The former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill coined the phrase “all politics is local,” which means a politician’s success is directly tied to his or her ability to understand and influence the issues that are important to local constituents.

If O’Neill was correct, then local media — and local newspapers, in particular — play a key role in the political process.

According to Borrell Associates, US$9.8 billion was spent on political advertising during the 2016 election cycle, with nearly 45% of the dollars going to broadcast television. Newspapers received less than 7%.

Understanding who is registered to vote helps determine how to reach them.
Understanding who is registered to vote helps determine how to reach them.

Why is newspapers’ slice of the pie so meager? Research shows local newspaper media reach registered voters, people most likely to vote, and people who influence others about their voting decisions. And, they do it as well as broadcast television.

In March of 2016 — in the midst of the U.S. presidential primary season — the News Media Alliance (still known as the Newspaper Association of America at the time) asked Nielsen Scarborough to conduct a study of registered voters across the United States with a focus on the role that local newspapers play in the political process.

The objectives of the study were to:

  • Demonstrate the influence of local newspapers and their Web sites on the decisions voters make during elections.
  • Quantify the impact local newspapers have on opinion leaders. Do opinion leaders influence the voting decisions of their families and friends, and do newspapers influence the voting decisions of opinion leaders?
  • Compare various media with respect to trust, depth of coverage, and influence.

A total of 1,015 interviews were conducted with English-speaking registered voters across the United States with the sample stratified by census region (Midwest, Northeast, South, and West) to accurately represent voters in different parts of the country. Most of the data collection was done online, but some telephone interviews were conducted with respondents who did not have regular Internet access.

Survey tolerance with 1,000 interviews is plus/minus 3%. Accuracy lessens somewhat when analysing subgroups within the sample. For example, a subgroup of 500 interviews increases the survey tolerance to plus/minus 4.4%.

A key, but not unexpected, finding of the study was that local newspapers and their Web sites have considerable reach among registered voters, reaching 64% of all registered voters in an average week. That’s 122 million registered voters. And, newspaper readership is strongest among those demographic groups most likely to vote — older, college-educated adults with high annual household incomes, who have lived in their communities for 10 years or longer.

Newspaper readers use their newspapers as a source of political information.
Newspaper readers use their newspapers as a source of political information.

The study also revealed:

  • More than 20 million registered voters have a local newspaper app on their smartphones, and they use their local newspaper app frequently.
  • One-third of newspaper app users accessed their local newspaper app on five days or more in the past week to get news and information.
  • Smartphone app usage is particularly important for reaching younger voters, and younger voters (age 18-49) are more likely to have a local newspaper app on their smartphones compared to older voters.

Social media is another way registered voters are exposed to newspaper content. Seventy percent (70%) of registered voters have visited social media sites in the past seven days and more than 40% of them report seeing local newspaper articles on social media “very often or sometimes.”

Many voters use social media.
Many voters use social media.

We also examined the role opinion leaders play in influencing the voting decisions of their friends and family, and local newspapers’ role in influencing the voting decisions of opinion leaders. The study included a series of questions that enabled us to develop four segments:

  1. Opinion leaders: Always the first to find out about important local news stories.
  2. Early followers: Usually ahead of the curve when it comes to the day’s important local news stories.
  3. Late followers: Find out about the important local news stories of the day after others talk about them.
  4. Laggards: Generally don’t follow the local news in their community.

More than half of registered voters are opinion leaders or early followers, with opinion leaders comprising 8% of voters. Though a relatively small group, opinion leaders are dramatically more important than their size because each opinion leader influences many of their less-informed friends and family.

Newspapers reach many opinion leaders.
Newspapers reach many opinion leaders.

Not surprisingly, opinion leaders are most likely to vote compared to the other segments, and newspapers reach three out of four opinion leaders. Among adults who told us they vote in local, state, and national elections “very often,” local newspapers and their associated Web sites reach 75% of the opinion leaders in this group.

Additionally, opinion leaders are significantly more likely to frequently talk with friends and family about politics compared to the other segments. Opinion leaders are more active in their communities, more likely to belong to local clubs or organisations that work on issues important to them, and more likely to have contacted an elected official or community leader in the past year.

Clearly, opinion leaders influence others, but how do local newspapers influence opinion leaders? As stated earlier, local newspapers and their Web sites reach 75% of opinion leaders who told us they vote in local, state, and national elections “very often.” They are also significantly more likely to look at political candidates’ ads in local newspapers and on local newspaper Web sites than the other segments.

Opinion Leaders are much more likely to say that it is “extremely important” for newspapers to endorse political candidates. And they are more likely to believe their local newspaper covers political candidates “fairly.”

Newspapers reach many people who vote.
Newspapers reach many people who vote.

Opinion leaders are also more likely to say political advertising in local newspapers and on local television stations is “very or somewhat” likely to impact their voting decisions.

With regard to television, spending on political advertising — for issues and candidates — flows into broadcast television more than any other medium. However, this study showed the local newspapers, in print and online, are just as influential in the political process as television, especially among opinion leaders and early followers.

Both segments rank the political advertising they see in newspapers and on television equally in terms of usefulness and trustworthiness. And, newspaper Web sites rank higher than local radio Web sites, social media postings, and the candidates’ own Web sites for usefulness in making election decisions.

Clearly, local newspapers play an important role in the political process, but they don’t get the political advertising dollars they should, given their reach and influence among voters. To reach people who vote and people who influence how other people vote, candidates and advocacy groups would be well served by using newspapers and their Web sites to communicate their messages — especially in today’s politically charged environment.