LAWRENCE — In this age of social media and electronic communication, many people receive and share their news via social media. But a new study shows that, when it comes to hyperlocal news, more people still tend to share the news they read via face-to-face communication rather than by email or social media. University of Kansas researchers led a study that found community involvement, education and income level all predicted ways hyperlocal news readers preferred to share news they consumed.
Online readers are a key part of the news distribution process, the authors point out, especially to hyperlocal news sites, news organizations that are often independent, online only and write about a specific geographic region. The study surveyed more than 2,200 readers of hyperlocal news websites throughout the country.
“Hyperlocal news sites are often independent and focus on news happening in the town or community,” said Liefu Jiang, KU doctoral student in journalism and one of the authors. “We thought if people were highly involved in their neighborhoods, they’d be more likely to share news from these sites.”
That turned out to be the case, but the study found that people highly involved in their neighborhoods shared news most via face-to-face communication, then via email. Social media sharing was third. News organizations of all types and sizes emphasize social media sharing and digital content, but the old-fashioned way of sharing has not died.
“The key to the study was, 'How do people share the news they read from these sites?' Forever, people have talked about news face-to-face. Our study shows that’s still the case,” said Peter Bobkowski, associate professor of journalism.
Bobkowski and Jiang authored the study with Laveda Peterlin of the University of St. Mary and Nathan Rodriguez of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. It is forthcoming in the journal Journalism Practice.
The study showed that social media is still an important part of news sharing, but it hasn’t surpassed older, more established methods of sharing. Certain demographics, however, were more likely to share via social media. Respondents who reported a higher level of education and a high level of neighborhood involvement were not much more likely to share via social media. However, those who reported lower education levels were more likely to share via social media the higher their involvement level was.
While the researchers did not ask respondents why they share news the way they do, they theorized several possible explanations. More affluent people are often involved in organizations such as local government, neighborhood organizations and similar outlets where they see other neighborhood or community citizens, providing an opportunity to discuss news in person. Social media gave a relatively new platform to those who might not belong to such organizations or have the same opportunities, yet also care about their communities.
“The bar to community engagement is a bit higher socioeconomically, but social media lowers that,” Bobkowski said. “You can share news on your phone, on a tablet or computer, or late at night, if you work during times people often meet.”
The more readers were involved in their neighborhoods, they were also more likely to share news via email than social media. Possible explanations for that finding are that about 60 percent of the respondents were age 50 or older, perhaps pointing to a preference to use the more established method. Also, social media is read by individuals’ friends, family and acquaintances from all over the map. Given the hyperlocal nature of the news, people may choose not to share it via social media, instead sharing with specific people who live in the same geographic area via face-to-face or email communication, Jiang and Bobkowski said.
Women and those who visit the hyperlocal sites frequently were also more likely to share news. Women were 61 percent more likely to share news by word-of-mouth, 52 percent more likely to share by email and 33 percent more likely than men to share via social media. The more frequently readers reported visiting the sites, the more likely they were to share news via word-of-mouth, via email and social media, respectively.
The study helps shed light on the types of readers hyperlocal news sites are reaching and who are most likely to share the news they consume there.
“The more people are involved in the community, the more willing they are to share news about it,” Jiang said. “By sharing information among community members, they felt they made the community stronger and that they believe they can make the community better.”
Researchers hope to look into the topic further and examine what types of news readers of the sites share, such as government or sports-focused stories, what specific type of community engagement they take part in and whether or not they share opinions with the news, or just the news itself. The current findings illustrate that social media has not overtaken the older methods of sharing news just yet and that news sites should not put too much of their focus on social media sharing at the expense of other means.
“I think our study shows that while social media is important, it’s also important not to de-emphasize other forms of news sharing, such as email or face-to-face communication,” Bobkowski said. “If there are ways for news organizations to encourage that, it could be a good idea to do so.”