Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Local Matters Again?

Buried deep in a new Pew poll's methodology section is a question about how often folks follow local news and compares 2011 results with previous years.  Respondents were asked if they follow local news closely only when something important is happening or whether they follow it closely whether or not something important is happening.

The results are surprising and, to some, comforting.  My message?  Don't get comfortable quite yet.

According to the survey methods section, from 2002 to 2008, the percent of people who followed local news whether or not something important was happening hovered around 56 or 57 percent of U.S. respondents.  In the current 2011 survey, 72 percent said they followed local news whether or not something important was happening.

Wow.  That's a helluva jump.

I did a 2010 study in Newspaper Research Journal that used some of the same data but examined changes from 1998 to 2008.  My results are somewhat different, odd since I used Pew data, but this may be a function of my analysis strategy. Let's assume my data are somewhat different.  If so, the jump in the interest in local news demonstrated by the Pew report is stunning and, to me, while welcome -- also inexplicable.  Without access to the raw data for comparison purposes, let's look instead at changes in some of the other questions over time to see if we can find an explanation.
  •  The report includes a jump in "national" news interest (mid-50s most of the time to 68 percent in the latest report), which supports a change in local as well.
  • But, "international" interest doesn't follow the same trend.  This one jumps around a lot, probably due to current events in that given year.  Let's put it aside.
  • Here's my major methodological issue.  In previous Pew surveys, the "local" question comes late in the instrument after many questions about specific media use.  In the 2011 version, the "local" question comes quite early -- the sixth question asked.  In 2008, as a comparison, it's the 77th question asked.  It's possible these items were rotated in some random way, but if so I don't see it discussed.  It's likely respondents were primed differently when "local" news is asked after a long list of potential media consumption habits.  If I'm right, the jump is questionable, making comparisons across time problematic.
So we can't get to excited about the jump in local news interest, at least not until we find out whether it may be a methodological fluke rather than evidence of a sudden burning desire in the American public for local news.

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