Those mobile devices are handy, but for many, not so newsy

Posted: March 14, 2011

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and its Internet & American Life Project released a 23-page report Monday: "How mobile devices are changing community information environments."

The findings, based on a 26-question telephone survey conducted during two weeks in January with 2,251 adults, can be summarized in fewer words than your average Twitter feed:

Not much.

To expand (but in the spirit of the subject, only a little), the public's attitude toward palm-of-the-hand media is: Give us the weather, not the news.

In the report's summary, Pew researchers proclaim that "local news is going mobile" based on data that show nearly half of all American adults (47 percent) report that they get at least some local news and information on their cell phone or tablet computer.

Not to rain on the revelation, but they've defined "news and information" a little loosely.

It's not as if Texans are refreshing their mini-screens for the latest on proposed legislation to monitor the Daughters of the Texas Revolution finances more closely. Or Colorado's iPhones are constantly flashing updates on the Denver Post's investigation into bank fraud. Or Philadelphians are crashing into walls because they're walking (or driving) along Market Street, riveted to their BlackBerries so they can read excerpts from Gov. Corbett's budget address.

When inquiring minds turn to their smartphones, what they want to know is . . . "Do I need an umbrella?"

"What they seek out most on mobile platforms," Pew found, "is information that is practical and in real time: 42 percent . . . report getting weather updates."

Next on the list of top hits was "information on restaurants or other local businesses."

How many of those surveyed said they used mobile devices to get information on "crime, community events, schools and education, politics and cultural events and social services"? Thirty percent do get general local news, and an additional 24 percent access local sports scores - numbers nearly rivaled by traffic reports and discount coupons.

Internationally, recent news reports would indicate, mobile devices are used to spread revolution and embolden the oppressed, and have transmitted remarkable images from Japan. Around Philadelphia, their greatest utility seems to be helping middle-aged women complete sentences such as "That actress, um, the one who played the senator's wife in The Birdcage . . ."

The Pew study, however, looked at local news-usage trends still in their infancy, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. After all, the iPad and its competitors arrived not so long ago, and smartphone apps are proliferating faster than people's interest and computer prowess.

Still, Rainie says, with 84 percent of the country in possession of a mobile phone or tablet computer, "the basic media environment is changing, and these devices are an important part of that story."

The one sure conclusion the study reached is that people who get their news for free watching television, listening to the radio, reading online, or picking up Newsweek at the dentist's office would rather not have to pay for it. Only 23 percent of respondents said they'd be willing to part with $5 a month for online access to their local newspaper - even if that was the only way to read it.

Those who make a living in this field will try not to take it personally. But seriously, 30 days of solid information about wars, politics, education, health, crime, sports - and the weather - not worth one foot-long hoagie? Half a movie ticket? A box of Band-Aids?

The study found that 39 percent of respondents would not care greatly if their local newspaper died. They said it would have no impact on their ability to keep up with local information.

Funny thing about that perception. Despite the explosion in news sources over the last 20 years, the average American's knowledge of current events has remained fairly constant.

In November, Pew found that fewer than half of Americans in a survey knew that the Republicans had won a majority in the House.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or

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