Understand: Local Journalism and Its Audience


Local Journalism and Its Audience

The landscape of local journalism is undergoing a critical transformation marked by dwindling revenues, job cuts, and closures, primarily attributed to the digitisation of information environments. This shift prompts a crucial question: How can local media outlets adapt to the digital era to retain or regain audiences and, consequently, attract advertisers? This study, conducted in Denmark by Lene Heiselberg and David Nicolas Hopmann (Centre for Journalism at the Department of Political Science and Public Management, University of Southern Denmark), employs a mixed-methods audience research approach to unravel the desires and needs of local journalism audiences, exploring functional, symbolic, emotional, and economic values.

Local journalism, vital for community cohesion, faces a challenging cycle where declining resources lead to lower-quality content, further driving audiences away and diminishing revenues. The 21st century, characterised by the dominance of the Internet and social media, poses unprecedented challenges to traditional local media, contributing to the rise of ‘news deserts,’ areas devoid of continuous journalistic coverage. This decline threatens democratic systems, accountability, and crucial local information.

The study distinguishes three audience categories: non-paying, potential-paying, and paying. While all prioritise informative content, paying audiences emphasise symbolic and emotional values, seeking a sense of belonging and personally meaningful content. Non-paying audiences stress the need for improved quality.

Quantitative analysis reveals that 61% of participants are unwilling to pay for local journalism, while 28% are potentially willing, and 11% are already paying. Surprisingly, the perceived relevance of being informed about local affairs is high across all groups, challenging the notion that non-paying audiences don’t value local news. Participants who do not want to pay for local news do not express wants and needs for symbolic and emotional values of local journalism to the same degree as participants who (might) pay for local journalism. Instead, participants who do not pay and participants who might pay emphasise functional values.

The results of the research conducted for this study indicate three paths for local media outlets to increase their audiences: (1) communicate and/or clarify the symbolic and emotional values of local journalism, (2) increase quality regarding the functional values of local journalism, and (3) increase relevance regarding the functional values of local journalism.

Few quotes touch upon the economic value of local journalism, with business owners recognising the relevance of staying informed about local events for economic gain. The study suggests that revitalising local journalism requires prioritising unique, emotionally engaging content, clarifying symbolic values, and enhancing functional quality. Understanding audience preferences is crucial for local media outlets to refine their strategies and to ensure the survival and relevance of local journalism in the digital age.

Heiselberg, L., & Hopmann, D. N. (2024). Local journalism and its audience. Journalism, 0(0).


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