The Industry

Broadband for Communities

When talking about the benefits of broadband, it’s easy to overlook how broadband has become the glue that brings people and communities together. This is becoming particularly important for rural communities but matters to people everywhere.

Rural communities have been rapidly losing other forms of media that were the focal point in the past. 2004 was the peak of the newspaper business in terms of readership and revenues. Since then, the number of journalists has been cut in half. In the last fifteen years, we’ve lost more than 20% of all newspapers, and many remaining papers are just barely hanging on financially. Over half of the 3,143 counties in the country now only have one newspaper, which in the majority of cases means only a small weekly paper. In a recent count, over 200 counties have no newspaper.

We’ve also lost a huge number of local radio stations. Lost is not entirely the right word since many stations haven’t gone off the air but stopped being local. Local radio stations became endangered when Congress introduced deregulation into the radio business in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since that time, two-thirds of all radio stations are owned by ten parent companies that have gobbled up local radio stations. Instead of local news and content, the conglomerates pipe in national content, which also allows them to eliminate almost all of the staff at local stations. The big companies seek national advertisers, and communities don’t even hear ads for local businesses any longer.

The Internet has stepped in to fill some of this void. I see this directly when I help communities conduct broadband surveys and see how they go to get the word out. A lot of rural communities now have local Facebook forums (I note that I haven’t yet met anybody who has started to use the new name Meta). The local social media groups are popular, and I’ve seen communities drive a thousand survey responses through a local Facebook page. But not every local community has taken this approach, probably due to some of the downsides with social media.

Community life in one community I worked in recently all used a website created by the local radio station. I’ve worked in communities where church websites seem to be the predominant forum for local news.

In cities, we have more ways to keep up with local events. My own city has several newspapers, a few local radio stations, and one local TV station. In cities, the trend for the Internet is to get hyperlocal news directly in the neighborhood. There are a lot of people who use the Nextdoor app. While this is like other social media in that there’s a lot of gossip and squabbles, this is also the place to find out about crimes or events that you’d never know about otherwise.

One of the benefits of the Internet that is rarely talked about is the ability to become part of a larger community. I have a good friend I met strictly through the Internet who lives in Salt Lake City. I have a friend whose son is a competitive gamer, and his daily community is other gamers in Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Ukraine. My wife has developed friendships across the country when participating in forums on her various hobbies and interests. I’m not sure why we don’t mention ‘finding one’s tribe’ as one of the most important aspects of the Internet.

It’s easy to be cynical, and write off social media as being entertainment, but doing so ignores the real connections people make on the Internet. And yet, I’ve never seen any list of Internet benefits that includes the power of the Internet to provide local news and a sense of community.

Current News

Technology and the News

Reuters Institute just published their Digital News Report 2015. This report looks at a number of different countries to understand how people access news and how much they trust the news that they access.

One thing that is obvious in reading this report is that, while countries vary, overall there has been a major transition in the ways people access news from traditional TV and print news to online news.

Consider the percentage of people who still primarily get news from television. This is highest in France (58%) and Germany (53%), but in the US only 40% of people now list TV as their primary source of news. And in very online Finland this has dropped to 30%.

Newspapers have taken a beating over the last few decades and are nearly irrelevant as a source of news. Japan has the highest percentage of people who still rely on newspapers at 14%, but most countries are much closer to the 5% figure in the US.

The big shift worldwide has been to get news online, either from various online news sources or from social media sites. In the US 43% of people now get news online while another 11% get news primarily from social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. Germany (23% and 5%) and France (29% and 5%) are the two countries with the lowest percentage of those using online news, but those two countries have also been the slowest in accepting smartphones.

There is a clear difference by age in where people get news. For example, across all countries 60% of those from 18–24 get news online but only 22% of those over 55. And only 27% of those 18-24 get news from TV while with those over 55 it’s 54%. It’s clear in watching these trends over the last few years that within a few decades TV news is going to be headed towards the same irrelevance as newspapers.

A lot of these trends are due to the amount of trust that people place on news sources. People in Finland (68%), Brazil (62%), and Germany (60%) generally trust their sources of news while in Italy (35%), Spain (34%), and the US (32%) people generally don’t trust the most common sources of news.

The newest and fastest growing source of news is social media. An astounding 41% of the people in the US have used Facebook for news within the last week of being surveyed. This was followed by YouTube (18%), Twitter (11%), and WhatsApp (9%).

I know my own news viewing habits have changed over the years. I was traditionally a voracious newspaper reader and I often subscribed to three or more papers. No matter where I lived I tried to read the Washington Post and New York Times, even if it was only the Sunday edition. I rarely watched TV news and I listened to radio news when driving.

But my news habits today are very different. I still never watch TV news. When I drive I listen almost exclusively to talk radio, which gives me some deeper analysis and commentary on the news. I get most of my worldwide news on my smartphone from various news apps like Flipboard and Pulse. I skim these often and save the most interesting articles to Pocket to read later. I get industry news from Flipboard and Twitter as well as subscribing to numerous industry newsfeeds from organizations that gather tech and telecom articles. I still subscribe to my local small town newspaper and use it to keep up with local news and local sports. And nothing online has strong loyalty and I switch online news sources as I find ones I like better. While I don’t think of Facebook as a source of news, I do use that as the one place where I sometimes comment on the news.

The beauty today is that everybody can tailor a news experience to fit their interest. However, the downside to the wide variety of choices is that in picking news sources people are tending more and more towards reading only news sources that reinforce their world view. There are a lot of social scientists that say that the trend of getting news online has been a major contributing factor towards the political polarization we have in the country. That may be true and I put effort looking at multiple sources of news in an effort to avoid that.

But I know I never want to go back to the old ways. I feel that online news has given me the ability to know a lot more about what is going on in the world while also letting me dig really deeply into topics that most interest me. I remember the old days when you might see an article about something interesting that was happening in another country and then you had no way to easily find out more about it.

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