September 23, 2011

How People Learn About Their Local Community

The role of the internet

The internet has already surpassed newspapers as a source Americans turn to for national and international news. [1] The findings from this survey now show its emerging role as a source for local news and information as well.

The internet has become a significant local information source

Among all adults, the internet is either the most popular source or tied with newspapers as the most popular source for five of the 16 local topics in the survey—from restaurants and businesses to housing, schools and jobs.

Among the 79% of Americans who are online, the internet is an even more significant source for local news and information. Looking just at this group, the internet is the first or second most important source for 15 of the 16 local topics examined. The internet ran a distinct third place for local crime news, a category for which internet users are more likely to turn to newspapers and television. However, for most local information topics asked about—from local restaurants to weather to politics to local businesses—internet users have found online-only sources that they rely upon—and this does not include the websites of legacy media.  [2]

Among adults under age 40, similarly, the internet rivals or surpasses other platforms on every single topic area except one (breaking local news). It is first or tied for first on 12 topics and a second choice for three others. This poses a major challenge to more traditional news providers, especially newspapers, which have often aspired to be a relatively comprehensive source of information on all of these topics. [3]

Beyond the topics for which it is the top source, the internet is often the second-most important source of information on a variety of other topics. They include community events, weather, and local arts and cultural activities. 

Interestingly, even as the web has gained traction, there is one major area where it still lags well behind—breaking news. Here, local television news (which includes local TV websites but is driven almost entirely by broadcasts) still well outpace online sources. Among all adults, 55% say they rely on local TV for breaking news, compared with 16% who say they rely on the internet and 14% who rely on newspapers.

The internet is a key source for peer-generated information

The two local topics for which the internet already takes the clearest lead, even when including adults with no access to the web, are restaurants and local businesses. With its ability to sort data quickly and assimilate large numbers of consumer reviews, the internet is gaining as a way to give people information that is personal and particular, such as what kind of nearby restaurant might be widely praised and patronized for a certain kind of cuisine. At the same time, the internet has also become a place where locally-oriented content creators can share material directly with specific audience groups that traditional news organizations have not covered comprehensively. (It is worth noting that this survey did not take account of location-based services that have just recently become available on mobile devices and are starting to be used by early adopters.) [4] 

In the past, reviews of restaurants and sometimes local businesses were provided by traditional news organizations – especially newspapers. At times, other companies provided guides that critiqued locale fare. Now, information services like Yelp, which offers citizen reviews and restaurant information, or, which carries local classifieds, are mainstays of this information in many communities. Those services might have been developed by traditional news companies but were not and the audience has gravitated to the new platforms. The newer online services are also helped by the fact that their material is permanently searchable and therefore more comprehensively available to would-be patrons in ways that traditional newspapers and broadcasts are not.

Only small percentages of adults said they relied most on social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter for local information.  Those sites are included in the internet category, but within this category run a distant third behind search engine and special topic sites.

The five topics for which the internet is the most relied upon source

Below is a detailed look at the local information topics where the internet is a primary source.

The websites of local newspapers and TV stations do not rank highly

It is noteworthy that the websites of traditional local news platforms do not register at major levels on most of the subjects probed in the survey. It could be the case that those websites are not the most important source that people rely upon but they still see value in those sites as a supplemental resource or as a starting point for deeper research on a local topic that matters to them. According to online traffic data of news websites, for instance, legacy media—and particularly newspapers—tend to rank quite high relative to other sources. [5]  Still, taking people at their word about legacy media online, there are some topics on our list that websites of news organizations could conceivably be even more potent than traditional newspapers or TV broadcasts and yet they are not. These include breaking news, weather, crime, and activities related to topics that are highly personalized like restaurants, housing and real estate, community events, and jobs.

In none of our topics did more than 6% of respondents say they depended on the website of a legacy news organization. Some 6% said they relied on a TV station’s website for weather information and that was the high mark for any traditional news organization’s web operation. In addition 5% said they relied on a TV station website when there was breaking news in their community, and 3% relied on local TV websites for local political news. After that, TV news websites barely registered.

Some 5% said the website of their local newspaper was the platform they most relied upon to get crime news. On that topic the printed newspaper was considerably ahead of other platforms as the most relied-upon resource. Newspaper websites had a small foothold on some other subjects, as well.  Four percent cited the newspaper site as their primary source for local political information, while 3% said it was their primary source for breaking news, local jobs, taxes, arts and cultural news, restaurants, and local taxes.


1. Pew Research Center, “Internet Gains on Television as Public’s Main News Source.” Available at: 

2. The figures for those relying on the internet for particular topics do not include people who specified that they accessed the websites of local newspapers or television stations.  For purposes of this report, these respondents are considered newspaper or television users, respectively. Those who cite the internet as their main source for a particular topic, then, are those who turn to the internet generally, use a search engine, or go to specialty websites for that topic. Social networking sites and mobile phone users were coded separately as well. Only very small percentages of adults said they turn to social networks for local news.

3. Social networking sites and mobile phone users were coded separately as well. Only very small percentages of adults said they turn to social networks for local news.

4. For more on these services, see “28% of American Adults Use Mobile and Social Location-Based Services,” available at

5. In the top roughly 200 news web sites, an analysis of Nielsen Media Research data found 67% were from legacy media and nearly half (48%) newspapers, many of them local papers. Project for Excellence in Journalism, Nielsen Study, March 14, 2010;