STUDY: Facebook, Twitter and Local News in Three U.S. Cities

How do Facebook and Twitter impact the consumption and distribution of local news? The latest study from Pew Research Center analyzed posts from both social networks in three cities to find out.

LocalNewsTypewriterHow do Facebook and Twitter impact the consumption and distribution of local news? The latest study from Pew Research Center analyzed posts from both social networks in three cities — Denver; Macon, Ga.; and Sioux City, Iowa — to find out.

Pew Research Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation studied 198 news providers and 6,416 news stories in the three cities and surveyed 1,043 residents in Denver, 1,387 in Macon and 1,191 in Sioux City. Here are some of their findings:

  • The majority of Facebook and Twitter users who receive local news via those social networks follow news organizations, reporters or commentators: 74 percent in Sioux City, 67 percent in Macon and 65 percent in Denver.


  • Users comment on fewer than one-half of local news providers’ Facebook posts: 43 percent in Denver, 32 percent in Macon and 31 percent in Sioux City.
  • User comments tend to peter out after a post has been live for 24 hours.
  • Local TV stations and daily newspapers tended to dominate in terms of Facebook likes.
  • In Macon, local CBS affiliate WMAZ had the most likes among local news sources, and while the ABC affiliate and local daily newspaper posted more often, posts from WMAX generated more comments.
  • Twitter conversation in Macon during the week of June 6 through 13, 2014, focused heavily on a single story: Local band Good Night Alive competing in VH1 contest “Make a Band Famous.” More than 400,000 tweets were studied, and some 19 percent, 77,427, were related to this story.
  • In terms of hashtags, the combination of #mabf and #goodnightalive was used more than 65,000 times, and other popular hashtags included #renewui, which means “renew unemployment insurance,” and #bringbackourmarine, a hashtag campaign to bring back a U.S. Marine who was being held in a Mexican prison.
  • Two pages in Denver — those for 9NEWS KUSA and The Denver Post — had more likes than the next 14 pages combined, but the newspaper’s posts drew twice as many comments. The local Fox affiliate, however, accounted for the most comments, with many of those coming on posts sharing national stories.
  • A local sports story about a Denver Broncos player who was incorrectly reported as being arrested in Dallas led the list of Twitter shares in Denver.
  • The 50 most-used hashtags in Denver were dominated by national politics, with #copolitics finishing at No. 38 and #cowx (Colorado weather) at No. 45. Nine of the top 50 hashtags concerned immigration, and #marijuana was the 40th-most-used hashtag in Denver.
  • KTIV NBC4 in Sioux City was the most mentioned news source on Facebook, but media pages were poorly represented in that city’s overall top 10.
  • The local content in Sioux City with the most shares on Twitter was weather, with a link to a live weather cam from Iowa Weather Now.
  • Of all the tweets analyzed in Sioux City, 42 percent did not contain URLs — 44 percent were original posts and 56% were shares.
  • The top hashtag in Sioux City was #renewui.
  • In general, posts rarely contain only text (18 percent in Denver, 30 percent in Sioux City and Macon). But the cities differ in whether this additional content stands alone or is paired with some explanatory text. In Denver, the most digitally adept city in our study, about three-quarters of posts use both text and additional content. In Sioux City, however (which was generally less engaged with the digital space), about 20 percent of posts contain only this additional content, such as a photo or link without any added text by the poster.
  • Across the three metro areas, the stories trending on Facebook were the same ones covered by the news media more broadly. In Macon, for instance, the firing of a deputy for a grocery store shooting had the most posts on Facebook and the second-highest number of stories in a five-day study of news coverage. In Denver, a house explosion received the third most frequent attention on Facebook, while this story was the fourth most covered in the five-day analysis. And in Sioux City, a scandal at a local casino received the second-highest number of posts on Facebook.

Pew Research Center described the motivation behind the three cities it selected for the study:

During a period of tremendous technological change — change that is far from complete — this study takes a microscope to the information streams in three news environments across the U.S.: Denver, a highly educated urban area of more than 2 million with Internet adoption above the national average and a large Hispanic population (19 percent); Macon, a metro area of 175,000 with a substantial share of black residents (41 percent), an unemployment rate above the national average and a local university working to serve as a hub for journalism innovation; and Sioux City, a city that spans three states and has a predominantly white population of just 125,000. These cities are not meant to be extrapolated to the U.S. as a whole, but rather serve as a set of case studies on the ebb and flow of daily local news that speak to the diversity of modern American cities.

Facebook was analyzed as follows:

The starting point for the Facebook study was the list of public Facebook pages collected during the audit of each city’s media landscape, such as those linked to local TV channels or municipal organizations. This list was enhanced by using Google advanced search to conduct several rounds of searches on Facebook for any public pages that used keywords referencing news in each city. That process added many more pages into the mix, from local advocacy groups to music bloggers to local journalists’ personal Facebook pages. In total, across the three cities, the center identified a total of 299 total pages, although 66 of those pages had no posts at all during the 14 days studied.

Researchers then used the Facebook public application-programming interface to download a data file containing all of the posts from these pages during the date range for each city. This contained information about the page itself, the content of each post on the page and metadata associated with each post (such as the number of comments and likes on each post) and the text of all comments. The analysis below is based on this set of pages, posts and comments.


As for Twitter:

The Twitter analysis began with a list of Twitter handles gathered during the audit of each city’s media landscape, such as that of the local TV stations, local members of Congress and the mayor’s office. Then, using the Twitter firehose (a tool contracted through GNIP that provides full access to all content on Twitter), researchers pulled all of the tweets from each of those handles during the date range for each city. This resulted in around 4.7 million tweets across the three cities.

From there, researchers identified any account that retweeted or @ mentioned any of those handles and added this group of news sharers to the sample. This technique, sometimes referred to as “snowball sampling,” is a way to identify Twitter handles beyond structured providers of news. This resulted in a total of more than 4 million tweets across all three cities. Those tweets and all of their metadata are analyzed below.


Pew Research Center director of journalism research Amy Mitchell said in a release announcing the report:

Local news plays an important role in each of these cities, but these case studies indicate how local factors — including digital infrastructure, economics, race and ethnicity, civic engagement and education — contribute to the mix of providers and shape the way residents interact with those providers.

Knight Foundation director for strategy and assessment Jon Sotsky added:

While local news continues to be a regular and influential part of people’s lives, the ways in which they consume that news has changed dramatically. This study provides important insights on how people interact with, share and connect to news in three diverse American cities– helping journalists and media organizations identify new ways to engage audiences and build stronger local news ecosystems.

Readers: What did you think of the findings by Pew Research Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.