Wednesday, July 13, 2022

News engagement down, as audiences tire of national topics; can local news leverage that for a comeback?

By Al Cross
Director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

First there was this, at the start of this year:
Axios graph by Kavya Beheraj
Then there was this update, covering the first half of this year:
Axios graf by Will Chase
The headlines on the graphs are different, but the measurements are the same, and so is the message: Americans' consumption of news content through major electronic means since Donald Trump left office continues to plummet, "and in some cases has fallen below pre-pandemic levels," report Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild of Axios.

"The steep drop-off in social-media engagement with news was likely influenced by Facebook's de-emphasizing news in the News Feed as it seeks to move news consumption to its News Tab," but "The percentage of respondents to Reuters Institute's annual Digital News Report that said they sometimes or often actively avoid the news is 42% in 2022, up slightly from 38% in 2017."

Fischer and Rothschild conclude, "Americans have grown exhausted from the constant barrage of bad headlines that have replaced Trump-era crises, scandals and tweets. . . . The war in Ukraine, a series of deadly mass shootings, the Jan. 6 hearings and the Supreme Court's revocation of abortion rights haven't been able to capture the same level of attention spurred by the onset of the pandemic and the 2020 election."

So, what has replaced that sort of news in Americans' media diet? "A country facing one calamity after another appears desperate for diversions," Fischer and Rothschild write. "Sports and celebrity trials have often overshadowed hard news over the last two years."

But what about local news? The metrics cited by Axios are skewed toward national and international news, and likely don't include much community or rural journalism. But there is no reason to think that the audiences for such journalism behave much differently than more urban audiences. The torrent of online information leaves readers with less time to consume local news, which is often not as interesting or entertaining as what they are getting from outside their community. But as Americans turn their attention away from national and international news, it creates a vacuum that local news should fill.

In an earlier piece, written after the Reuters report, Axios leaders Mike AllenErica Pandey and Jim VandeHei offer suggestions for balancing your news diet, and the first one is, "Find sources you trust, and stick to them. Quit getting your news on endless social feeds, which can be littered with misinformation." Another: Remember that most of the world is normal. For every bad or sad story, there are lots of uplifting ones that get lots less attention." Local news outlets need to keep that advice in mind, and share it on all available platforms with their audiences -- and with potential audiences, which include people who once paid attention to local news and might do so again.

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