The Internet: The Global-Local Marketplace

By Dr. Sean Carton, Chief Creative Officer and Professor of the Practice at the University of Baltimore

From the beginning of the commercialization of the Internet in the mid-90’s, the great promise for organizations was that having a web site would help them “reach a global audience.” But while that’s definitely true, a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that for some categories, the Internet has become the go-to source for local information.   And the trend seems to point to even bigger disruptions in the future.

The study (based on a telephone survey of 2,251 US adults) was designed to find out how Americans find out information about their local communities. Rather than taking the track followed by other studies in this arena (which typically focused on “local information” as a monolithic category), the Pew study broke down the concept of “local community information” into 16 categories ranging from arts & culture events to information about zoning and development.  They then asked people how they found out about these events using categories that included local newspapers, TV, and radio outlets, local government, word of mouth, printed bulletins/newsletters, mobile devices, “other sources,” and, of course, the Internet.

You can check out all the data for yourself here using their nifty interactive graph if you want the details, but focusing on the various media people identified as being their top sources of information is pretty illuminating by itself:

  • Newspapers: top source for news on community events, crime, taxes, local government, arts and culture, social services, and zoning/development.
  • Television: top source for weather and breaking news
  • Radio: Tied with TV as top source for traffic news.
  • Internet: The top source for local businesses and restaurants and tied with newspapers as the top source for information about housing, schools, and jobs.

When it comes to learning about what local businesses and restaurants are offering, the Internet is where it’s at. And this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise to any of us 79% of Americans who use the Internet: if you want to discover new restaurants or get directions to a local business, the Internet is the place where most of us instinctively turn these days. What may surprise you, however, is that online channels are now just as important as newspapers for those of us who want to find a house or apartment, a new job, or want to learn what’s going on with our local educational institutions.

But this is just a snapshot from earlier this year: if you dig deeper into the data you find out that for people who use the Internet, as well as Americans between 18-39, the Internet is the primarysource of information for almost all of the categories in the study. If you’ve grown up with the Internet, you’re going to use it to find out information about your local community. Turning to older media seems downright anachronistic.

Clearly the future of local information is online. Companies such as Craig’s List, Patch, Yelp, and Citysearch (as well as Google) are edging out “old media” outlets such as newspapers, TV, and radio as the place people go for news and information about their local communities. And this trend is having profound effects on the way we live and the ways in which we learn about our local communities.

The key to understanding this change comes in the decoupling of commerce from content at the local level. As the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism “State of the News Media 2010” points out:

“The old model of journalism involved news organizations taking revenue from one social transaction — the selling of real estate, cars and groceries or job hunting, for example, — and using it to monitor civic life — covering city councils and zoning commissions and conducting watchdog investigations.”

If you look at what’s going on this way, it’s no surprise that newspapers (and the journalism they once represented) are on the way out. Just a quick glance of the more recent numbers about newspaper advertising spending reported by the Newspaper Association of America reveals a pretty dire picture. According to these numbers, annual newspaper advertising expenditures declined 18.2% each year between 2008-2010! If you look at classified spending the picture gets even worse: spending decreased an average of 36.8% during the same time period (including a peak decline of 64% in 2009).

But considering how the trends are going, it looks like we may be in for a major local "information gap" in the future. Historically it's been the newspapers that have supplied information (and investigated) issues around crime, zoning, etc.. If their new online efforts don't pan out then who is going to cover these not-very-lucrative issues? Hopefully some new startup will figure out how to monitize access to civic information or some new model of local online journalism (such as Baltimore's own award-winning Baltimore Brew) will take the place of what we're going to lose as the newspapers fade into the past. In any case, it's clear that there's a huge opportunity for someone out there who can figure out how to make money supplying local information to an online audience.