Is local news really important?
The recent release of a troubling survey seems to indicate that, when push comes to shove, people don't really want to be informed about what is happening in their communities.
The survey, performed by the Pew Research Center – a nonpartisan "fact tank" that is a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trust – polled more than 35,000 people on what kind of news was "important for daily life."
Their answers were sure to embolden local television stations, but provided nothing but consternation for small daily and weekly newspapers trying to provide something more substantive.
The No. 1 answer to the survey of "news" that was important to their daily lives was weather. Second was coverage of crime, which is somewhat encouraging as that is something newspapers excel at. Third on the list, however, was traffic and transportation, primarily what will keep commuters from getting to their jobs. The changing prices of items dear to readers – such as how much the latest iPhone will cost them or gas to fuel their cars – earned the fifth spot on the list.
Coverage of government, the primary reason for newspapers to exist the past 100-plus years as watchdogs? It finished a distant fifth on the list of what readers are looking for from their local news outlet.
The rest of the news that local newspapers have covered faithfully over the past century or so – sports, religion, business, the arts, education, etc. – didn't even garner a mention on the survey.
Equally troubling is that more than one-third of the respondents to the survey identified television as their source of local news. That's understandable, to some degree, because humans by nature are drawn to bold graphics and passionate dialogue. They're susceptible to pretty people telling them what's important, even if it's non-news like the most recent birth at the Oregon Zoo or the excesses of Damian Lillard's salary.
But you can't turn to Portland television and find out how the Newberg Tigers softball team fared in the first round of the state tournament, or who the city's new head librarian is, or when that new restaurant will open downtown, or the fact that the city manager who took the job amid a tide of controversy about city government will retire at the end of the summer, prompting the fourth search for the city's top administrator in less than 10 years.
The Pew survey also prompted researchers to arrive at a chilling conclusion that we're seeing increasing evidence of as the years progress: that "people aren't reading newspapers or visiting community websites because they don't understand that what's in them affects their lives and those of their neighbors."
The goal of any newspaper worth its salt is to let people know what is happening in their community – good, bad or indifferent – so they can make informed decisions on the future of those communities.
Instead, what we're seeing now is people are presuming to understand – with the help of such notoriously inaccurate online forums such as Facebook and Twitter – what is happening in their communities. Even worse, when reporters do the hard work of interviewing sources and gathering research about an issue, their work is dismissed as being inaccurate or partisan because it doesn't align with the readers' world view.
These recent trends represent a slippery slope for democracy in our country. People without access to accurate information on their communities cannot adequately perform their duties as citizens, but they can be led down the wrong a path that ultimately will rob them of their rights as citizens.
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