Small, rural media have something big to tell us.
Americans trust local news outlets more than national ones. Small-town media are nothing if not local. Combine those facts and, in theory, we’d expect to see rural communities right in the middle of any discussion about media, trust and democracy. In practice, however, this isn’t the case.
It’s easy to overlook rural communities and small-town media when we look at big national topics. After all, a presidential election laced with global intrigue has brought us to our current uncertainty about whom to trust and what is true. What could provincial media possibly have to offer on such monumental topics? Perhaps quite a bit.
Misperceptions and half-truths get in the way of seeing the relevance of small-market media to big issues of trust and democracy. But when we unmuddle some of these misunderstandings, some connections do emerge.
Rural media outpaces national
The first misconception is that small-market media is, well, small. Because each individual outlet is small relative to national media, we might think they are irrelevant at the national level. In fact, small-market outlets are big both in audience and impact. More people read small dailies and weeklies than read major dailies. Let me repeat that. Small news publications have a larger combined circulation than the combined circulation of major dailies. One more time: More people in the United States get a weekly or small daily than get USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal combined. Those small-market papers had a 2015 circulation of 30 million. Large dailies’ combined circulation was 25 million, according 2015 Editor & Publisher data analyzed by Bill Reader at Ohio University. So small-market doesn’t mean small audiences.
Small, local media also have enviable penetration rates. It’s statistically impossible for a newspaper to have more than a 100 percent penetration. Yet the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky has documented weeklies that have circulations that exceed their county’s population, which is the theoretical cap on a small weekly’s circulation area. (The trick is that many outmigrants continue to subscribe to their hometown paper.)
More people read small weeklies and dailies than read major dailies. Let me repeat that. Small news publications have a larger combined circulation than the combined circulation of major dailies.
Local media in rural areas may also have been more resilient than large-market media in recent years. Digital content and ad platforms like Craigslist have been slower to reach rural areas, thus they have not undermined advertising revenue and audience size as quickly there. Rural areas have fewer media, so the ones that do exist retain greater authority as an information source. Since rural papers are among the last adopters of web-based publication, they may have benefited from the experiences of metropolitan papers that gambled on online platforms and found that online advertising did not meet revenue projections. Anecdotally, my regular online browsing of small-town papers tells me those outlets are more likely to have a hard paywall than metro dailies. Perhaps they learned something from those of us who rushed to give our news away for free. These aren’t salad days for rural media. But there are reasons to believe they haven’t been hit quite as hard as metropolitan legacy media.
In local media we trust
So nonmetropolitan media have audience and impact. More Americans trust local media “a lot” than trust national media, according to the Pew Research Center. That positions small-market media (whose primary news value is localism) as a sort of case study in how media might maintain or improve trust. A lot of the trust advantage comes from civic life and media systems operating on a more human scale. A couple examples:
- Local journalism is less likely to trigger hot-button, wedge issues. It is easier to maintain trust when reporting on potholes, garbage-collection fees and high school sports than on issues such as immigration and national healthcare policy. If localism is the primary news value of rural media, conflict may be the primary value of major-market media. At the national level, we are in a self-reinforcing spiral with political entities who know how to feed national media what we eat: conflict. Local media is not immune to this, of course, but as a whole it is less susceptible, in my opinion.
- Divisive politics and declining trust in media are mitigated by relationships and proximity in small towns and rural areas. Relationships, community institutions like churches and schools, family ties, and the likelihood of face-to-face encounters with people with whom we disagree combine to moderate strident political behavior. I have to think long and hard before starting a political argument with my community’s sole mechanic, lest I have to drive 15 miles to get an oil change. There is a fine line between political cowardice and pragmatism, perhaps. But so far my conscience and engine are clean.
We usually think of our nation’s largest media outlets as the ones that show the field new ways to gather and present the news. But small-market media have something to teach larger institutions, as well. It’s mainly a lesson about localism and how a community of public institutions, citizens, and journalists can build and maintain trust. It’s not a simple lesson, because part of the question is, how do we scale up localism? The first step is to acknowledge the power and importance of small-market media and the audiences they serve.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the combined circulation of weeklies was greater than the combined circulation of major dailies. Is should have said all small newspapers, both weeklies and dailies, have a greater combined circulation than major newspapers.
Tim Marema is editor of DailyYonder.com, a national rural news site published by the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies.