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Major survey of news consumption highlights challenges for entire industry

A sweeping, in-depth survey of the news consumption habits of Chicago-area residents by researchers at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University captures the tectonic shift to smartphone usage from television and print newspapers, and finds that half of consumers believe no one should pay for journalism.

The survey of 1,004 people, one of the largest examinations ever of news consumption habits in the Chicago area, identifies numerous notable findings. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, or 62%, said they use their smartphones to get local news all the time or often, compared to 52% who watch news on television all the time or often. Thirteen percent of respondents said they read traditional newspapers and magazines often or all the time, while only a limited number of residents (19%) pay or donate money for access to local journalism.

In one of the survey’s most significant findings, Medill’s researchers identified a lack of public awareness of the financially perilous state of local news. A majority of those surveyed (54%) believe local news outlets are doing “somewhat well” financially. Another 17% said they are doing “very well,” meaning that in total, 71% of respondents don’t know the news business is in crisis. Research by the Medill Local News Initiative has chronicled in detail the alarming pace at which news organizations under financial duress are shrinking or disappearing, creating “news
deserts” in communities across the country.

The disconnect between performance and awareness has profound implications for the future of journalism because many local newsrooms need to persuade more consumers to become paying customers for digital news to make up for weak online advertising revenue. But audiences not only don’t believe the news business is suffering, they are skeptical about who, if anyone, should pay for news. About half (51%) of Chicago-area residents said no one should pay for news. Another 27% of respondents said those who can pay should pay.

Much smaller numbers said those who read the most should pay, or everyone should pay. “The most solid pillar of local news is reader revenue, digital subscriptions, or memberships,” said Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Medill and one of the authors of the survey. “If half of people think that no one should have to pay for news, that shows the news business model has some headwinds.”

The survey, published as a 64-page report, “The Medill Survey: How the Chicago Area Gets its News,” was conducted by faculty of the Medill School with funding by the MacArthur Foundation. The authors are Medill Professor Stephanie Edgerly, Associate Dean of Research; Assistant Professor Yu Xu; along with Franklin, who is also John M. Mutz Chair in Local News and Director of the Medill Local News Initiative. NORC at the University of Chicago, on Medill’s behalf, surveyed adults throughout the 14-county metro area, including parts of southern Wisconsin and northwest Indiana, via a mixture of phone and web methods. The margin of error was +/- 4.66%.

While the survey focused on the Chicago region, the results may bea microcosm of the fast-changing landscape for local news across the country. The study’s goal was to examine the current state of the public’s interest in and reliance on local news, as well as readership, viewership and listenership habits. The survey also explored other views on journalism, including motivations for consuming news and attitudes related to the trustworthiness of reporters to perform their roles well.

Some of the survey’s key findings include:

The public generally remains engaged in following news events. About half (53%) of adults consume local news once or multiple times a day.

There are strong generational differences in reader interest, with almost two-thirds (62%) of adults ages 60+ consuming local news once or multiple times daily, compared to just 39% of people ages 18-29.

The generational difference is also profound for television viewership: While 66% of adults 60+ watch local TV news daily, that number drops to only 22% for 18-29 year-olds.

Chicago-area consumers are fairly positive about what they consume. About half (53%) trust local news media to get things right, a higher portion than found nationally (44%), according to a different study of local news.

While most respondents (85%) have never met a local journalist, 43% said they were interested in attending a meet-and-greet with local reporters.

A principal goal of the study is to give news organizations, journalists, philanthropists, scholars and other interested parties a better understanding of consumers’ behaviors. “Armed with these insights, key stakeholders can explore new pathways to better meet the public’s news needs and explore new business models to support the local journalism our communities need,” Edgerly said.

While the Medill report confirms the impact of technological change on local news consumption habits, it also suggests that some basic assumptions by journalists and civic leaders about how the public values local news may no longer be true. Industry leaders have made passionate arguments in defense of financially struggling newspapers, warning that democratic traditions are at stake because journalists are watchdogs of public interest whose work binds citizens to
communities. But that perspective isn’t widely recognized.

The survey found that the main reason people said they consume local news and information is to meet the needs of everyday life. Specifically, 60% of respondents consume news because it “helps me save and manage money,” while 52% consume news because it “helps me stay healthy.” Far down the list are “helps me feel connected to my community” (15%) as well as “helps me take action to address issues I care about” (12%) and “helps me stay informed to be a better citizen” (10%).

“The big push by philanthropy and policymakers right now to provide money for local news is in a democracy framework: More robust local news helps improve the democratic institutions of a community and the country,” Franklin said. “This survey suggests that message isn’t taking hold with the public yet and there’s more work to do to make the public aware of what’s at stake with the loss of local news. While we as journalists attach altruistic reasons for our work and why people come to local news, many of them are tuning in or reading in a transactional way.”

The report includes a conclusion urging stakeholders with an interest in a free and vigorous press to play a role in elevating local news at a moment when it is under siege. The report also features a brief history of Chicago journalism to offer further perspective on the important findings of the survey.

“How the Chicago Area Gets Its News” is a product of the Medill Local News Initiative, a research and development project aimed at bolstering the sustainability of local news.

Giving Back Home

Medill’s Fight to Save Local News

Local and regional newspapers, many of them more than 100 years old, going out of business. Broadcast media shrinking. Online startups folding after blowing through millions of dollars in initial funding. And throughout the industry, journalists losing jobs.

In recent years, through its Local News Initiative, the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications has gone beyond its traditional role of undergraduate and graduate education, launching a number of outreach programs to assist media professionals in combating the industry’s troubling trends and to help high schools educate young journalists.

“The role of the modern journalism school cannot simply be the training of future journalists and marketers. The industries that we serve are in such turmoil that if our students are to have jobs, to have industries to go into, those industries need leadership, research and someone from outside the industry to help them think outside of the box and chart a path forward,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “So it’s in our vested interest to step outside of what our traditional role was and provide the leadership, the innovation, the creative thinking to enable these organizations and entities to continue. Otherwise, if they implode and cease to function, there will be no place for our students to go.”

This special edition of the Medill magazine takes a look at the Local News Initiative and its outreach programs.

If you want to know the state of journalism in the U.S. today, your best source is the website of Medill’s Local News Initiative,

From the sobering info contained in an annual report on the state of local news to success stories that illustrate what’s working, the site provides an up-to-date look at the journalism industry. But for those willing to drill a bit deeper, the site also details the pathbreaking work of the Local News Initiative, a key project of Medill.

Founded in 2017, the LNI is an innovative research and development project with the goal of reinventing the relationship between news organizations and audiences while developing new approaches to local news business models. The LNI is led by Professor Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News and Director of the Medill Local News Initiative. Franklin came to Medill from the Poynter Institute after a distinguished career in which he served as the top editor of The Indianapolis Star, Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun.

“A goal of the Local News Initiative is to do what Medill and a university can uniquely do: impactful research about the
local news industry and local news audiences,” Franklin said.

Unquestionably the most visible product of the LNI has been its annual report on the state of local news, which is led by Visiting Professor Penny Abernathy. The 2023 report, which came out last November, garnered headlines across the country with its grim finding that the U.S. was losing 2.5 local newspapers a week and that 204 counties now have no access or very limited access to local news — “news deserts.” In addition, using metrics developed by Medill’s data scientists, researchers and faculty members, the report identified another 228 counties at risk of becoming news deserts.

However, the report, the LNI website, and the LNI itself now also shine a light on local news bright spots, those media outlets that are succeeding in attracting audiences, doing high-quality journalism — and even making money — in today’s challenging media environment. Creating more of those successes is also a key goal of the LNI.

“We want people to know the challenges around local news — and they are considerable — but we also want to be inspiring new ideas to help local news outlets figure out new business models going forward. And we want to work directly with news organizations to help them become sustainable over the long term,” Franklin said.

To do that, the LNI has created or expanded a number of programs aimed at bolstering local news (see related stories on following pages). While a number of the programs are focused on the Chicago area, the LNI’s research and work includes news organizations across the U.S. The Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, done in conjunction with the Spiegel Research Center, includes more than 100 news organizations from across the country and provides local digital readership and benchmarking data to new outlets big and small for free.

In doing so, Medill hopes to develop models for local news that, while probably different from what media have done in the past, will enable journalism to continue to benefit society, said Dean Charles Whitaker.

“Is that possible? I absolutely think it’s possible. Do I think we’re going to save local news as it has traditionally existed? No. But the goal is to determine what local news and journalism should look like in the rest of the 21st century,” Whitaker said.

“The goal is to preserve vehicles of information that will function as a way for our communities to see themselves, that will serve as another pillar of democracy that will be a bulwark against authoritarianism,” Whitaker added. “I’m agnostic about what form that takes, I just want us to help figure out what that form is. The goal is to ensure local
news, a reliable source of credible information that citizens can turn to, that we can agree upon and that is trusted by everyone, in order to preserve democracy.”

Support for the Local News Initiative and the launch of its programs has come from major grants from the McCormick Foundation, Knight Foundation, Lilly Endowment, other foundations and significant gifts from John Mutz (BSJ57, MSJ58) and Mark Ferguson (BSJ80). Medill now is seeking additional funding from other organizations and from alumni.

After an initial grant of $300,000 from the Lilly Endowment and the Mutz gift, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation made a grant of $1 million in 2019 and then followed up with a $2.4 million grant in 2022 to launch the Local
News Accelerator.

In addition to Lilly and McCormick, the Local News Initiative has received grants and gifts from the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Microsoft, Google, SNPA Foundation, Myrta Pulliam Charitable Trust and the KAS USA Foundation.

In 2017, Mutz contributed $250,000 to help launch the Local News Initiative and then followed up with a $2 million gift in 2020 to endow a professorship in local news. Tim Franklin,

Medill’s senior associate dean and professor, is the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News and the Director of the Local News Initiative.

While a student at Medill, Mutz worked on the copy desk at the Indianapolis News. However, he did not go into journalism, entering politics after a short stint in public relations. He served in the Indiana legislature and was elected lieutenant governor of the state before then going into private business and philanthropy. He was the president of PSI Energy, the largest utility in Indiana, and then headed the Lilly Endowment Inc., one of the world’s largest private foundations. Two of Mutz’s children and two of his grandchildren also graduated from Northwestern.

“One of the things that the Lilly Endowment did when I was president was to encourage the creation of community foundations and we eventually seeded enough community foundations in every county in Indiana. That involvement, as well as running for office, made it crystal clear to me how important a reliable, sustainable — and I might say profitable — local news source is for a community,”
Mutz said.

To make a gift or for more information on how to support the Local News Initiative programs, contact Kyle Daniels, associate director of development, at or 847.467.3736.


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