Research Suggests ‘Local’ News is more Fluid than Fixed in Place

Research by a San Diego State University professor is challenging our definitions of what local news is, and could have an impact on the ways journalists tailor their product to their audiences in the future.

News organizations today need to move beyond their antiquated definitions of location and dive deeper into the nuances of geographic spaces in this digital and mobile media era, wrote associate professor Amy Schmitz Weiss in a new journal article featured in Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture.

News organizations today need to move beyond their antiquated definitions of location and dive deeper into the nuances of geographic spaces in this digital and mobile media era,

Amy Schmitz Weiss, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University

Schmitz Weiss’ paper features a survey of 979 people, and one-third of them report getting geolocated news – online information tailored to their location. The survey and other research have led the professor to these observations, expressed in the article and an interview:

  • Just because news happens in a reader’s town doesn’t mean the reader considers it local news. The reader may care more about something in another town that is physically closer to them. According to the survey, the main factors used by readers to assess a news event’s relevance are their distance from it, their travel time to it and the neighborhood where it occurred. The fact that it occurred in the same city as them was less important.

  • What a person considers local news is fluid, not fixed. The definition of “local” is different if a person is working at home than it would be if the same person was driving in a different part of town looking for a restaurant.

  • Communities for local news can be virtual as well as geographical. If you’re interested in a sports team in another city, your online reading profile may be similar to a person who lives two blocks from the home stadium.

Pew Research Center
Amy Schmitz Weiss, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University

We tend to get stuck in these original silos of thinking of proximity as the city you live in or the region or in some cases the neighborhood, Schmitz Weiss says. … But when someone actually identifies what they think is news near them, it might be a three-block vicinity or it might be the community center that is in their neighborhood that they feel is the crucial focal point of what makes news proximate to them.

Schmitz Weiss calls her field of study “spatial journalism.”

It’s basically looking at a different way of storytelling today that explores how much space or place or location is a crucial element in the process of doing journalism as well it being an element for the news consumer and how they get their news, she says.

In previous research, Schmitz Weiss found news organizations were slow to use geo-location to improve how they deliver relevant news to their readers. Meanwhile, Google is geo-locating.

When you look at the technology they’re using, whether you go through a browser or you’re going through your phone, particularly if you’re going through your phone, they have a better sense of where you are located, in terms of providing news to you, through whatever news organizations are feeding into the Google news engine, than any news organization would, Schmitz Weiss says. So they actually have a better sense of consumers.

They could be eating the lunch of news organizations because they have the technology and sophistication to know this, she added.

This is a key area of potential improvement for news organizations.

Part of it is having an understanding of knowing who is their community and knowing how the community defines what is local to them or proximate to them, and I think there’s a gap there.

Amy Schmitz Weiss, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University

Part of it is having an understanding of knowing who is their community and knowing how the community defines what is local to them or proximate to them, she says. And I think there’s a gap there.

Do you have feedback on our stories? Do you want to share observations about the local news crisis? Can you suggest stories that we should write or topics to explore?

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About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.

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