How do Americans stay informed about current events? Where do you learn what’s going on in your town? Local news is dying across America, but it isn’t going down without a fight–skeleton crews still produce news via TV, radio, and, of course, the internet, in many cities. To get a clearer picture of how the shift in local media is affecting Americans, the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center asked 35,000 people across the U.S. where they got their local news. The group published the results in a very clear and easy-to-use interactive graphic, which offers anyone to see how their fellow citizens stay informed.
It’s a strong piece of data design: You just type in your location and the interactive will zoom in on your town (or, if you live in a small city, likely a larger neighboring town), breaking down the survey data into legible bar charts. After a 60-second skim, you’ll walk away with a much firmer understanding of the most influential broadcasters in your area, along with which topics (like crime or politics) that your neighbors care about most. Across many cities, you’ll notice some trends:
- A good majority of people trust local news and believe it does an okay job.
- Television broadcasters provide a majority of local news–followed by radio, then newspapers.
- About as many people rely upon social media for news as people who consume it through other mediums, though it’s worth noting that even on Facebook or Twitter, people are still technically reading or watching news produced by these local stations.
In short, locally produced TV, radio, and newspapers are essential to our communities. But they are increasingly subject to the algorithmic feeds and monetization strategies of social media platforms. In Chicago, people watch WGN on TV; they also follow WGN on Facebook. The former presents a story flow prioritized and edited by producers and journalists, with ads sold and distributed by its own sales team. The latter is pretty much a bunch of question marks, because WGN news sits among ads and other content from Facebook itself. The other elephant in the room–not addressed by Pew’s survey–is the uber-conservative group Sinclair, which is buying up local news stations across America.
The other big insight from the study is that as many as 85% of respondents report that “Weather” is the easiest topic to stay informed about. By contrast, politics tends to fall in the 20th percentile. Weather is actually the most important daily topic to most people, and in some ways that makes sense; viewers may feel they can’t do much about lousy politicians, but each day they’re faced with the choice of carrying an umbrella or wearing shorts. Watch any local TV broadcast, you’ll see that local weather is what’s it’s most invested in, with doppler radar tracking, storm chasing, and real-time graphics presented by an expert who deciphers them so the public has an almost absurdly clear understanding of how weather systems are affecting our immediate climate.
Nowhere else does the news approach that level of granularity–other than on the evening of a presidential election–especially in local broadcast. And as a result, it’s a lot easier to know whether or not it’s going to rain, than what a tax hike or new zoning plan will do to your local community.