Neat trick: People want news coverage. They don’t want to pay for it

I was giving a ride to a person yesterday who was pretty adamant when she objected to the efforts by local newspapers to sell her a subscription. “The news is online … hello?” she exclaimed.

It’s too late to save a lot of newspapers and radio stations that have gone or are going under and part of the reason is nobody is doing a particularly good job of explaining  the connection between paying journalists to get the news and paying for their journalism.

Part of the reason for that, judging by today’s release of a report by the Pew Research Center for Journalism and the Media, is that journalism is really bad at covering the story of journalism.

It’s worth noting, for example, that there isn’t a single media outlet in the Twin Cities that still employs a journalist who covers the local media. Not one. So it can’t be surprising that the audience is oblivious to  the economics of the news industry.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed think their local media is “doing well” financially. But  nationally, only 14 percent have paid for it, and only 17 percent of Twin Citians have directly invested in local journalism but still expect it to be available to them.

They’re getting their news primarily from TV and online sources. Where do TV and online sources get most of their news? Newspapers.

“A hat-trick of depression” is a perfect description.

It’s difficult to say who’s out of touch with whom. Those surveyed say they want their local journalists to understand the community, and are divided on whether that’s the case, according to Pew.

Less consensus exists, however, on whether the local news media clear this bar. On the positive side, most Americans (63%) say their local journalists are generally in touch with the community, but about a third (34%) say they are out of touch. At the same time, a minority (37%) says the local media have a lot of influence in the community, and just 21% have ever personally spoken with a local journalist.

The next question is: Does it matter? To what degree does that sense of community connection relate to job approval? Quite a bit, it turns out.

Community residents who see their local journalists as connected to the area give their local news media far higher ratings than those who do not. For example, those who say journalists are in touch with their community are 31 percentage points more likely to say their local media do a good job of dealing fairly with all sides – 73%, compared with 42% among those who say their media are out of touch. Similarly, 35% of those whose local media cover the area where they live say they are very confident in their main local news source, compared with 25% of those whose local media cover a different geographic area.

As for what people are most interested in in the “news,” it’s not the news at all. It’s the weather.

Pew says what local media provides access to isn’t usually what people want.

It’s quite possible, of course, that people responding to the survey are fibbing about what they want. We hear no end to the laments about “weather hype,” for example, and yet the data shows that people can’t get enough of it.

Do they really wants more crime news? Do they really want less sports? Or are they just reluctant to say they like sports?

Minneapolis-St Paul residents who were surveyed  track the national results. Only 10 percent prefer radio for news, and 39 percent prefer TV. Print gets only 16 percent of the audience.

Twin Citians don’t want sports, they don’t want arts and culture, and they don’t want information about restaurants and bars, according to Pew. At least not the way they want their crime stories and weather.

Twenty-three percent of Twin Citians say local journalists are out of touch with them. But 82 percent of those surveyed have never talked to a local journalist.

But 80 percent say the local media reports news accurately. Sixty-eight percent says “people like you” are included in news stories, which seems too high from my vantage point.

The partisanship which separates views of the news media at a local level doesn’t seem to filter down as severely when considering local news, and there’s good reason for that considering the survey’s finding about where people turn for news. They’re talking TV. And when referring to journalists and the media nationally, people are mostly talking about TV cable news channels. Local TV reporters, not so much.  Newspaper reporters, not at all.

There’s nothing in the survey that suggests Americans are going to get anything more in the future than more talking heads and pundits. As print journalism dies, the diggers won’t be digging.

We can debate about whom to blame for the problem, but it’s hard to overlook the survey’s biggest disconnect: people like being informed; they just don’t want to pay for it.