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Free newspaper subscriptions were offered to thousands of people. The results were incredibly bleak.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Political Science, researchers studied whether online interventions could improve national and local news consumption among Pennsylvanians in today’s highly polarized and national media landscape. But even though more than 2,000 people offered free online newspaper subscriptions, only 44 people in total signed up.

Local newspapers have played a crucial role in informing residents about regional politics, providing in-depth coverage essential for making informed decisions during elections. However, in recent decades, the way people access information has evolved significantly, with a marked preference for national rather than local sources, facilitated by the rise of cable television and online media. This change impacted the economic viability of local newspapers, leading to closures and a reduction in targeted local political content.

In their new study, Professor Daniel J. Hopkins of the University of Pennsylvania and independent researcher Tori Gorton sought to determine whether targeted online interventions could counteract these trends by encouraging Pennsylvania residents to become more engaged with news. national and local. Pennsylvania, with its diverse political landscape and swing state status, provided a strong setting for such an investigation.

Researchers worked with an online survey company, Civiqs, to identify a large group of Pennsylvania residents who do not currently subscribe to any of the state’s largest newspapers, the Philadelphia Investigator or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The study focused on participants living in the geographic areas served by these newspapers, ensuring that audiences would benefit from relevant national and local news coverage.

After collecting baseline data via a pre-experimental survey, the researchers randomly assigned 2,529 of the 5,059 participants to receive the treatment and the remaining 2,530 to the control group.

Participants in the treatment group were encouraged to subscribe to a free 13-week online edition of their relevant local newspaper. The researchers used a two-pronged approach to reach them: direct mail (postcards) and targeted Facebook ads. Each participant in the treatment group received one or both of these advertisements, providing a clear explanation of the offer and instructions on how to subscribe.

However, participation was particularly low, with only 44 people out of the thousands proposed actually subscribing to the newspapers, an application rate of just 1.7%. Further analysis revealed a strong partisan divide in the likelihood of subscribing to local newspapers. Democratic respondents were more likely to be interested in local news offerings than their Republican counterparts.

Some Republicans have explicitly cited partisan bias as a reason to avoid such subscriptions. This partisan divide reflects national trends, where distrust of the media is often higher among Republicans than Democrats. The findings suggest that contemporary local newspapers face a “demand-side dilemma,” in which highly engaged citizens may opt out of regional journalism in favor of national news more aligned with their political beliefs.

The surprisingly weak response led to the second phase of the experiment, during which the researchers changed their strategies to direct content promotion. During this phase, researchers created sponsored posts on Facebook promoting specific articles from the two state newspapers. These articles covered important state-level issues such as COVID-19 policies, the governor’s political activities, and budget challenges.

Every Monday, for several weeks, the team identified and promoted a new article, aimed at strengthening engagement on regional issues. This intervention resulted in thousands of targeted impressions on Facebook, allowing researchers to see whether directly delivering news content via social media feeds would effectively increase engagement.

Although it generated tens of thousands of impressions, this strategy did not significantly improve participants’ political knowledge or engagement. Researchers found that people exposed to local news promoted on Facebook did not demonstrate a significant increase in local political knowledge compared to the control group.

Likewise, the interventions did not significantly affect measures of civic engagement, such as participation in local elections or activities, or attitudes toward local governance. Surveys conducted before and after the interventions showed that participants’ engagement levels and attitudes remained largely unchanged.

The findings highlight a challenging landscape for building local political knowledge and engagement through interventions in traditional and digital media. The minimal impacts on civic metrics suggest that simply providing access to local news content, even when tailored and targeted through modern online platforms, is not enough to overcome deeper disengagement or distrust .

“The main findings here concern people who are unmoved – with little interest in subscribing, and with knowledge and attitudes that were largely unresponsive to either a free subscription offer or the national/local news promoted on Facebook,” they said. wrote Hopkins and Gorton in their study.

But why were the participants so impassive? The researchers noted that their sample showed increased political engagement, with 92% voting in the 2018 midterm elections, significantly higher than the 51% turnout rate among all adults eligible to vote in Pennsylvania for this election.

“Such a level of political interest alone could increase respondents’ interest in local newspapers,” the researchers said. “In fact, (participants) are heavy consumers of other nationally oriented political media… More than 19% watch Tucker Carlson and Hannity while 12% read the New York Times. But among this population, partisanship appears to have overwhelmed the effects of political interest when it comes to subscribing to a local newspaper.”

A similar study by Andrew Trexler at Duke University found strikingly similar results. About 500 registered voters in North Carolina were offered a free two-month digital subscription to Raleigh News and Observer. But take-up has been exceptionally low, with only 3.8% of those who received the offer having activated their free membership.

“Overall, this study paints a bleak picture for the future of local news,” Trexler concluded. “Despite the significant economic challenges that local newspapers face, somehow resolving all of these issues would leave intact the greater difficulty of convincing the general public to actually read what they produce.”

The study, “Unsubscribed and Undemanding: Partisanship and the Minimal Effects of a Field Experiment Encouraging Local News Consumption,” was released March 19, 2024.