attached to the publisher’s brand.

Comment sections

Comment sections on news websites are sometimes treated by the journalism community with a mixture of tolerance and contempt. “Don’t read the comments” is the often-heard refrain coming from editors and reporters who have, well, spent time reading comments on their websites and have subjected themselves to toxic doses of trolling and general incivility. On the other hand, comment sections offer an opportunity, primitive as it may be, for audiences to discuss the content they are reading, and perhaps even interact with a brave journalist.15

This analysis found that local news websites were generally split when it came to their commenting architecture—a small majority (56% of outlets) offer comment sections on their stories. The rest do not.

Across media sectors, the practice seems to vary dramatically. Digital-native publishers (80%) and collegiate press (87%) are most likely to offer comment sections under their stories, with daily newspapers not far behind, at 76%. However, just one in three local TV stations (29%) studied here offer comment sections at the end of their stories.


The vast majority of local news outlets (78\%) have a presence on Facebook.

Social media

Research has shown that social media is a pathway to community news for many.16 But social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram offer community members an opportunity to interact with stories and journalists through “likes,” emojis, comments, shares and other metrics.

This study offers a limited but revealing look at how local news outlets around the US are utilizing social media, by accounting for whether a local outlet operates a Facebook or Twitter profile.

Looking across all local media, a solid majority are on Facebook (78%), while just over half (54%) are on Twitter.

A look at individual media sectors suggests it is smaller community newspapers—of which there are many—that account for a good portion of the publishers that do not have a social media presence. About twothirds of these papers (67%) are on Facebook, and just a quarter (24%) are on Twitter. By contrast, large majorities of other types of local news outlets have Facebook accounts, and in most cases, the lion’s share have Twitter accounts as well. In some cases, such as with local TV, one would be hard pressed to find a station that is not also active on the social web, a finding underscored by a 2018 Knight Foundation report on the state of local TV.17

What’s more, even local news outlets without their own websites are sometimes found on Facebook, perhaps suggesting a leapfrog effect; after all, it is easier to create a social media profile than to wrangle a WordPress template. Fully 34% of those “offline” publishers have an active Facebook page.

Audio & video: Not just for broadcasters

Local news outlets, and television broadcasters in particular, face something of a dilemma when it comes to choices around digital video. When it comes to audience, traditional television viewing outpaces digital consumption of local TV content, though that traditional television audience is shrinking.18 At the same time, mirroring print, legacy revenue streams continue to account for the overwhelming bulk of local news broadcasters’ monetary intake; for local television, over-the-air advertising far overshadows digital advertising in sheer dollars.19

Further complicating matters, while there is evidence that the public is turning in droves to streaming services for television consumption, news is not an overwhelming part of that mix.20 Indeed, as of 2013, just 36% of US adults reported watching online news video, a number that had only risen 10 points from 2007 levels, while other forms of video consumption have risen much more dramatically.21 As of 2016, people who prefer to watch their news (as opposed to reading or listening to it) overwhelmingly chose television over the internet as their viewing platform of choice.22 The overhyped and quickly lamented “pivot to video,” it seems, sent publishers—especially national digital ones—chasing at great cost an audience that never materialized.

Still, many local news outlets and their owners have decided that video should be a part of their digital offerings, even if audience interest is tepid and substantial revenue opportunities have yet to appear. This analysis found that across all local media sectors (including print, broadcast and digital-native publishers), nearly half (47%) offered video on their websites.

YouTube plays an outsize role when it comes to hosting digital news video for local news outlets. The websites with video offerings were split in terms of how those videos were hosted: Just over half the sites (51%) self-hosted news videos. The majority of the rest embedded video through a third-party hosting service, almost exclusively YouTube (44%).

The inclusion of digital video was evident across a wide range of media sectors, but especially in broadcast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly every local television station studied (96%) offered some form of video on their website. Yet video made an appearance on a solid majority of daily newspaper websites as well (66%). Other print sectors including community newspapers and magazines were less interested in video, as were digital-native community publishers.

Most of the video found on local news websites was pre-recorded, in many cases repurposed from television broadcasts. But a small portion of websites (16%) also featured live streams of video or audio content. Unlike pre-recorded video, in these cases radio had the edge with fully 81% of news radio websites offering a live stream of their audio broadcasts. A little more than half (55%) of local TV news websites offered a live stream, often of the morning or evening newscast as it occurred. In other forms of media, live streams were nearly absent: among print, digital and collegiate press sectors, 5% or less featured a live stream of any kind.

Podcasting

Podcasting has been around for decades, but in the last few years has enjoyed a renaissance in the journalism world as organizations such as NPR and startups such as Gimlet Media have produced breakthrough hits that embrace the medium and offer compelling, fact-based storytelling. To judge the extent to which local news publishers have jumped on board the podcasting bandwagon, this study examined their websites for evidence of any kind of podcast promotion or link.

This analysis suggests that podcasting has not achieved critical mass in the local news world, with just one in ten (11%) of local news outlets promoting or linking to a podcast on their website. Leading the way are radio broadcasters, which include a mix of commercial radio stations and public radio stations. Half of these (50%) offer podcasts. Other local media sectors lag behind. One-fifth of digital-native community publishers and college or university newspapers offer podcasts. Among print media, just 11% of daily papers, 2% of community weeklies and 4% of magazines offer podcasts. Among TV stations, it was just 12%.

It is certainly possible and perhaps even likely that some outlets offer podcasts but simply do not promote them on their website, for one reason or another. For that reason, it’s wiser to consider the data here as reflective of a minimum rather than maximum share of publishers in the podcasting space.

The user experience
in online local news

Longtime journalism entrepreneur and current CEO of Spirited Media Jim Brady once wrote that the need for more page views and ad impressions in local news “led to what can only be described as the excruciating user experience of most local news sites.”23

Brady’s litany of local new sins includes slow website load times, pop-up ads, autoplay video and slideshows, with their pagination designed to drive users to click on more pages.

Here we considered first whether local news publishers have any web presence at all. Beyond that, load time is analyzed, as well as two other offerings related to user experience: alternative news delivery platforms and digital security.

In order for an online news consumer to have a positive user experience there must be a user experience to begin with. In light of that, it is striking to note that more than one in ten (12%) local news outlets do not have a website at all.

Furthermore, some local outlets are only online in the strictest technical sense. Of the 1,814 outlets with a website, 93 offered content only in the form of a static e-reader such as a PDF (5% of all outlets with a website). In total, fully 17% of all local news outlets limit their digital offerings to a PDF version of their news, or have no discernable online presence at all.

Website speed

For local news outlets that have a website, one of the key user experience questions is how “bulky” their site is, or how slowly it loads. Others have deftly covered this ground, noting how slow local news outlets are in comparison to other websites in general. Matthew Hindman of The George Washington University showed how website speed affects audience growth.24 Barrett Golding of the Reynolds Journalism Institute found that US daily newspaper website load times were bogged down by multiple requests (often from website add-ons such as image files scripts), resulting in a heavy page weight.25

A new analysis of load times on local news websites suggests that things have not necessarily improved when it comes to speed, and that there are disparities between local media sectors, with digital-native community publishers leading the way in optimal load times. On average, local news websites are taking about 17 seconds to fully load, according to research conducted using Google’s Lighthouse tools. The slowest sites tend to be those operated by local TV stations (26 seconds on average) and daily newspapers (22 seconds). Both types of publishers offer large volumes of content and present lots of advertising on their pages. Digital-native publisher websites load in 13 seconds on average, and community magazines (14 seconds) and community weeklies (15 seconds) are not far behind.

While this is one of many different possible measures of website performance and should not be considered the only verdict, it suggests that local news publishers continue to struggle with websites that are weighed down with digital baggage, and that this harms the audience experience of those websites.

Secure sites

The security of a news website may not immediately affect how a user experiences the site, but it sends a message about how well the publisher values the user’s safety from malicious use of its product, and how well it protects its advertisers from fraud. It also serves as a signal of active technology administration—indicating that there is someone at the controls, trying to keep up with the industry’s best practices. Organizations such as Freedom of the Press Foundation are offering grade-level evaluations of the security of news websites.26 One way to get a hint about how secure a local news website is comes by noting whether the site offers an encrypted version (https) or not (http).27

Local news outlets have a long way to go when it comes to basic digital security for their users: Less than a quarter (23%) of local news websites offer a redirect to an https encrypted version. This low rate is consistent across multiple local media sectors, though is especially low among local radio websites, just 14% of which offer https.

Newsletters

Another way for local publishers to enhance their users’ experience is to consider and utilize other opportunities outside the website to reach them with news and information. E-mail newsletters have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, as publishers have rediscovered the inbox as a critical touchpoint with their audiences.

Have local news outlets adopted newsletter products as well? To get a sense of this, we scoured the websites of local news outlets to identify any links or sign-up sections or advertisements for newsletters. While not a perfect metric, it nevertheless offers a general sense of how widespread these products are in the world of local news.

Overall, about four in ten (39%) of local news outlets offer or promote a newsletter product on their website. Of all the media sectors studied, there are only two for whom a majority of publishers are offering newsletters: daily newspapers (65%) and digital-native publishers (57%). About half of community magazines (49%) offer newsletters.

Among the least likely to promote newsletters, besides college papers (25%) which are typically under-resourced for these kinds of alternative products, were community weeklies. Just under one-third (32%) of these papers offer email newsletters to their audiences.

Regional variation
in digital practice

Not all trends in journalism and technology are evenly distributed. Some communities enjoy full broadband penetration while others have more limited internet access.28 Some states appear to benefit from more local journalists per capita than others.29 And there’s also some evidence that large, dense metropolitan areas differ from smaller communities in public habits when it comes to news engagement, for instance in their populations’ higher likelihood to use digital technology to consume local news.30

At the same time, there is also little variance in many of these trends across geographic regions in the US. In particular, video hosting and livestreaming, newsletter and podcast promotion, and maintenance of a mobile app are all areas where little to no variation across geographic regions surfaced in our study.

When it comes to other features, some modest differences stand out. For instance, local news outlets in the Midwest (63%) are somewhat more likely than those in the Northeast (51%) to offer online pathways to subscription, membership or donation. Conversely, local news outlets in the Midwest (50%) are about 10 points less likely than those in other regions of the country to offer comment sections in their online stories.

It’s possible that even these differences might be attributable to disparities in the composition of media types from region to region. But the fact that these broad regional differences are not all that dramatic should not foreclose the notion that other kinds of differences exist between communities. For instance, rural and urban communities, and poor and rich ones may differ when it comes to the digital qualities of the local news they receive. Differences might reveal themselves between states, as well. Future research using this very data set might reveal such differences.

The rich and varied fabric of American society reminds us that community information needs differ from one neighborhood to the next. And yet the consolidation of local media ownership leads to more one-size-fits-all tech and product solutions. In a media system where both independent and corporately owned local media coexist, the challenge is two-fold, and consists of finding ways to support the innovations and experiments in independent local news publishing, while also encouraging nimbleness in large firms that include local outlets in their holdings.

Citations

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      17. Katerina Eva Matsa, “Local TV News Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, 2017, http://www.journalism.org/fact-sheet/local-tv-news/.
      18. Lee Rainie, “About 6 in 10 Young Adults in U.S. Primarily Use Online Streaming to Watch TV,” Pew Research Center, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/13/about-6-in-10-young-adults-in-u-s-primarily-use-online-streaming-to-watch-tv/.
      19. “State of the News Media,” Pew Research Center, 2014, http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2017/05/30142556/state-of-the-news-media-report-2014-final.pdf.
      20. Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel, and Elisa Shearer, “The Modern News Consumer,” Pew Research Center, 2016, http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/.
      21. Matthew Hindman, “Stickier News: What Newspapers Don’t Know about Web Traffic has Hurt Them Badly—But There is a Better Way,” Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, 2015, https://shorensteincenter.org/stickier-news-matthew-hindman/.
      22. Barrett Golding, “Need for Speed 1: Newspaper Load Times Give ‘Slow News Day’ New Meaning,” Reynolds Journalism Institute, 2015, https://www.rjionline.org/stories/need-for-speed-1-newspaper-load-times-give-slow-news-day-new-meaning.
      23. Andy Greenberg, “’Secure the News’ Grades Media Sites on HTTPS—and Most Fail,” Wired, 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/12/secure-news-grades-media-sites-https-fail/
      24. “Local News in a Digital Age,” Pew Research Center, 2015, http://www.journalism.org/2015/03/05/local-news-in-a-digital-age/.
      25. Philip Napoli, Ian Dunham, and Jessica Mahone, “Assessing News Media Infrastructure: A State-Level Analysis,” News Measures Research Project, 2017, https://dewitt.sanford.duke.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Assessing-News-Media-Infrastructure_Report.
      26. Ibid.
      27. Ibid.

Appendix A: Summary Tables

 

Local news outlets with an online presence

Type of outlet
Number of outlets
% of outlets
Outlets with a website
1814
88
Outlets with no website
258
12
Total
2072
100

Note: Of the 1814 outlets with a website, 93 had content limited to simply a PDF (5% of all outlets with a website). That leaves 1721 outlets with a website consisting of more than a PDF of the week’s news content, or 83% of all local news outlets. Of the outlets that do not have a website, some nevertheless have an active social media presence. Of the 258 outlets with no website, 87 had an active Facebook page (posting content in the previous month). That amounts to 34% of all offline local news outlets.

 

Summary data (based on 1808 news outlets with accessible websites)

Attribute
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website’s stories have comment sections
1013
56
795
44
Website offers video
842
47
966
53
Website promotes newsletters
712
39
1096
61
Website promotes podcasts
206
11
1602
89
Website offers live video or audio
298
16
1510
84
Website has a subscribe or donate section
1030
57
778
43
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
487
27
1321
73

Note: The total number of sites studied here, 1808, eliminates six sites with hard paywalls that prevented further study. Within the 1013 outlets with comment sections, there were four sites that were marked N/A due to paywalls. Among outlets with podcasts, two offered podcasts that were not their own. Among outlets with live video/audio, there was one offering such a feed that was not its own. For consistency, these were coded as ‘yes.’

Online video

Video platform
Frequency
% of total outlets with video
Native/unclear
428
51
YouTube
368
44
Other news companies (CNN, News Corp.)
22
3
Vimeo
12
1
Facebook
6
1
Mix of multiple platforms
5
1
Twitter
1
<1

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Data by sector

Media sector
Frequency
% of total 
Digital-native 
publisher
56
3
College 
newspaper
113
6
Community newspaper
920
51
Daily newspaper
263
15
Magazine
47
3
Radio station
196
11
TV station
213
12

Note: based on Cision classification; some categories collapsed for analysis purposes.

Attribute (digital-native)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website’s stories have comment sections
45
80
11
20
Website offers video
22
39
34
61
Website promotes newsletters
32
57
24
43
Website promotes podcasts
11
20
45
80
Website offers live video or audio
3
5
53
95
Website has a subscribe or donate section
19
34
37
66
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
8
14
48
86

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Attribute (TV stations)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website’s stories have comment sections
61
29
152
71
Website offers video
205
96
8
4
Website promotes newsletters
93
44
120
56
Website promotes podcasts
26
12
187
88
Website offers live video or audio
117
55
96
45
Website has a subscribe or donate section
41
19
172
81
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
157
74
56
26

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Attribute (radio stations)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website’s stories have comment sections
78
40
118
60
Website offers video
69
35
127
65
Website promotes newsletters
68
35
128
65
Website promotes podcasts
98
50
98
50
Website offers live video or audio
159
81
37
19
Website has a subscribe or donate section
41
21
155
79
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
90
46
106
54

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Attribute (magazines)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website’s stories have comment sections
26
55
21
45
Website offers video
12
26
35
74
Website promotes newsletters
23
49
24
51
Website promotes podcasts
2
4
45
96
Website offers live video or audio
0
0
47
100
Website has a subscribe or donate section
32
68
15
32
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
5
11
42
89

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Attribute (daily papers)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website’s stories have comment sections
200
76
63
24
Website offers video
173
66
90
34
Website promotes newsletters
170
65
93
35
Website promotes podcasts
30
11
233
89
Website offers live video or audio
7
3
256
97
Website has a subscribe or donate section
246
94
17
6
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
145
55
118
44

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Attribute (community papers)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website has a paywall
256
28
664
72
Website’s stories have comment sections
505
55
415
45
Website offers video
295
32
625
68
Website promotes newsletters
298
32
622
68
Website promotes podcasts
17
2
903
98
Website offers live video or audio
10
1
910
99
Website has a subscribe or donate section
632
69
288
31
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
77
8
843
92

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Attribute (college papers)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website’s stories have comment sections
98
87
15
13
Website offers video
66
58
47
42
Website promotes newsletters
28
25
85
75
Website promotes podcasts
22
19
91
81
Website offers live video or audio
2
2
111
98
Website has a subscribe or donate section
19
17
94
83
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
5
4
108
96

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Attribute
Digital-
native (%)
College 
newspaper (%)
Community 
newspaper (%)
Daily 
newspaper (%)
Magazine 
(%)
Radio 
station (%)
TV 
station (%)
paywall
NA
NA
28
NA
NA
NA
NA
comments
80
87
55
76
55
40
29
video
39
58
32
66
26
35
96
newsletter
57
25
32
65
49
35
44
podcasts
20
19
2
11
4
50
12
Live stream
5
2
1
3
0
81
55
Subscribe
34
17
69
94
68
21
19
Mobile app
14
4
8
55
11
46
74

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Data by region

Metric
NE (freq)
NE (%)
S (freq)
South (%)
MW (freq)
MW (%)
W (freq)
W (%)
Total
Outlets w/ no website
33
13
89
34
98
38
38
15
258
Offline outlets w/ FB presence
7
8
31
36
41
47
8
9
87
Total outlets
351
17
750
36
592
29
379
18
2072

Note: ‘Total outlets’ number for each region includes outlets that were shelved from the main portion of the study due to impenetrable paywalls. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Metric
NE (%)
W (%)
S (%)
MW (%)
comments
59
59
58
50
video
44
48
46
48
newsletter
42
40
40
37
podcasts
13
12
10
11
Live stream
14
15
17
18
Subscribe
51
54
57
63
Mobile app
26
25
28
27

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Metric (Northeast, N = 317)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website has a paywall
50
16
267
84
Website’s stories have comment sections
187
59
130
41
Website offers video
140
44
177
56
Website promotes newsletters
133
42
184
58
Website promotes podcasts
41
13
276
87
Website offers live video or audio
45
14
272
86
Website has a subscribe or donate section
163
51
154
49
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
82
26
235
74

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Metric (West, N = 340)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website has a paywall
55
16
285
84
Website’s stories have comment sections
201
59
139
41
Website offers video
162
48
178
52
Website promotes newsletters
137
40
203
60
Website promotes podcasts
41
12
299
88
Website offers live video or audio
52
15
288
85
Website has a subscribe or donate section
182
54
158
46
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
85
25
255
75

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Metric (South, N = 659)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website has a paywall
148
22
511
78
Website’s stories have comment sections
380
58
279
42
Website offers video
305
46
354
54
Website promotes newsletters
261
40
398
60
Website promotes podcasts
68
10
591
90
Website offers live video or audio
110
17
549
83
Website has a subscribe or donate section
375
57
284
43
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
185
28
474
72

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Metric (Midwest, N = 492)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Website has a paywall
120
24
372
76
Website’s stories have comment sections
245
50
247
50
Website offers video
235
48
257
52
Website promotes newsletters
181
37
311
63
Website promotes podcasts
56
11
436
89
Website offers live video or audio
91
18
401
82
Website has a subscribe or donate section
310
63
182
37
Outlet has a mobile app (iOS)
135
27
357
73

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

 

Programmatically collected web data

A total of 1,102 websites from the broader sample of 1,808 were analyzed programmatically for a number of additional indicators.

Attribute
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
864
78
238
22
Links to Twitter
599
54
503
46
Secure site (HTTPS)
255
23
847
77

Note: within the 847 outlets with no https redirect, one was a blank entry that was recoded as ‘no.’ Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute (digital-native)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
27
87
4
13
Has a Twitter account
28
90
3
10
Secure site (HTTPS)
6
19
25
81

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Note: Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute (TV stations)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
118
93
9
7
Has a Twitter account
124
98
3
2
Secure site (HTTPS)
25
20
92
72

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute (radio stations)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
94
81
22
19
Has a Twitter account
60
52
56
48
Secure site (HTTPS)
16
14
100
86

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute (magazines)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
31
91
3
9
Has a Twitter account
22
65
12
35
Secure site (HTTPS)
8
24
26
76

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute (daily papers)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
176
88
25
12
Has a Twitter account
173
86
28
14
Secure site (HTTPS)
49
24
152
76

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute (community papers)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
344
67
171
33
Has as Twitter account
126
24
389
76
Secure site (HTTPS)
128
25
378
73

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute (college papers)
Frequency ‘yes’
% ‘yes’
Frequency ‘no’
% ‘no’
Has a Facebook account
74
95
4
5
Has a Twitter account
66
85
12
15
Secure site (HTTPS)
23
29
55
71

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute
Digital-
native (%)
College 
newspaper (%)
Community 
newspaper (%)
Daily 
newspaper (%)
Magazine 
(%)
Radio 
station (%)
TV 
station (%)
Has a Facebook account
87
95
67
88
91
81
93
Has a Twitter account
90
85
24
86
65
52
98
Secure site (HTTPS)
19
29
25
24
24
14
20

Note: Facebook and Twitter data combine both programmatically collected information as well as information appearing in the original Cision dataset. Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Attribute
Digital-
native
College 
newspaper
Community 
newspaper
Daily 
newspaper
Magazine
Radio 
station
TV 
station
Average load time (in seconds)
13
16
15
22
14
20
26

Appendix B: Classification & coding protocol

The following is a summary of attributes with definitions and rules, which were used to classify a range of digital indicators for local news outlets. For all attributes, researchers studied a minimum of three stories per outlet, and evaluated ‘about,’ ‘subscribe,’ and ‘contact’ sections. In addition, keyword searches for the following attributes were applied to websites.

Comment section in stories: Y/N. Select ‘Y’ if stories offer the option to comment below text section.

Ad tech: List the content recommendation services and advertising service brands occupying space on the home page (i.e., Google, Taboola, Outbrain). Note where custom local advertising appears as well.

Digital video hosting platform: Leave blank if no video; list the platform if video is present (i.e., YouTube, Vimeo). If hosting company is not identified, mark as ‘native’/NA.

Newsletters offered: Y/N. Scan and search the home page to identify whether or not the publisher promotes or links to its email newsletter(s). May also appear in ‘subscribe’ or ‘contact’ section of website. Select ‘Y’ if publisher offers email alerts or updates on daily or weekly news items.

Podcasts offered: Y/N. Scan the home page to identify if the publisher promotes or links to its podcast. (Note: absence of a link or promotion of podcast does not indicate the publisher does not offer one, but rather that they do not promote a podcast on their website.)

Video/Audio live feed: Y/N. Scan the home page to identify if the publisher promotes or links to a live video or audio feed.

Donation/subscribe link: Y/N. Scan the home page and other relevant pages (‘subscribe,’ ‘give,’ ‘join,’ and so on) to identify if the publisher promotes or links to an opportunity to subscribe or donate to the outlet.

Mobile app: Y/N. Scan the home page (as well as other relevant pages, such as ‘about’ or ‘subscribe’) to identify if the publisher promotes or links to its own app. In addition, search Apple App Store for the name of each individual publisher.

Mobile-responsive home page: Y/N. Use a smartphone to load home page and record observation. A responsive design for mobile renders in such a way that text and images automatically fit to the mobile screen. A non-responsive website will render in such a way that text and images must be manually expanded or dragged to view.

Paywall: Y/N. Site is considered to have at least a ‘soft’ paywall if it is indicated via home page message, or else, when researcher selects an article and the article is unavailable (or if the website warns that a limited number of articles may be accessed before reaching limit—known as metered pay wall). Visit at least three articles to determine whether soft meter is in effect. In addition, review ‘subscribe’ section to observe whether publisher describes expanded content benefits available with digital subscription.

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Jesse Holcomb teaches journalism, digital media and communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. He is widely quoted in national and international media, including the New York Times, NPR and BBC, and speaks regularly about his research to audiences in the U.S. and abroad.