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News Youse Use

A new survey of more than 1,500 Philadelphians sheds light on what people really want from local media. (Spoiler alert: The Citizen does a lot of it!)

News Youse Use

A new survey of more than 1,500 Philadelphians sheds light on what people really want from local media. (Spoiler alert: The Citizen does a lot of it!)

“Local news is a democratic staple.”

— The News Philadelphians Use: Analyzing The Local Media Landscape, 2023

At a time when communities across the nation are reportedly more divided than ever, a new report reveals some undeniable universals, at least among Philadelphians.

A survey of more than 1,500 Philadelphians from throughout the city — conducted online and via phone and mail — explored folks’ perceptions of local media. The report, The News Philadelphians Use: Analyzing the Local Media Landscape, was led by The Center for Media Engagement, with funding from The Lenfest Institute and Independence Public Media Foundation and analyzed more than 60,000 local articles. Comparing the survey findings with the media analyses allowed researchers to examine where there are gaps in what they dubbed “the news ecosystem.”

With few exceptions, Philadelphians agreed: They want more stories focused on solutions; more stories focused on crime and safety; and, yes, more stories focused on trash and parking.

Those are just some of the findings from the report, which The Lenfest Institute commissioned “to try to help all Philadelphia news media best serve our diverse city,” explains Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of The Lenfest Institute. “A number of coverage gaps emerged, including key topics, specific geographies, and an overall thirst for journalism that presents tangible solutions to the city’s biggest challenges.”

“Even in places where maybe they don’t have the best experiences yet with media, they’re still really eager to be involved.” — Talia Stroud

Talia Stroud, director of the Center for Media Engagement at University of Texas at Austin, led the team behind the study; here, she explains why the findings matter not only to news creators – but to all citizens, and to the future of our democracy.

Jessica Blatt Press: First things first: Why do you think local journalism is important?

Talia Stroud: I definitely think that journalism can be a force for good. And there’s a lot of research that helps to back that up, like the research looking at what happens when local news disappears, or a prominent local news organization shuts down, or the amount of reporting is cut back or the number of reporters decline.

And the results of that research are pretty persuasive that there’s something really important about a robust local news ecosystem. Without it, you see things like citizens participating less in politics. You see people knowing less about who represents them in government. There’s even some research suggesting that representatives work less on behalf of their constituents. Local news plays a really critical role in our democratic system.

When you looked at the findings from this new report, what surprised you?

There were actually a lot of surprises. For one thing, compared to a similar study we conducted in Chicago several years back, in Philadelphia there was kind of more of a general malaise about the media and how it’s serving different neighborhoods. And I think that’s actually really important to think about, how people are orienting and how that plays out.

It was also interesting to see issues that were mentioned quite a bit by people in Philly as being really important to their neighborhoods and then see that they’re not getting a huge portion of that news. There are lots of reasons that that might be the case.

But it also could be perhaps an inspiration for some news organizations to say, Oh look: Maybe there is an entry point here that people really care about … Maybe there could be a little bit more coverage than what we’ve seen in the local media ecosystem. I really hope that that’s useful, and I think that some of the topics that emerged, I would not have guessed before we did this study.

You got your PhD here at Annenberg at Penn — you know Philly, so it probably didn’t surprise you that trash came up as much as it did, huh?

It probably shouldn’t have, but it honestly did. I didn’t expect it to be the second-most mentioned issue for people across Philly! It was higher than I would have guessed it to be.

What calls to action does the report underscore for local media outlets?

Thinking of things that made me hopeful: We asked people about their interest in getting involved in journalism.

Are you interested in talking to a journalist? Are you interested in volunteering to report on a public meeting, like a City Council meeting? It was encouraging that there were a fair number of people out there saying yeah, I would be willing to do that, I’m interested in talking to a journalist. I’m interested in getting involved.

So I think that’s a notable finding that even in places where maybe they don’t have the best experiences yet with media, they’re still really eager to be involved. That’s a call to action for media organizations to think about.

“There are all sorts of repercussions if you don’t have a robust local news environment. Local news plays a really critical role in our democratic system.” — Talia Stroud

For more than a decade I’ve been fascinated with engagement as a really promising strategy for newsrooms to adopt. And by engagement, I’m thinking about: How is there more of a relational dynamic between newsrooms and audiences, so that it’s not just: Here’s the product and you pay for it and that’s the transaction and it’s done, but, How do you build relationships?

Almost any other industry you can think of, they really do think about what the audience wants, and that’s really part of the product, that they’re designing and that they’re putting out there. There’s got to be a way for journalism to think about how they can engage their audience and think about their audience in ways that don’t detract from their democratic mission or that pull them too far in a business direction that’s antithetical to their democratic goals.

And then I think that the percentage of people who said that local media aren’t offering solutions to problems facing their community is another really big call to action. You all [at The Citizen] use solutions journalism and I think that there’s a clear demand for that, based on the survey results.

We were excited by the findings that we’re clearly meeting a need for solutions journalism, and proud that we fared well on covering issues people care about — like gun violence and trash. But we fell short when it came to people knowing about us.

There definitely was a match between the issues that the public was mentioning as affecting their neighborhoods, and the coverage that The Citizen is putting out there. So, I think the first part is to really figure out why is it that we’re not seeing more people naming The Citizen as important?

It could be because they don’t know about it. I suspect that that’s a good possibility. In which case, how do you get the name out there? How do you get in front of more people? How do you make sure that your organization is just at the tip of people’s tongues when they’re thinking about what’s my go-to media source?

“I didn’t expect [trash] to be the second-most mentioned issue for people across Philly!” — Stroud

Another alternative could be that people actually don’t really like coverage of the issues they care about! Those are the issues that are important to their neighborhoods, but they’re just not thinking that it’s great reading, or somehow it’s not compelling to them.

And if that’s what’s happening, then I think it’s a matter of, well, how can we change the way we’re doing the reporting to try to get people to really think about this or to do it in a different way? To me it seems encouraging that people are mentioning those issues and that across outlets in Philly, The Citizen is doing quite well in terms of covering those.

Now that the findings have been published, what does this lay the groundwork for?

Like all academics, I’m of the belief that this inspires the need for more research! And I actually think that some of the most promising research is exactly what we spoke about just a moment ago — some of this information exists in the information ecosystem, so why is it that people aren’t reporting greater satisfaction with the media out there? Is it because they don’t know? Is it because what’s offered isn’t exactly hitting the right spot? That’s actually a really interesting place to pursue additional research.

The other thing that I’m really hopeful for is that this is something that could galvanize not only media organizations, but also funders to say, Hey look at this, we see a critical gap here. This part of Philly isn’t being covered as much as it could be. Or these issues are really critical, but the public isn’t getting the information that they might want. And then, hopefully, they can put out calls to fund great coverage of sanitation or whatever it might happen to be.

So I’m hopeful that what we will see from a research perspective is that, two years from now, this has actually changed and there’s been more reporting and greater satisfaction with the issues that are covered in Philly. Because, really, our sincere reason for doing this work is that we hope it has an influence, and we hope that it is helpful.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Header photo: Wikimedia

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