Want to get under a newspaper person's skin? Tell them you don't need their work because you get most of your news from the Internet.
Inky survivors can't stand to hear that because they know that — technological advances and upstart websites notwithstanding — the bulk of news on the Web actually still originates with newspaper reporters.
But it turns out that the audience doesn't merely fail to recognize who produces most local news. Even those who do give credit to their local paper don't express particular concern about finding an alternative if their paper goes away, a new and detailed survey of community news consumption habits shows.
Americans turn to their newspapers (and attendant websites) on more topics than any other local news source, according to a survey released this week by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. But, despite their own reading habits, more than two-thirds told pollsters that if their hometown paper disappeared, it would not seriously hurt their ability to keep up with the news.
There are a lot of things newspaper people could say in response to those findings. "Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend" comes to mind. But more useful might be a reconsideration among newspaper executives about why their customers act one way but seemingly feel another.
They might market their durable, but challenged, product more aggressively. The audience still likes what they do. They just don't know they like it. So they need to be reminded why the newspaper and its Web component — even though reduced by budget restraints and staff cutbacks — often remain the first, best hope for word of what's happening on the local scene.
The Pew survey went beyond previous research in the field of news consumption because it not only asked 2,251 adults about where they got their news, but got them to break down their preferences depending on the subject matter they were looking for. The results showed TV news remains the No. 1 source for local news, with 74% of Americans saying they tune in at least once a week, usually to on-air programming, though sometimes to station websites.
Half of those surveyed said they get information once a week or more from newspapers or their websites. But the audience turned to newspapers for a much greater variety of information. Of the 16 subjects respondents were asked about, in 11 they said they got the most from newspapers. Newspapers were the No. 1 choice for those who wanted to know about community events, crime, taxes, local government, arts and culture, social services and development. Newspapers tied with other alternatives in four other subject areas: housing, schools, jobs and local political news.
Yet the Pew survey also found that Americans now turn to a variety of sources for their information, with no particular loyalty to any one. Fully 69% of those questioned (here comes the disconnect) said there would be little or no impact on their ability to keep up with local news without their newspaper. And nearly half of adults, 45%, said they do not have a favorite local news source.
Welcome to a nation of news grazers. They will forage wherever they think they must to get the information they want. Many don't express loyalty to a single news brand.
The good news for newspapers is that they are looked to as authoritative on far more topics than other media, including TV, radio, stand-alone websites and newsletters. The challenge for them is that some of these areas of interest are "civic" matters, like zoning decisions, school board votes and changes in social services. Readers would likely agree that those subjects become the most important on occasion, but don't feel pressing on a day-to-day basis.
One reason that TV news remains the top platform: It's the No. 1 choice of those who want weather and breaking news. And those are the most popular topics for people looking for information.
The bad news for newspapers is that even regular readers seem to have faith that the stories they get today will flow into eternity, regardless of the revolutionary reconfiguration of the news ecosystem and the serious fraying of outlets supported by ads.
"The assumption seems to be that this information is a commodity, that it's free and it's omnipresent," said Tom Rosenstiel, principal author of the Project for Excellence in Journalism report. "That may not be true, particularly with this civic information that newspapers are primary in producing. It's quite possible, if the newspaper disappeared, that the information would disappear along with it."
Even newspapers that have built large audiences online are still struggling with the riddle of how to "monetize" that traffic. Can advertising eventually bring in enough revenue to maintain sizable newsrooms? If not, will online charges and mobile apps be able to make up the difference? Or is there a third way? The Pew study did not ask those questions. And no one else has been able to come up with a definitive answer.
In the meantime, newspapers could do a lot more to tell their unique stories to the public. It's seldom in many towns that that you see advertisements for the local paper — outside the "house" ads that promote the local daily to people who already get it. Where is the radio spot or billboard campaign to plug the star sports columnist or the government scandal the paper just exposed? Those promotions, once fairly routine, have become an endangered species. What about TV ads that celebrate the brave foreign correspondent or the feature series you won't read anywhere else?
Straining to sustain their cash flows, newspapers have cut promotion budgets to almost nothing. That's left them vulnerable to competition and also to the conventional wisdom — that they only compete in print and that print can't go on.
The new survey results show that the public continues to rely on newspapers. They can't be reminded enough that they also need them until a better alternative presents itself.