The decline of newspapers has made many headlines in recent years. Lower revenue, declining readership, and increasing competition from a variety of online sources have led many to believe that traditional newspapers are on their way out.
Some recent survey results from Oklahoma, however, make clear that rural residents still highly value their local newspapers.
In fact, when residents of 12 rural communities were asked about their current (and preferred) way of receiving information on local community events, respondents selected newspapers over social media or email by an overwhelming margin. This pattern held regardless of whether the surveys were paper based or collected online.
Thus, even in this age of endless Facebook feeds and dizzying arrays of other social media options, the good ol’ newspaper still has a beloved place in many rural residents’ hearts. This is important for many businesses, nonprofits, clubs, governments and social networks that might be interested in promoting an event in a rural community. That’s not to say that new media isn’t part of the rural communication equation, as well. The second most preferred method of receiving information was social media.
A Little Background
Previous research has found that since 2001 there has been a notable increase in online media, while offline media such as newspapers experienced sizable declines. Businesses and people working in rural communities are left grappling with how to best inform the local community about future events and programs.
To answer these questions, we turn to a survey distributed as part of the Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) program in Oklahoma. CHNAs allow communities to gather valuable information about their community and the needs of their residents. Completing a CHNA is a new requirement for non profit 501(c)(3) hospitals that submit IRS Schedule H Form 990 – implying that all non profit hospitals must complete the process every three years. Most of the facilities that participate are critical access hospitals, which, by definition, are small facilities located in rural communities.
The CHNA process in Oklahoma is led by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in collaboration with the Oklahoma Office of Rural Health. The process consists of four community meetings (usually over a three to five month month period). One particularly important requirement of these meetings is the distribution of a community survey. The survey gauges current healthcare usage, potential gaps in service and identifies possible additional health services to offer. In addition, questions are included to determine how community members are currently informed of community events, and how they prefer to be informed. The 21 question survey is offered in two formats: hard copy and online (electronic). Respondents have four weeks to complete the survey. Communities are encouraged to gather a comprehensive cross section of responses that are representative of the community both economically and demographically.
Surveys from Rural Oklahoma
Surveys were completed in 12 rural Oklahoma communities (Figure 2) from March 2013 to June 2014. Hard copy surveys were distributed at the first community meeting in each community. A total of 100 hard copy surveys were delivered in each community, and attendees were urged to take extra copies with them to help distribute within the community. A survey link for the online version was also made available at the first meeting. Community members who signed in to the meeting received an email following the meeting with a copy of the link to distribute through their local contact lists. A total of 1,863 surveys were collected for an average of 155 per community. Of those responses, 52.8% were derived from the electronic survey offering, and 47.2% were collected from the hard copy paper survey.
While the primary focus of the survey was on health care in the local community, survey questions were included to determine (1) how community members are currently informed of community events, and (2) how they prefer to be informed. Survey respondents had checkbox options to select all current modes of information that they used (newspaper, social media, website, and email); many selected multiple options (average of 1.7 responses per survey).
The survey results (Figure 1) indicate that the newspaper (42%) is the most widely selected medium for respondents’ current source of information, more than doubling the next most selected option, social media (20%). While newspaper readership has been in decline, a 2010 survey for the National Newspaper Association still showed that 73 percent of respondents read a local newspaper every week. This popularity is particularly true for small communities throughout the United States. Another study completed by the University of Missouri noted that in areas where the circulation size of the local newspaper was 15,000 or less that over two thirds of residents read their local newspaper. Forty two percent of respondents from these small communities said their primary source of information was the “newspaper” and “newspaper’s website,” which is identical to CHNA respondents from the 12 communities surveyed across Oklahoma.
Similarly, when survey respondents were asked how they preferred to be informed of community events, the results mirrored how they are currently informed. Newspaper was the preferred source by 47.4% of paper respondents and 40.9% of electronic respondents. Social media followed with 18.0% of paper respondents and 24.7% of electronic responses. Email was the third most preferred source of information among both paper (17.2%) and electronic (19.4%) respondents.
Rural residents in Oklahoma value the information they obtain through their local newspapers. The findings here may be slightly biased towards residents that are interested in community health (and their network of friends) – however, we did clearly specify that the survey should be distributed widely among the residents. In many cases people left paper copies of the survey out at the local hospital, library, coffee shop, or physician’s office and had visitors fill them in. This information is valuable in terms of marketing and promoting community events, including those offered by local businesses and organizations. Utilizing the availability and scope of the local newspaper seems to be the most effective way to reach rural audiences to make them aware of events in their community. It should be noted, however, that social media was the second most preferred source of information by both electronic and paper respondents, with email communication a close third. A marketing plan that includes both traditional and electronic media may be the most effective way to distribute information regarding local events to rural communities. &