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Study: Fortunes of U.S. Local News Bound Up With Whims of Few Big Tech Companies
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Study: Fortunes of U.S. Local News Bound Up With Whims of Few Big Tech Companies

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USA – October 2, 2018

Jesse Holcomb from the research center of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism released the new study, “Digital Adaptation in Local News,” on a Columbia Journalism Review website last week.

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 Facebook presence. And there are even some local news outlets that seem to have leapfrogged past web 1.0 and straight to social media.

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.

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 with the whims of a few big technology companies.

These are some findings from a study on the digital footprint of more than 2,000 U.S. local news outlets. While many studies have explored the digital transformation of newsrooms through direct interviews, case studies, and ethnography, this report attempts to tell the story of that transformation by the numbers. Holcomb’s 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%. 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.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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. 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. Other studies have extensively documented the adoption of paywalls on newspaper websites. One report from 2016 found that 78% of large U.S. newspapers (those with circulation of at least 50,000) have some kind of online paywall. Among other types of local publishers, such as digital-native outlets and broadcasters, paywalls are quite rare.
  • 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%). 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.
  • Just under half (47%) of local news outlets offer video on their site. The majority of the rest embedded video through a third-party hosting service, almost exclusively YouTube (44%). 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.
  • Links to live-streams of video or audio (16%) and podcasts (11%) are fairly uncommon among local news websites, though unsurprisingly, they appear more frequently on sites operated by broadcasters. Podcasting has been around for decades, but in the last few years has enjoyed a renaissance in the journalism world. 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%.
  • On average, local news websites take 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. Barrett Golding of the Reynolds Journalism Institute found that U.S. 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.
  • 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. 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.

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.

Author: USA Really