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Pew: Local news undergoes radical change

The Internet will soon become the nation’s number one source for local news. Growing rapidly in influence, the Internet has finally overtaken newspapers and is just behind TV in a transitional sweep that is forever changing the landscape of local news and the outlets that matter to a younger generation of news consumers.

The problem for all traditional news organizations, including broadcasters, is that by far the largest share of that online ad revenue goes to non-news sources, particularly to news aggregators. The findings are in a “State of the News Media” report produced by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project in association with the Knight Foundation.

Technological advances have added a new layer of complexity, and a new set of players, to connecting local news content to consumers and advertisers. Today, 47 percent of news consumers get their information on a mobile device.

In the digital space, the organizations that produce the news increasingly rely on independent networks to sell their ads. They depend on aggregators and social networks, such as Google and Facebook, respectively, to bring them a substantial portion of their audience.

As news consumption becomes more mobile, news companies must follow the rules of device makers and software developers to deliver their content. Each new platform often requires a new software program, and the new players take a share of the revenue. They also, in many cases, control the audience data.

Pew said that in a media world where consumers decide what news they want to get and how they want to get it, the future will belong to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to fit the interests of each user. That knowledge, and the expertise in gathering it, increasingly resides with technology companies outside the journalism business.

In today’s environment, software programmers, content aggregators and device makers increasingly control access to the public. The news industry, late to adapt and culturally more tied to content creation than engineering, finds itself as more of a follower than a leader in shaping its business, Pew said.

The report found that nearly half of news consumers use a mobile device for weather, information about restaurants and other local businesses and traffic. Thirty percent of cell and tablet users check their devices for local news, 24 percent for local sports scores and 22 percent for local traffic and transportation information.

The migration to the mobile Web also continues to gather speed, and institutions like the Weather Channel are hurting local media.

“Local media cannot hope to compete with a TV network devoted to weather, especially one with a strong mobile strategy,” the report said. Last year, the Weather Channel app for iPhone topped 10 million downloads.

The survey provides the latest snapshot of the typical mobile phone news consumer. Users of local news apps are disproportionately younger, better educated and more likely to be black or Hispanic. The youngest demographic studied, 18-29, is the most likely to access local news and information via their mobile devices across almost every content category.

Additionally, mobile local news consumers are not dedicated to one news sources. More than half (51 percent) reports using six or more sources/platforms monthly to get local news and information. More news consumers also used social media to find local news. And according to the report, 75 percent of mobile local news consumers use social networking websites.

In 2010, every news platform except the Internet saw audiences either stall or decline. Cable news, one of the growth sectors of the last decade, is now shrinking too. For the first time in at least a dozen years, the median audience of all three major news channels declined.

For the first time, too, more people said they got news from the Web than newspapers. The Internet now trails only TV among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing. Financially, the tipping point also has come. When the final tally is in, online ad revenue in 2010 is projected to surpass print newspaper ad revenue for the first time.

Traditional newsrooms, the report said, are different places than they were before the recession. They are smaller, their aspirations have narrowed and their journalists are stretched thinner. But their leaders also say they are more adaptive, younger and more engaged in multimedia presentation, aggregation, blogging and user content. In some ways, new media and old, slowly and sometimes begrudgingly, are coming to resemble each other, the report said.

The result is a news ecology full of experimentation and excitement, but also one that is uneven, has uncertain financial underpinning and some clear holes in coverage. Some also worry that with lower pay, more demands for speed, less training and more volunteer work, there is a general devaluing and what scholar Robert Picard has called a “deskilling” of the profession.