Questions with Lee Shaker

Spotlight on Research

Who Reads Local News?

Questions with Lee Shaker

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

Who is more inclined to read local versus national or international news? How do these attitudes vary across generations? Lee Shaker, an associate professor of communication at Portland State University, examines these questions in a series of articles focused on media choice, civic engagement and millennial attitudes toward local news.

In a recent article comparing local, national, and international news preferences in the United States and Norway, Shaker studies individuals’ orientation toward news at different levels over time. Drawing on survey data from the Pew Research Center and TNS Gallup, Shaker argues that Norwegian audiences are growing increasingly specialized, focused only on one type of news.  In contrast, American audiences are growing increasingly disconnected, consuming less overall news.

In another article scrutinizing the relationship between local papers and civic engagement, Shaker uses US Census data to study civic engagement across America’s largest cities. Shaker profiles Denver and Seattle, which each suffered a local newspaper closure. He argues that in the wake of the newspaper closures, both cities experienced a significant decline in civic engagement.

In a final article, Shaker explores the reasons why millennials, who have largely delayed home-buying and child-rearing, are less inclined to closely monitor local issues. He argues that community attachment – the warmth people feel toward their residence or hometown – may be a bigger driver for millennial audiences than self-interest or civic duty.

In all of these articles, Shaker explores how changing communication technologies are affecting society through a local lens. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and previously served as a Senior Research Specialist at Princeton University.

How did you become interested in this topic and this research?

As a Ph.D. student focused on media, I developed an interest in studying the implications of technological change as I witnessed the rise of cable television, video games and the internet. Throughout my teens and early twenties, the media environment seemed to be changing around me at an accelerating pace and I felt that this presented a research opportunity. When I was beginning to think of dissertation topics, I read Markus Prior’s Post-Broadcast Democracy and was struck by his analyses connecting changes in the media environment to American politics. His approach was elegant and his findings were startling—but I felt that he had not addressed the location of the largest changes in the media environment: cities and their local media. The difference between relying on network TV news and cable TV news was important—but the possible elimination of local news almost entirely from many people’s media diets seemed even more consequential to me. It is messy and difficult to study local affairs, but the combined influence of state and local government upon people’s lives is formidable. This reality, in the sturm und drang of national politics, is often overlooked. So, I resolved to study the intersection of technological change, local media and politics.

What are some of the key differences in how millennials consume local news, compared to previous generations?

For generations, because of technological limitations, newspapers, radio stations and television stations were, by default, defined by geographical place. These media prominently featured local content—entertainment and news—and they were a routine, habitual part of life for people. Clearly, in the 21st century, the media environment is no longer dominated by media outlets with local origins. Modern technology enables media to reach national, even international, audiences—and so media outlets produce content that can appeal to people across geography. In a choice-driven media environment, local news must win attention (and resources) in constant competition with content that is often better funded and carefully tailored to appeal to very specific interests that transcend place.

In this environment, millennials do not experience as much consistent exposure to local news as their forebearers did. When habit and circumstance drove people to a newspaper or broadcast affiliate in the past, local news was at least an incidental part of daily life. Habit and circumstance for millennials revolve around digital media: the web, video games, streaming video, social media, and so on. Social media can offer incidental exposure to local news—but with much less regularity than the front page of the daily newspaper.

For millennials, news consumption is an option—not a routine. It is but one of many choices they can select during their daily media usage. So, if prior generations had to actively opt-out of local news, young people today have to actively opt-in to local news. Given the panoply of appealing media choices they have, the increasing demands on their time to work and seek higher education, and the frequent lack of meaningful civics education, they simply may not place a high value on local news. Prior generations may not have differed substantially on this last point—they just lacked the media variety present today. While newspaper subscribership is higher among older Americans, it has fallen across all age groups.

What are some of the major implications of your research?

Empirical literature that connects access to and use of local news media to local political knowledge, attitudes, and behavior is still relatively uncommon. My research suggests that local news media are an important component of healthy democracies at the community level. First, my research shows that simply living in a richer media environment—one that includes access to the myriad of choices offered by digital media—is correlated with lower levels of local political knowledge (even after controlling for various demographic factors including age, income, and education). Meanwhile, the relationship between use of local news and local political knowledge is clear, positive, and strong: people who use local news know much more about local politics than those who do not. In turn, local political knowledge predicts a host of local political behaviors—including voting. Separately, my research also shows that the decline of local media—specifically the closure of local newspapers—negatively impacts levels of civic engagement among citizens in the communities (formerly) served by the defunct newspapers.

What is next on your research agenda?

Looking forward, I am interested in exploring the relationship between the collapse of local media institutions and changes in the broader American political climate. For generations, Americans most-trusted news sources were often local. This made sense: much local news is non-controversial and local journalists both live in the communities they cover and are also fairly similar to the people they cover in meaningful ways. As these news organizations decline—and as the public turns away from them—it seems that people no longer know where to get news, what news to trust, or who to trust. Thus far, my work is focused on the implications of the decline of local media on cities and local affairs—but I suspect that there are also implications of the fall of local media for national matters as well.

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