That headline might seem a little severe, or hyperbolic, but it's exactly what a new study by George Washington University professor Matt Hindman says about us and how we consume local news on the Internet.
According to the new study, "Less of the Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet:" "Local news is a tiny part of web usage; collectively, local news outlets receive less than half of a percent of all page views in a typical market." Most of them, as you might imagine, go to sites like Facebook and Google, which account for 10 and 7 percent, respectively, of page views in any given market.
The study used data on Internet traffic compiled by the company comScore, which installs software on a sample of Internet users' computers and collects the data, much like Nielsen does for television ratings.
Hindman set out to see if the Internet had truly become the vibrant bastion of hyper-local news that everyone from techies to media-merging conglomerates expected and wanted it to be. It isn't. The study looked at Internet usage data from the top 100 news markets in the country. News outlets were divided into national and local sections. Sites, like smaller operations and blogs, weren't included if they didn't attract at least one percent of that market's audience.
Here are a few of Hindman's conclusions:
• Newspapers and television stations dominate the online market.
• Local news audience numbers are down because of low news consumption overall and high consumption of national news.
• Only 17 of the 1,074 online local news sources identified by the study were "genuinely new media outlets," meaning they were completely free of established print or broadcast sources. Sites like Chattanoogan.com and TucsonCitizen.com are examples. Even the most successful of these had extremely low traffic numbers.
• Media concentration offline contributes to concentration online. "Most local news markets on the Web are dominated by just a few firms."
Central Arkansas has a fairly active news community, but it's likely that some of the smaller outlets like Talk Business, The Tolbert Report, maybe even the Arkansas Blog, just didn't make the cut in terms of audience size. It's not clear which outlets were included in the report, and which were not. Attempts to reach Hindman to get more accurate data on Little Rock were unsuccessful.
Of course, there are a couple of problems with the study. That audience threshold number, limiting the outlets studied, might be too low. Also, by most accounts, the data overlaps. For example, if 30 percent of the people in a certain market say they go to one site, that doesn't mean they avoid all the other ones. In any event, trying to accurately compute Internet usage is a good guess at best.
So not a lot of people look at local news online. Should we be surprised? Probably not. After all, we're all very busy people and — hey, look at that YouTube video of a kitten in a cup! But the study does bring up a couple of very troubling trends.
In a throwaway paragraph near the beginning of the report, Hindman talks about how much time people spend on various websites.
"Most page views are short. comScore reports that a page view lasts 26 seconds on average; 98 percent of page views last less than 2 minutes, and 99.8 percent last less than 10."
Are we really that ADD-addled that we can't stay on a site for more than 26 seconds? Research on the average length of the television news sound bite would tell you the same thing. We don't want to hear anybody talking about blah, blah, blah for any longer than about seven seconds. Of course, the Internet may simply not be the place people go to for long-form entertainment. The same Huffington Post-to-TMZ-to-Gawker hyperactive page-jumper might sit down to a good couple hours of Chaucer every night. Who knows?
The second, and most important point, the paper underlines is that it doesn't appear that the Internet has expanded the number of local news outlets. The FCC has been enabling media conglomeration for years — allowing companies to own a television station and a newspaper in the same market, for example — based on the idea that the winnowing number of major news outlets would be counterbalanced by news on the 'net. This study shows that's just not happening.