Resurrecting Local News: Questions with Viktorya Vilk and Nora Benavidez

PEN America, which has championed literary freedom of expression for almost 100 years, in November published a report in November titled “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions.” The organization’s president, Jennifer Egan, said that threats to free expression have [grown], adding that her nonprofit was “uniquely equipped” to fight these threats.

Viktorya Vilk, Free Expressions Programs Manager of Special Projects at PEN America

Viktorya Vilk, Free Expressions Programs Manager of Special Projects at PEN America

PEN America undertook this project because recent research found most Americans are not aware of how the loss of local news organizations threatens grassroots democracy, leading to less engagement by citizens in local elections and unchecked misbehavior by businesses and government officials at all levels.

Nora Benavidez, Director of U.S. Free Expressions Programs

Nora Benavidez, Director of U.S. Free Expressions Programs

Viktorya Vilk, Free Expressions Programs Manager of Special Projects at PEN America, and Nora Benavidez, Director of U.S. Free Expressions Programs, outlined corrective measures philanthropy, tech giants and the federal government can undertake to maintain a healthy local news ecosystem and avoid deepening this local news crisis. Using Vilk’s museum and nonprofit arts expertise and Benavidez’ experience as a civil rights attorney, the two spoke to dozens of reporters, editors, media experts, community activists, and elected officials about the state of local journalism -- and also commissioned three reporters in Colorado, Michigan and North Carolina to write detailed case studies describing what they were seeing on the ground.

Full Report: “Click here to read Losing the News.”

  1. Why did PEN America become interested in this topic?

    PEN America is a nonprofit that celebrates and defends the written word, here in the United States and internationally. We have more than 7,500 members — many of whom are professional writers, journalists, editors, and publishers — in every U.S. state. After the 2016 election, we launched a national outreach program to support and connect our members and allies in their efforts to mobilize local communities in defense of press freedom and other urgent free expression issues. As our engagement around the country deepened, we heard a growing sense of alarm about the decline of local journalism. These concerns sparked our research into the state of local news and ultimately led to the publication of our report, Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions.

  2. Why does PEN America describe what’s happening to local journalism as a “national crisis”?

    We were struck by the degree to which local news outlets are being decimated across the country, in small towns and major cities alike. The communities that have traditionally been underserved by local media — communities of color, low-income communities, and rural communities — are those most severely affected by its current decline.The traditional business model for local journalism has collapsed. As people get more of their news online, tech giants such as Google and Facebook are siphoning most of the ad revenue that historically subsidized local watchdog reporting. Local newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations are being consolidated into national conglomerates, increasingly controlled by hedge funds and private equity firms that are slashing costs to make a profit. Newspapers have been hit the hardest, losing $35 billion in ad revenue and nearly 50% of staff in the past 15 years. And as pioneering research from UNC’s own Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media has shown, nearly 2,000 newspapers have closed. Because newspapers still provide more than 60% of original reporting at the local level, the loss of newspapers represents the decline of local watchdog reporting.We see the decimation of local journalism as a crisis because it represents a pressing threat to American democracy. Without reliable information on how tax dollars are spent, how federal policy affects local communities, and whether local elected officials are meeting constituent needs, how can we expect citizens to make informed choices about who should govern? As we enter another election cycle, with political polarization growing and disinformation spreading, having a shared baseline of facts on the issues affecting us is more essential than ever.

  3.  What are viable big-picture solutions to this “national crisis”?

    Across the country, the media industry is adapting and innovating. Emerging and existing outlets are developing alternative revenue streams such as subscriptions, memberships to public events and consulting; joining forces with foundations or shifting to nonprofit models; collaborating to pool resources and expand reach; and experimenting with journalism that is solutions-focused and more deeply engaged with the needs of communities. While no single approach offers a comprehensive solution, many of these initiatives show promise, filling the growing gaps in investigative and beat reporting and reimagining how journalism works and whom it serves. There is not yet enough funding within the wider ecosystem, however, to cover the massive shortfalls created by declining ad revenue and to support and sustain some of the most promising experiments. Local journalism is too important for our policy makers to stand by and hope the industry can adapt and innovate its way out of market failure.Given the scope of the crisis, Losing the News calls for a radical rethinking of local journalism — not just as a commercial product, but as a public good. Revitalizing local news will require policy and legislation that protects and promotes localism and diversity in the media landscape, as well as investments in the billions of dollars, which cannot and should not come from a single source.

  4.  What can philanthropic entities, tech giants like Google and Facebook, and the U.S. government do to help address this crisis?

    Solutions at scale — that address systemic inequities in coverage and representation — will require coordinated efforts by the media industry, philanthropists, tech giants, and the government.News organizations need to let the American public know its local news is endangered and that watchdog reporting requires both time and resources. Recent Pew studies have shown that Americans value and trust their local news sources, but more than 70% have no idea their local news outlets are struggling and only 14% actually pay for news.While philanthropic investment in journalism has quadrupled over the past decade, local media challenges — of scale, reach, equity, and sustainability — remain. Funding must expand dramatically. It will need to be more targeted, prioritizing local journalism at small- and mid-size outlets that emphasizes racial, ethnic, geographic diversity.Tech giants like Google and Facebook are siphoning more than 77% of ad revenue in local markets, benefiting from content produced by local outlets without equitably sharing in the profits. Their efforts to drive traffic to news outlets’ websites and their initiatives to support local journalism via tools, training and direct financial support must offset lost ad revenue. In our report, we encourage tech giants to negotiate more equitable licensing or ad-revenue sharing agreements with local news outlets and to be more transparent about algorithmic changes that could shift traffic patterns. We also support the proposal put forth by the nonprofit Free Press to tax tech companies’ digital ad revenue, which would raise billions annually to support local public interest journalism.Finally, state and federal governments have a vital role to play in revitalizing local journalism. We need policy and legislation that puts the brakes on rampant consolidation and nationalization of local news organizations and that makes it easier for commercial news outlets to transition to nonprofit and blended business models. And we need to expand the pool of public funding available for local reporting, by reforming the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and potentially creating a new National Endowment for Journalism — with the critical caveat that any new mechanisms for public support would require robust guardrails to protect editorial independence.

  5. How do you plan to continue the discussion around the importance of news and information?

    Losing the News advocates for the creation of a national Congressional Commission — a spiritual successor to the Carnegie Commission and its creation of the CPB in 1967 — to examine the current state of the nation’s local news landscape and to offer recommendations for the role government can play vis-a-vis local watchdog reporting. We are also working with policy leaders at the state level. In 2019, we joined an 11-member Free Press coalition, calling on New Jersey’s governor to create the first state consortium to provide public funding for local news. And PEN America intends to leverage this report to generate awareness, debate, and action on the local news crisis. We provide financial support, through our Press Freedom Incentive Fund — for local initiatives that promote press freedom, and we are joining forces with local partners to host awareness events — in cities like Detroit, Denver and Durham.