It’s been a tumultuous year. If one thing is clear between a once-in-a-century global pandemic, a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice, and the upcoming election, it’s that our communities need reliable, representative local news and information to help them stay safe and engaged.  

A new report published this month from Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation underscores the essential nature of local journalism. Nearly 85% of Americans say the news media is “critical” or “very important” for providing accurate information and holding the powerful to account. And Americans who follow local news “very closely” are more than twice as likely to vote in local elections, according to the survey.

At The Lenfest Institute, we’re committed to working with our partners — including Knight Foundation — to create sustainable models for essential local journalism. And we’re proud to support organizations serving communities throughout our hometown of Philadelphia that are addressing the very challenges raised in the study. 

Though the survey was conducted prior to the pandemic, the results offer insights into how Americans are responding to threats to media across the country and how their own consumption habits have changed. 

During this time of immediate crisis accurate information is the backbone of public health and a cornerstone of the future of democracy. The survey demonstrates not only how news organizations should be thinking about best engaging their audiences but also the enormous civic impact of their doing so. 

The study found that 81% of people who follow local news “very closely” are likely to vote, compared to only 35% of those who do not pay close attention to local news. Those who follow local news closely are less likely to believe that “people like me don’t have any say in what the government does.”

Close to one third (31%) of Americans report that they now follow news concerning issues affecting their local community “very closely” — an increase from 25% in 2017. But most Americans still said they weren’t particularly satisfied with how much they knew about community-based public affairs, suggesting a need for more and better local news.

As the parent organization of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a supporter of local journalism in Philadelphia and across the country, The Lenfest Institute is dedicated to supporting strategies that help residents become more informed about and engaged in their communities. For example, the Lenfest Local Lab recently launched The Hook, a free, weekly email newsletter sharing community news and civic engagement opportunities in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, with support from the Google News Initiative. The Lab is planning to expand to other neighborhoods soon as well. 

The Inquirer has also created an Election 2020 Roundtable, which invites Pennsylvania residents to help inform The Inquirer’s election coverage to ensure that its journalists are covering the issues that matter most to residents and providing citizens with information they need to cast informed votes this fall. 

About half of Americans — and about three quarters of those 18-39-years old — get most of their news online, according to the Knight/Gallup study. 35% of Americans mostly follow news on television, 9% get most news from the radio, and 5% primarily choose a print newspaper or magazine, according to Gallup and the Knight Foundation. 

Eighteen percent of Americans said they were “highly knowledgeable” about important issues in their local community, but that figure rises to 26% among those who primarily get their news from print publications compared with 15% for Americans who get most of their news online. 

It’s essential that we provide comprehensive digital pathways for individuals to learn about their communities — especially at this critical moment. Through the Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund, which was created in partnership with the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund and the Independence Public Media Foundation, we have been able to support projects such as Resolve Philly’s Equally Informed Philly effort to create a comprehensive digital information hub in English and Spanish, in the form of an FAQ and SMS text message system. This information resource features regularly updated answers to frequently asked questions on the coronavirus crisis and related health and economic challenges. 

Knight-Lenfest has also supported AI for the People, which is examining Twitter data and analyzing algorithms to develop campaigns and community trainings to reduce online engagement with COVID-19-related disinformation targeted at Black Philadelphians, and Media in Neighborhood Group, which engages a cohort of men and women that have recently returned from prison to tell their own stories through video, audio, and photography. These organizations strive to create reliable, accurate news, and information that’s responsive to the needs of Philadelphia-area communities.  Each is a model for similar communities and civic engagement on a national basis. 

The Knight-Lenfest Fund also supported The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Community News Service, a series of initiatives designed to ensure that communities have access to reliable news through Spanish-language journalism in El Inquirer; Curious Philly, a community Q&A platform, and more. 

In addition to its focus on local news, the Gallup-Knight survey focuses on topics such as perceived media bias, distrust of the news media, and partisan divisions. 

You can view the full report here

How are you addressing these challenges? What’s your newsroom doing to promote civic engagement in your community? How are you reaching communities online? We’d love to highlight your story and share any lessons you’ve learned. Feel free to reach out over Twitter at @lenfestinst or email [email protected]

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