As a venture philanthropy invested in rebuilding local news, the American Journalism Project has a keen interest in understanding what people actually need from their local news outlets. That’s why, as part of our local philanthropic partnership work, we’ve heard from nearly 5,000 residents in eight local markets across the country about their experience with journalism in their communities and what kinds of local information would be most useful to them.
Conducted by Fiona Morgan, American Journalism Project’s director of community listening, and nearly 100 paid community ambassadors — who dedicated their time to helping us reach out to their community networks via phone interviews, focus groups, text messages — these discussions underscore that communities, even within the same market, can have wildly different experiences with local news. Within single regions, we’ve encountered communities who have fond respect for their local newspapers, while others in the same place feel they’ve been harmed by the very same publications — or hadn’t even heard of them. We’ve also spoken to people who have no exposure to local news outside of word-of-mouth, because of paywalls, digital divides, or literacy or language barriers.
When asked about what topics they want information about, people may have a tendency to prioritize different topics in each market. Transportation agencies and highway commissions come up more in places like Houston and Los Angeles, for example, while political polarization is top of mind for many people in Wichita and across Indiana. Government transparency and criminal justice are top of mind for many in Cleveland. Housing is consistently a top-three issue across the board.
That said, our research team has also come across a number of common themes across every market where we’ve talked to people about local news, that aren’t centered on topics. These similarities are perhaps even more interesting than the differences, because they include insights for all of us to consider as the nonprofit news industry continues to grow. Here are nine themes we’ve identified in this work:
- People do want more local news — emphasis on local.
- People want a shared, trusted source of facts.
- People want the full story of their communities to be told.
- People want to know about decisions before they’re made, and they want decision makers to be accountable for outcomes.
- People want to see themselves in the news, and in the newsroom.
- People want journalists to ask their questions.
- People want information they can act on.
- People want the news to meet them where they are.
- People want newsrooms to play a role in connecting and convening communities.
A note on methodology: In our listening work, we reach out through a variety of methods to capture as many perspectives as possible. This includes through community networks, local service organizations, and social media; but because this type of outreach often leads researchers to the same people, we also do text message surveys, which reach something closer to a random sample of residents.
1) People do want more local news — emphasis on local.
As one might imagine, we have our fair share of conversations with people who’ve lost trust in news media and often cite national political coverage in their complaints. But once conversations move past critiques of “the media,” we get to the heart of what we want to know—do people see value in having a source for verified information? Do they want to know what’s going on in their communities? Do they think journalistically gathered information is important?
In every single place we’ve conducted research, the answer is overwhelmingly yes, and it manifests in different ways. Many people say that when something happens in their neighborhood, they have no idea where they’d be able to look to figure out what’s happening. Some say they trust community organizations and individuals who provide direct services more than they trust news outlets, because those entities offer them help when they need it. In most markets, we hear frustration from people who notice their local outlets are often running or airing stories about news in other places—a phenomenon resulting from the consolidation of media ownership, cost cutting, and advertising models that require content catering to broader, more general audiences. And in larger cities, we’ve found that when people talk about “local” information, they’re often talking about neighborhood-level information that connects them to happenings in their communities.
2) People want a shared, trusted source of facts.
Many people are acutely aware of, and alarmed by, the misinformation swirling around their communities and social circles. When the subject comes up, people say they wish local news were more robust so they could have a central place to point to for verified facts whenever something is in question.
In the many markets where political polarization is an issue, including in regions of Indiana, Kansas, Texas, and Ohio, residents say this doesn’t work when news outlets seem to cater to one side of the aisle, even subtly. They say they wish news outlets would put less emphasis on controversy and more emphasis on basic, factual information, and let their audiences decide on their own opinions.
3) People want the full story of their communities to be told.
Residents of lower income neighborhoods, and Black, Brown, and immigrant communities in every market we study have varying levels of anger that reporters from mainstream outlets only appear in their communities when there’s a sensational crime story to be told. In every market, many say they perceive the local news as painting an imbalanced, negative picture of their neighborhoods or cities, without solutions or helpful information.
It’s not that people don’t care about public safety. In the same neighborhoods where residents complain about too much negative or sensational crime coverage, people also frequently cite public safety as a top concern. What people want to know about local crime, however, aren’t the gory details and sensational headlines—they need facts and follow up on cases to help keep their families safe, or to hold law enforcement accountable for continuing searches for missing people, etc.
Aside from wanting more useful public safety coverage, people say disproportionate focus on crime in their communities creates a wholly inaccurate depiction of what it’s like to live in their areas. They say they can’t trust journalists who show up for negative stories if they don’t see them coming around for the positive stories as well.
The call for more “positive” coverage is familiar to those of us who’ve worked in local news. We know that our so-called “negative” coverage is often driven by a combination of our natural instinct to expose wrongdoing and the knowledge and assumption that negative stories are often more popular on a per-story basis. But this feedback from residents shows that the full body of our work matters; and when journalists have a role in shaping the narrative of a place, we have an obligation to ensure that narrative reflects reality.
4) People want to know about decisions before they’re made, and they want decision makers to be accountable for outcomes.
There is little ambiguity among the people we’ve spoken to that journalists are supposed to play an accountability role in their communities. People want journalists to show up to meetings, to scrutinize public statements, and to force transparency through their work.
People in a few markets have said they feel the loss of proactive journalism in their communities, because they read about government decisions for the first time when those decisions are announced or made official in public meetings. They say they wish journalists would report on issues when there’s still an opportunity to do something about them, not just repeat announcements and record what happens in public meetings when it’s too late. People in larger markets where there are multiple municipal, county, and state government agencies controlling resources say they know journalists aren’t covering most of what these agencies do, and are fearful of what that means.
People also say they wish journalists would do more follow up. They note that journalists do pay attention to big stories in their communities (and often, only the big stories, which is another complaint they have), but only for a short time before moving onto something else. They want journalists to continue asking their questions and drawing attention to their problems, until the problems are resolved.
5) People want to see themselves in the news, and in the newsroom.
People say they don’t just want to be informed, they want to be represented. They want their needs and perspectives considered in the angles and approaches to stories, from inception, not just in obligatory quotes, and point out that even when critical topics are covered, the perspectives through which they’re reported do not acknowledge or fully represent those most affected.
Residents say that coverage of local business or economic development stories, as an example, are often reported from the perspective of investors or corporate leadership. Big scandals may be an exception, but the day-to-day developments in business communities aren’t typically covered from the perspective of workers or consumers.
Spanish-speaking residents in markets without strong Spanish-language media say local outlets consider translating stories to be addressing their needs, when in fact they would prefer if journalists incorporated their perspectives in the stories before they were written and published. Meanwhile, in all the markets we’ve studied, immigrant communities tell us that both English and in-language outlets neglect the fact that their communities are diverse, and that they care about a wide variety of local topics, not just immigration.
And across every market, many Black, Indigenous, and people of color, members of LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities, youth, and residents of lower-income communities tell us it’s important to them that local newsrooms include staff who understand their experiences first hand, and that the reporters who cover their communities spend time in their communities.
6) People want journalists to ask their questions.
People want information exchange, not just consumption. It’s just as important to them that reporters spend time in local neighborhoods to learn from local residents, as it is for reporters to inform residents. They see it as journalists’ jobs to ask their questions to the powers that be, to represent their concerns, and to report the angles they care about.
Residents in most markets we studied told us stories about reporters who ignored or dismissed them, or took their tips to the same few sources often quoted in news media for corroboration, allowing a handful of individuals to speak on behalf of entire communities. People also often pointed to the more mundane stories that don’t get covered–they said they want journalists to care when their trash doesn’t get collected.
7) People want information they can act on.
One of the most common things we hear is that people want actionable information. People don’t just want education policy stories—they want to know, step by step, how they’re supposed to choose programs for their children and get them in; they don’t want journalists to just tell stories about local disasters, they want to know how to access basic services to survive those disasters; and alongside reporting about injustice in the criminal justice system, they also want information about what exactly to expect if they have to go to court. People want to know how they can engage in their own communities, support local businesses, where to find activities for their children, and how to get jobs and housing.
While many news organizations do some amount of service journalism, or “news you can use,” most outlets dedicated to service are focused on arts and culture content, and none of the markets had comprehensive libraries of verified and tested information about everyday information needs.
8) People want the news to meet them where they are.
In every market there is a segment of what our research team refers to as “high-information” news consumers, or people who are actively interested in seeking out journalism and to be informed. Often, these are people who need local news for their work, or are part of a small but highly civically engaged segment of the population. Whether they have positive or negative perceptions of their local media outlets, this segment reads the newspapers available to them, listens to public radio, subscribes to newsletters, etc. But they aren’t representative of the majority. It’s notable that even in the largest markets we’ve researched, with some of the largest local newsrooms in the country, the local papers of record have circulations that are a tiny fraction of the overall population.
Many people we spoke to in community listening acknowledge their own reticence to seek out local newspapers or news sites is part of the problem, but say the reality is that they need news to fit into their routines and media consumption habits. People say they don’t have the time or inclination to seek local news out if the information isn’t served to them on a platform they already use, in a format they like. And yes, that means email, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, NextDoor, Citizen, and even messaging platforms such as Whatsapp, WeChat, KakaoTalk, and text messaging groups.
9) People want newsrooms to play a role in connecting and convening communities.
People want to feel more connected to their local neighborhoods, and often say they feel their communities are little understood by others in the regions where they live. Many say they view local news as a vehicle through which they can learn about other people who live near them, or who have identities and experiences they know little about. And they wish they had more information about how they can participate in more activities in their neighborhoods.
Note: Our research isn’t statistically relevant—we do broad outreach with a focus on reaching as many different experience communities as possible, with a special focus on ensuring we hear from people who aren’t easily reached through usual channels. Our findings are a qualitative synthesis that improves as we talk to more people in more markets.
This is the first part in a four-part series about the American Journalism Project’s information needs research and local philanthropic partnership work. Sign up for updates or check our website for the next installments in the series, which will cover how we identify local information gaps, and lessons in designing local news solutions.
Loretta Chao is vice president of strategy and startups at the American Journalism Project. Find her on Twitter at @LorettaChao.