The COVID-19 pandemic is turning a tough business into a fully blown crisis. Local and regional news has been under pressure for years as audiences shifted their attention to digital and classified and display advertising moved to online specialists. The pandemic is now seriously impacting remaining revenues leading many companies to cut staff, stop printing, or be forced into liquidation. Non-commercial local media have also been struggling to deliver on-the-ground reporting in a world of lockdowns and social distancing. Some public service broadcasters have temporarily cut back local output1 at a time when local TV and radio has already lost reach and influence with the shift to digital.
But this crisis has also shown how much local news still matters as people try to learn about the spread of the virus in their area as well as hear the advice of local government, which has sometimes taken a different approach to national guidelines. This pandemic has reinforced the democratic importance of local reporting in providing timely and relevant local information as well as holding local politicians to account.
In this section we offer an international perspective on how local and regional news are valued across different countries and what sources of local news people prefer. We also look at the extent to which people would miss their favourite local news outlet if it was no longer available.
Measuring local and regional news consumption across 40 countries is no easy task. The markets in our sample differ hugely in their size – from large city states like Singapore and Hong Kong to giant loosely connected federations like Brazil and the United States. Political systems vary greatly in their degree of regional autonomy, which may influence the relative importance of local, regional, and national news. While recognising these differences, our aim was to provide a common way of understanding how people in different countries think about news that is closer to their home. In this regard, we gave our survey respondents a relatively wide definition of local news that could include ‘news from the city or town, municipality or region that they live in’.
Does the Public Value Local News?
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, almost half our survey respondents (47%) across countries said that they were very or extremely interested in local news. This compares with 37% who said they were interested in politics. If we break this down via market, we observe striking differences, with interest highest in countries with a federal system or a high degree of regional autonomy. Almost three-quarters of Brazilians (73%) say they are interested in local news, two-thirds of Spaniards (62%), and around half (54%) in Germany and the United States (48%). By contrast, people who live in countries with more centralised systems show comparatively little interest in local news, though it is important to note that there may be many other factors explaining the differences found in our data. Only 31% say they are interested in the UK and France and the number drops down to 12% in South Korea.
The Demographic Challenge
While overall interest remains high, local news organisations have struggled to adapt to new digital platforms and in many cases local newspapers had continued to prioritise the economic importance of their print products – at least before the crisis (Jenkins and Nielsen 2020). This is partly because its core audience tends to be more traditional but also because local media have invested more slowly in product innovations such as mobile sites and video formats. Even in Norway, a country that is often held up as a model for sustainable local news, businesses remain highly dependent on a large number of over-55s who are three times as likely to be interested in local news as 18–24s. It’s a similar story in Germany and the US where older generations show much more interest in local news. Only in a few countries, such as the Philippines, Mexico and Chile, do we see relatively high interest with younger groups.
To some extent these findings are in line with what we find generally in news, with the young always somewhat less interested than the older generations. It is possible that they could grow into a local news habit as they age, but only if the agenda, tone, and content are right. Other demographics show a different and more surprising pattern. Interest in local news seems to be more evenly spread across those with high and low educational attainment than it is for other types of news. Indeed, in some markets, such as the United Kingdom, interest is greater amongst those with lower levels of education. This is worth noting as information inequalities are likely to get even worse if local news outlets contract or disappear.
Where Do People Get Local News?
While local news businesses have struggled in their move to online, other regional and local actors have made use of digital infrastructures to establish direct contact with their relevant communities. Facebook groups, political parties, local enterprises, schools, and churches now represent important supplements to and sometimes serious competition to traditional local news online as they provide hyperlocal information important to very specific audiences that may have never been looking for the whole local news package anyway (Möhring and Keldenich 2018). During the COVID-19 crisis local Facebook groups stepped up their game as they helped to drive support for local businesses affected by the pandemic.2
Our data show that these alternative providers are indeed competing strongly, with about half of our surveyed respondents across all markets using them. However, traditional local news sources still lead overall, with 71% of all those surveyed across countries relying on offline and online services offered by traditional local news media. On average, across countries local newspapers remain most important (44%), followed by local TV (33%). But local radio (24%) is already less important than some of the non-news alternatives. Across countries, almost a third (31%) of our sample say they used local groups or pages on social media (e.g. Facebook or WhatsApp) or online discussion groups in the last week as a source for local news. Personal communication from other residents, neighbours, friends, and/or family are seen as important sources for around a quarter (28%) across markets, while 13% say they rely on information coming directly from local institutions. The gap between news media and non-news media is now just 20 points, with new online forums providing a free, convenient, and relevant alternative.
Looking into individual countries, we see some variation in terms of importance. The newspaper dominates in Norway (64%) and Germany (57%) – both countries with strong reading traditions – but television is significantly ahead in the Philippines and the United States. Over half (55%) in the US use local TV weekly, with 36% reading local newspapers and a quarter tuning to local radio.
Social media are particularly important in the Philippines, which has one of the highest uses of Facebook in our survey. Four in ten (41%) of our online sample say they have relied on local social media groups in the past week. This number rises to 59% in Hong Kong and 56% in Kenya but is far lower in Germany (15%) as well as Japan (14%). In the US, where Facebook launched a big local news initiative in 2019, only 20% say they use local social media groups weekly. Findings for the US are mirrored by Pew data from two years ago showing that ‘social media plays a moderate role in local news’.3
Value of Different News Sources Compared
Local news media remain important to people in different neighbourhoods but how much would they miss them if they were no longer there? Across all countries, 37% of those that use local TV say they would miss it a lot and a further 41% would miss it somewhat. We see similar results for local newspapers with 35% saying they would miss them a lot and 43% saying somewhat. We see some country differences, partly aligned with usage of particular sources, but also with the extent of devolved political power – and therefore the importance of local news in the democratic process.
In Germany more than half of local TV (56%) or local newspaper users (54%) would strongly miss their local news source. This is only true for 25% of TV users and 20% of newspaper users in the Philippines.
Local News along Political Lines
Local news is often considered to provide journalism that is more trusted and less partisan than national publications. This is partly a function of the fact that many local outlets have a commercial interest in serving the widest group of users and many public media outlets have obligations to do so. In other words, local media often do not have the luxury of reporting on behalf of one political side while ignoring the other. There are some exceptions, however, not least in the United States where some local media groups have recently been accused of supporting right-wing political agendas.4
Similarly, some local newspapers in Germany were reproached for reporting rather uncritically about the right-wing populist party AfD. At the same time, local journalists have reported about being excluded from particular party events – in some cities they even face death threats and attacks against their offices.5
Our data show that in many of our surveyed markets regional and local news generally fare well in terms of trust. In the US and France, local news is the most trusted news brand, while in Finland, Norway, and Germany local newspapers are second to public broadcasters, that have also built much of their reputation on local TV and radio services. In the UK, local newspapers are trusted by 55%, fourth in the list and much higher than the average for commercial media. Elsewhere, local news brands are typically trusted by more than half the surveyed population – for example, in Mexico (59%) and the Philippines (64%).
POSITION OF LOCAL NEWS IN LIST OF MOST TRUSTED NEWS BRANDS
Q6_2018_trust. How trustworthy would you say news from the following brands is? Please use the scale below, where 0 is ‘not at all trustworthy’ and 10 is ‘completely trustworthy’.
Base: Total sample in each market: Spain = 2006, US = 2055, France = 2038, UK = 2011, Germany = 2011, Norway = 2010, Finland = 2050.
Will Local News Have a Chance?
The COVID-19 crisis is focusing minds both on the value of local reporting but also on what could soon be lost. While some titles have already disappeared, others have been trying to demonstrate the value they can still provide with front pages and reporting that helps people get through the crisis.
But the economic pressures are building. Changes that might have unfolded over a decade are now set to happen in a much more compressed timescale and support will be needed. Facebook has already pledged a $100m package for local media, Google has announced a new Journalism Emergency Relief Fund, and some governments have stepped up with interim funding and other forms of support on a much more significant scale. But the crisis will unquestionably hurt the business of news, including local, far more than any of these packages can make up for. The long-term survival of local news will therefore depend on finding new sustainable business models, attracting the next generation of users, and moving faster towards online content and engagement. At the same time, professionally curated journalism for local areas still matters, offering orientation to readers and reflecting local interests. Local news organisations will have to prove themselves creative and courageous in order to quickly react to an ever-changing technological environment. The good news is that our data suggest there is still demand and trust for them – in general and even more so in times of crisis. The next year will be a real test to see how much local news is truly valued by audiences and governments across the world.
- https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-march-24-2020-1.5507880/we-totally-understand-the-frustration-cbc-president-defends-local-tv-news-suspension-amid-pandemic-1.5508146 ↩
- https://communityimpact.com/houston/tomball-magnolia/dining/2020/04/01/facebook-groups-drive-support-to-local-restaurants-in-northwest-houston-areas/ or https://wchstv.com/news/local/new-facebook-groups-promote-tri-state-businesses-open-during-pandemic ↩
- https://www.journalism.org/2019/03/26/overall-social-media-plays-a-moderate-role-in-local-news/ ↩
- https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/04/sinclair-broadcast-group-national-expansion-2020-sports-networks.html ↩
- https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/lokaljournalismus-und-afd-noch-lange-kein-normales.2907.de.html?dram:article_id=434882 ↩