Note: Adam Maksl, a doctoral student at the Missouri School of Journalism, was my research partner since the start of my 2009-2010 RJI fellowship. This is Adam’s summary of research he led for the project this summer – a survey of users of community news websites that were part of our list of promising local news start ups.
By Adam Maksl
Comparing your satisfaction with other local news sources such as newspaper or television, would you say your satisfaction with your community news site
Nearly two-thirds of respondents in our poll of users of new local news websites said they are more satisfied with that site than with their local mainstream media source.
"You get unique information that is not covered by mainstream news sources," said one survey participant. "I like the 'local' feel of the community. They seem very engaged in the community. I love that mom & pop businesses and individuals can have a voice."
The survey collected responses from 1,138 users of 19 community news websites, big and small, from all across the country, in an effort to better understand how the public is using these sources and what benefits they feel they receive from using them.
The survey also found:
- Users responding to the survey place a high degree of trust in their local sites, suggesting many find the new sites more credible than traditional media sources.
- Users go to the sites for original local news but they also see sites as important places to engage in community.
- More than a third of those responding say their local site is their primary local news source.
Trust and satisfaction
More than 83 percent of our survey respondents said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the local site.
How satisfied are you with your overall use of your community news site?
In an era where satisfaction with traditional news media is fairly low, as seen in several recent reports such as a 2009 Sacred Heart University poll, this shows promise for these newcomers, most of which have only been publishing for fewer than five years.
Asked about the benefits readers derive from reading their community news sites, one user commented that she felt she got "a news source I trust to report the truth about what is going on."
In fact, most users reported elements of trust very high. On a five-point scale, with five indicating that that the site was doing an excellent job, user responses rating fairness, relevance, accuracy, and credibility of coverage all averaged above four. In fact, nearly 80 percent of survey respondents gave a four or a five in each of these categories.
Mission of the site
When we asked community news site operators about the dominant missions of their sites in our survey released earlier this year, most rated the goal of "producing original news" as very high.
The current user survey mirrors those findings, suggesting that users, too, see that goal and derive great benefit from it. Nearly three-quarters of users said that they like the ability to access in-depth local news, and 41 percent said they liked being able to access local breaking news content.
Thinking about why you use your community news site, please indicate the benefits that you feel you can derive from it. (Check all that apply.)
Additionally, building or engaging communities was very high on the priorities of local news site operators, and many users likewise said that they derived great benefits from this focus on community. Nearly half of respondents said that they use the site to help interact with others in their local communities. One user said that she likes the ability to "interact to get questions answered about happenings in the community, especially as a new transplant."
Previous studies have found that traditional news sites have more interactive features than local online news start-ups. However, it may be that simpler features and more accessibility on start-ups are attracting higher engagement.
Users' satisfaction with community news websites seems to also show up in usage patterns, with a little more than a third of the respondents (36 percent) reporting that on most days, the community news site was their primary source of news.
The others said they get most news either from their local newspaper (35 percent) or another news website (31 percent). Television, which many other studies have shown to be a very dominant news source for consumers, was reported by only about 10 percent of this group as a primary source of news.
First, how often do you typically visit your community news site every month?
About half of survey respondents said they access the community news site at least once a day, with about a quarter saying that they access the site several times each day. During each visit, users say they spend an average of 13.3 minutes on the site.
The average age of the community new site users was about 46 years. Gender distribution is almost exactly equal, with females, at 52 percent, as a slight majority of readers. Most users are white/Caucasian (80 percent); the largest non-white group, Hispanics, accounted for about 6 percent of all respondents.
Most community news site readers are extremely well educated, with almost half of respondents reporting being college grads, and an additional third of respondents indicating they have a graduate degree. Finally, while the annual household income of respondents is skewed a little on the more affluent side, the distribution of income is fairly well distributed among our various groups. About a third make less than $50,000, a third between $50,000 and $100,000, and a third more than $100,000.
A note about methodology
We asked community news site operators to post links to the survey on their sites or to distribute to their users in some other way, such as an e-mail newsletter or Facebook post. Nineteen sites posted survey links. While the same questions were asked of all respondents, they were asked to answer them as they applied to only the site from which they accessed the survey.
In total, we received 1,138 complete responses. While 19 sites posted survey links, users from just four of the sites accounted for just over half of our total response. While this limits the generalizability of the results to some extent, statistical tests reveal that there is little difference between the four most prominent sites and the remaining 15 sites.