Where do people living in Richmond get their news and information about the community?
What sources do they use to understand what’s happening here, and form ideas and opinions about those happenings? Who do they trust to tell them what’s true and real, and what’s just rumor, gossip or marketing?
I think these questions are interesting because they get to the heart of how the people of Richmond make decisions about our future. Whether it’s deciding which candidates to elect, what community improvement projects to support, what public spaces are desirable to be in, which businesses to patronize or what injustices need addressing, we all make decisions that affect what’s possible here. These decisions are based on the information we have, the news we follow, the opinions we form over time.
It’s tempting to think that many people in Richmond don’t get news from anywhere. With low turnout in elections and other forms of civic engagement, high unemployment, below average levels of adult literacy and education, we can convince ourselves that people here just don’t read, don’t get informed, don’t care. But I think we all get news and information from somewhere. Human curiosity is a powerful thing, and most everyone wants to know something about their environs and what’s happening in the world around them.
Here’s my understanding of how we’re satisfying that curiosity in Richmond.
The Palladium-Item likely remains the single most influential information source in the Richmond area. This isn’t because everyone reads it or because it is always comprehensive, but because it’s really the only entity in town with a full-time staff of professional journalists creating in-depth coverage of news, events, education, health, business and other topics on a daily basis.
According to Palladium-Item Content Coach Jason Truitt, the paper has a circulation of around 7,100 daily subscribers (print and digital) including print single-copy sales, with 11,800 of the same on Sundays. All told, that’s a significant chunk of Richmond’s adult population using the Palladium-Item as an information resource in some form on a regular basis. They also have over 400 digital-only subscribers, and Truitt says that their digital platforms are seeing consistent growth in usage as people increasingly turn to their computers and mobile devices to get news.
Even for those folks who aren’t paying subscribers, I think the “it was in the paper” phenomenon still has a lot of weight as family members, co-workers and neighbors talk about what’s happening. There’s a ripple effect as people share headlines and summaries in person and online, and assuming they can make the economics work, it seems the Pal-Item will remain a central provider of community news.
Cable public access channels are the brunt of many jokes in our society, but Whitewater Community Television offers an exceptional mix of programming about and for our city. Between their coverage of government meetings, their talk shows about a variety of local business and not-for-profit issues, and their resources to help independent producers from around town get information and creative content on the air, it’s pretty impressive.
They’re not strictly a news-gathering or reporting organization, though some of their programming clearly serves that function, and often more in-depth than any other source. Stories that might initially appear in the newspaper or online and then fade from memory tend to come back for a closer look on WCTV shows, which I think benefits anyone wanting to follow community trends over time.
Sometimes there can be a bit of an echo effect, where the group of people involved in producing shows, or who appear as the subject of programming, are also the ones doing the most watching of WCTV’s stations and content. But I continue to be surprised and amazed at how many people seem to tune in to what’s there, and increasingly we can do so online even if we don’t have a cable subscription. It also seems like plenty of people will prefer watching 10 or 15 minutes of video with fairly simple production value over reading written news coverage and analysis for the same amount of time.
Both Whitewater Broadcasting (operator of 101.3WFMG and 1490WKBV) and Brewer Broadcasting (operator of 101.7WHON and 96.1WQLK) have small news offerings, and radio in general is a pervasive presence when it comes to sharing information. These stations play on shop radios, vehicle stereos and office sound systems all around town, updating listeners with bits of community information throughout the day. The immediate nature of radio seems most often exercised for covering sports events, where knowing the score of the big game is more important in the moment, and perhaps less exciting to read in the paper the next day.
Beyond sports, these stations aren’t often creating a lot of original coverage (and doing so is likely not really a part of their business model). They seem to take their cues from the Palladium-Item, press releases and other media sources, and tend to limit their coverage to something that can be expressed in a short sound bite. Sometimes radio news reporting trends toward the most salacious kinds of headlines, with drugs, dismemberment, personal misfortune and crime ruling the day. I also sometimes observe radio reporting directly quoting the Pal-Item without any attribution, or using something that goes by as gossip on Facebook as the seed for a story without having any credible sources. These kinds of stories are easy to re-share online and probably get a lot of traffic, but it can also stretch the standards of journalism and do a real disservice to the local community when complex issues are oversimplified.
For better or worse, I suspect some people in Richmond consume national headlines and apply them to their understanding of local life. If there’s a national immigration problem, there’s a local immigration problem. If there’s rampant crime and tense race relations on TV, crime and race relations must be an issue here too. If politicians at the state and national level are behaving badly, local politicians must be just as corrupt.
If this phenomenon is real I doubt it’s specific to Richmond, Indiana, but it’s disconcerting to think that sitting in front of polarizing cable news shows is what passes for being well-informed, at least in some circles. This approach can also have a real impact on local decision-making; e.g. after national news coverage of 9/11, local administrators saw fit to spend taxpayer dollars on significantly increased security for entrances to some local government buildings, even though there was no indication that Richmond faced any kind of terrorist threat to its infrastructure.
Facebook and Social Media
Facebook’s advertising system say there are about 41,000 people ages 13 and older in the 47374 postal code who are potentially consuming information from their use of the site. This number seems a little high given that the 2012 Census showed that there were only about 37,000 people total estimated to be living here…but let’s assume for now that many of them are using Facebook.
We don’t really know how often or how engaged they are — a quick cat/baby/inspirational photo fix and then they’re done, or long days of scrolling through timelines? — but anecdotally I find that local stories that become popular among someone’s friends and groups on Facebook (and sometimes, on Twitter) often shape that person’s understanding of what’s happening in Richmond. By the same token, if a story doesn’t gain any social media legs, it’s much more likely to fade into the background of our local civic consciousness, even if it is very relevant to community life and the issues we face. We also tend to favor stories that tug at our heartstrings or create some other emotional response over stories where the important details are buried in the data. “Local man survives encounter with wild dog” tends to generate more likes and conversation than “Year-long analysis of systemic issues leading to poverty and unemployment shows we have a lot of work to do.”
There’s a lot of paid advertising real estate in our community: outdoors on signs and billboards, ads and banners on websites and social media, printed promotions placed in the local paper or in posters displayed in local storefronts, and more. These aren’t always a direct source of news and information, but they still tell us a lot about our community and what’s happening here. I try to notice the mixture of advertisements that are about “improving quality of life” events (festivals, performances, family activities, community improvement conversations, other fun things), growth events (job fairs, new construction, new business openings, a real estate boom) and events that might signal decay or decline (new/growing retirement communities, a rise in healthcare and social service activity, crime-related notices, lots of property for sale or rent, etc).
I think others take in this mixture too, even if subconsciously, and it informs our sense of how we’re doing as a town.
Whether it’s at coffee hour in our communities of faith, over lunch conversation in the break room, or just in casual encounters we have in the grocery aisle, the “did you hear?” conversations that happen across the community every day seem to remain a powerful source of news and information gathering here.
It makes sense – we tend to trust information received from people we know and like (or at least spend time with), and it can be fun/interesting to pass along a tidbit that came to us first hand with some color and nuance attached to it. Of course this also means that misinformation can spread pretty quickly if no one is bothering to verify what they’re hearing against some other, more authoritative source.
How About You?
Do these observations fit with your own experience of how people get information in our community?
Where do you get your news from?
What opportunities might we have to improve media offerings, consumption and literacy in Richmond?
Photo by David Hodgson