The days of relying on a print newspaper and a television anchor telling us "the way it is" are long gone. In 2011, Americans and citizens the world over consume news on multiple screens and platforms. Increasingly, we all contribute reports ourselves, using Internet-connected smartphones.

A new report on local news by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project provides reason to be hopeful about new information platforms. But the report also reveals deep concern about the decay of local newspapers, and what that will mean for local government accountability.

"Research in the past about how people get information about their communities tended to focus on a single question: 'Where do you go most often to get local news?'," noted Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Pew Excellence in Journalism project and co-author of the new report, in a prepared statement. "This research asked about 16 different local topics and found a much more complex ecosystem in which people rely on different platforms for different topics. It turns out that each piece of the local information system has special roles to play. Our research sorted that out and we found that for some things TV matters most, for others newspapers and their websites are primary sources, and the Internet is used for still other topics."

Specifically, the report found that Americans rely on local TV for information about popular local topics, including weather (89% use TV for this information), breaking news (80%), local politics (67%) and crime (66%). Americans use newspapers for breadth and depth of many more topics, particularly with respect to local government information. Newspapers supply "broccoli journalism" about the least popular topics, including zoning and development information (30%), local social services (35%), job openings (39%) and local government activities (42%). These are topics that other local news institutions don't often deliver.

The role of the Internet grows

In the latest confirmation of the growth of the Internet in modern life, we're increasingly going online when we're interested in gathering information about specific local services, searching for information about education, restaurants, and business news, logging onto social media and accessing mobile devices to find and share what we learn ourselves.

"The rise of search engines and specialty websites for different topics like weather, job postings, businesses, and even e-government have fractured and enriched the local news and information environment," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project and another report co-author, in a prepared statement.

Nearly half of adults (47%) now use mobile devices to get local news and information. The proliferation of smartphones, iPad apps and new platforms offers insight into a rapidly expanding mobile future.

"We don't yet know exactly how important mobile apps will be, but it's pretty easy to sketch out a scenario where they rise in importance, especially when it comes to breaking news, weather, traffic, local politics and some of the more popular local topics," said Rainie in an interview.

The Internet has become a key source for peer-generated information. In fact, the survey showed that among adults under age 40, the Internet rivals or exceeds other platforms in every topic area save one: breaking local news. According to the study, the Internet has now become American adults' key source for five broad areas of information:

  • Restaurants, clubs and bars.
  • Local businesses.
  • Local schools.
  • Local jobs.
  • Local housing and real estate.

The websites of local newspapers and TV stations aren't faring well, in terms of how the respondents rated their importance as a local news source. "Local TV news websites barely registered," reads the report, with less than 6% of those surveyed indicating that they depended on a legacy media organization's website for local news.  

One clear finding from this report is that social media currently plays a small role in providing local information that citizens say they rely upon, with 18% using Facebook and 2% turning to Twitter. "Social media look more like a supplemental source of information on these local topics than a primary, deeply-relied-upon source," said Rainie, in an interview. "That's not too surprising to me. Local information is just one of the many things that people discuss and share on SMS and Twitter." 

While the report showed that citizens don't rely on social media for local news, they are definitely discussing it there. "Participatory news" is a full-blown phenomenon: 41% of respondents can be considered "participators" who publish information online. That said, such information is frequently about restaurants and community events, versus harder news.