Local News: Democracy Depends on It

Newspaper printing pressThe internet upended the business model for media, and local newspapers have suffered some of the worst losses. But local newspapers are critical to our democracy, and we can help save them.

March 15, 2020

In the past 15 years, more than 1,400 cities and towns across the U.S. have lost their local newspapers. While people may also have access to radio, television, and online news sources, research shows that when it comes to original reporting and circulating critical information, newspapers can’t be beat.

The Neiman Lab, a non-profit organization that studies and promotes journalism, analyzed the reporting of media outlets in 100 communities across the country and assessed each story against three standards: whether it was original, whether it was local, and whether it addressed a critical information need. Their research found that local newspapers comprised only about a quarter of local media outlets in their sample, but accounted for:

  • nearly half of original news stories
  • nearly 60 percent of local news stories
  • more than 38 percent of the stories that addressed a critical information need

Of the stories that met all three of Neiman’s standards, 60 percent were from local newspapers. Neiman concluded that “local newspapers produced more of the local reporting in the communities we studied than television, radio, and online-only outlets combined.”

Tough economics are hurting all kinds of publications, but the loss of a local newspaper is particularly acute for the communities they serve. Here’s why, and here’s what you can do.

Local News Enriches Civic Life
A growing body of research shows that civic life dwindles when local newspapers close. For example, one study examined 11 California newspapers over two decades of local elections and found that fewer people run for mayor when fewer journalists are covering an area, and that fewer people vote. “If there’s nobody reporting on or providing information about candidates, about legislation, about how money is being spent, or the budgeting process, how will people know that they require a quality challenger to unseat an ineffective mayor?” asked Meghan Rubado, a former local journalist and one of the study’s authors, in an interview with CityLab. “They don’t know the mayor is ineffective!”

There is also evidence that less local news equates to more political polarization. “Voters in communities that have experienced a newspaper closure are less likely to split their vote between the two major political parties, contributing to national political polarization,” explains a report by the Brookings Institution. “And, with local news struggling to survive and compete with national news outlets for consumers’ attention, partisan reporting and coverage of national partisan conflict has come to dominate news consumers’ diet.”

Local News Holds Government Accountable
Local reporters have long acted as watchdogs in communities across the country. But there are fewer and fewer of them. Take the San Jose Mercury News, which employed 400 journalists in the 1990s but is now down to a fraction of that. With so few local journalists dedicated to keeping an eye on the government, “residents don’t have the information to make decisions for their families or hold institutions accountable,” wrote two journalism advocates in The Washington Post. “They don’t know if their schools are underperforming and or their mayor is corrupt or their courts are fair.” A 2010 study by Pew Research Center found that as local media in Baltimore shrunk, more local news stories relied not on original reporting but on press releases by elected officials, often using language from those press releases word for word.

There is also evidence that a decline of local media degrades the functioning of local government. Dermot Murphy, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago, set out to measure the effect, wondering if “when local media is not present to keep their government in check, then there would be a greater likelihood of mismanaged public funds and other government inefficiencies.” Murphy and his colleagues found that indeed there was. Between 1996 and 2015, counties that had experienced a newspaper closure had significant increases in local government borrowing costs compared to similar nearby counties. Local taxpayers, whether they voted or not, bore the cost.

Fortunately for voters, local news isn’t going quietly. A number of initiatives are training journalists, helping news outlets develop sustainable business models, funding investigative reporting, and bringing local reporters into schools to teach media literacy. Report for America stations journalists in underserved local newsrooms to train the next generation of reporters. News Revenue Hub provides news outlets with business expertise. And ProPublica supports local and regional newsrooms working on important investigative projects.

Are you ready to support local news? If you still have a local newspaper, subscribe to it! And whether your community has a local paper or not, check out this list of resources from the Knight Foundation on ways to support quality local journalism.

Learn More

Your Backyard: This interactive tool details the media ecosystems of 99 metropolitan areas in the U.S. Type in your closest city to see how your neighbors consume local news – via Pew Research Center

Saving Journalism: On this new podcast, two journalists discuss how the rise of big tech platforms like Facebook and Google are strangling the media ecosystem – via The -30-

Mass Extinction: This vivid report by an advocacy group for writers looks at three places – Denver, Detroit, and two counties in North Carolina – where residents can no longer rely on local news – via PEN America

Information Begets Cooperation: When citizens lose their local newspaper, they fall back on party labels and partisan identities. This evidence suggests that if we want to help Americans find common ground, we must revive and sustain local journalism – via NeimanLab

Reality Check: Are Americans worried about the atrophy of local news? Strangely, no. In fact, seven in ten think their local news outlets are doing “very or somewhat well financially.” – via The Atlantic

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This article originally appeared in the March 15, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and published articles — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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