by Brett Wesner
Newspaper reporting and content have never been more relevant.
We all have stories of readers desperately seeking reliable information about COVID-19 during the pandemic and turning to us to deliver accurate national and state health departments’ evolving assessments as well as local reporting on treatment options in our communities.
We at National Newspaper Association see it in our daily government affairs work with members of Congress, who almost uniformly admire their local community papers regardless of how they might feel about the national press.
We see it in the example of the civic leaders in Mineral Wells, Texas, who were so distraught over the closing of their newspaper that they reached out to Jeremy Gulban and his Cherry Road group to open one. That he did, as he has in other communities.
And these examples of relevance are borne out by the hard numbers. In March, the National Newspapers Association and NNA Foundation commissioned a survey of readers from across the country, conducted by the highly regarded Susquehanna Polling and Research team. The results confirmed our daily experiences.
The study found local newspapers as the most trusted source when it comes to learning about candidates for public office. On a 10-point scale (with 10 being the “highest”), local newspapers are rated a 7.38, higher than TV stations (6.45), radio (5.58), political mailings (4.63) or social media platforms (2.65).
And our trustworthiness is growing. Compare this year’s results to our 2019 study, when on the issue of trustworthiness, community newspapers represented a more trusted news source (5.77 on a 10-point scale) than other news sources, rating higher than national network TV news (5.13), cable TV news shows (4.60) and all others. Social media sources like Twitter or Facebook were rated lowest, at 2.92.
The study confirms there is a strong correlation between those who read community newspapers and those who cast ballots in elections. A combined 96% of readers of local newspapers say they plan to vote this November — either “very” or “somewhat” likely.
“It seems to us,” Jim Lee, president, Susquehanna Polling and Research Inc., said, “that voters are increasingly hungry for a higher level of professional integrity when it comes to journalism (both local and national) in today’s age of constant cable TV news and partisan leaning news media outlets.”
TV stations (70%) and local newspapers (68%) are most often relied on as news sources to make decisions about elections compared to much lower scores for direct mailings from candidates or political parties (44%), radio stations (40%) or social media platforms (19%).
A combined 77% of respondents say they read a newspaper that covers their local community (a nice increase from a 65% average, 2017-19), consumed via printed edition and online edition, as well as these additional online options that were not in previous surveys: Facebook, YouTube, TikTok or other social media platform.
Local newspapers also continue to receive high metrics on things like “[it] informs me” (93% agree), “[it] provides valuable local shopping and advertising information (81%agree), and “my household relies on [it] for local news (83%).
The trust quotient is easy to understand. While some readers may think they get news from social media, who knows the source of that news? But readers know where their local newspaper is and how to ask questions or challenge the editor’s news judgment when they disagree.
The difficulty, as most in the industry realize, is not in the relevance of our content, but in our revenue models.
Most local newspapers are experimenting with technology to enhance our readers’ experience and provide new ways for our advertisers to reach our still-strong audience, including newsletters, video, e-editions and social media publishing, both for our own publications as well as our advertisers. But the reliance upon the revenue from the print newspaper remains the backbone of the newsroom. Too many have written the obituary of the print newspaper when, instead, they should be supporting its mission.
Readers can help with their subscriptions and contribution. More critically, Congress can help by creating a level playing field for newspapers through the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. It also can ensure that the valuable federal advertising dollar reaches America’s smaller communities through local newspapers.
Americans believe in and rely upon community newspapers. Are we in a crisis of revenue, yes, most certainly. But relevance? We have that hands down.