The Path Forward: Reinventing Local News

In three turbulent months in 2020, our country has confronted three historic crises – a once-in-a century pandemic, an economic downturn of Depression-era proportions, and massive civil unrest and protests that harken back to the 1960s. Each played out on a national and international level, but also locally. Separately and together, these crises have reinforced the critical need for reliable information that guides the decisions we make every day – decisions that determine the quality of our own lives, those of our neighbors and fellow citizens, and those that will influence the lives of future generations.

As this report makes clear, we are at a moment of reckoning. The local news ecosystem is in peril. The first section, “The News Landscape in 2020,” lays out what we have lost. This second section, “The News Landscape of the Future,” lays out the challenges and opportunities in four interrelated categories. Now we must decide what to save, and what must be reinvented.

Journalistic mission: News deserts contribute to cultural, economic and political divides in our increasingly polarized country. Over the past 15 years, the nation has lost a fourth of our local newspapers, which have historically been the prime source of credible and critical news and information in most small and mid-sized communities. Many of the inner-city neighborhoods, suburban towns and rural villages that have lost a newspaper are struggling economically, with as much as a third of residents living in poverty. Many are also home to large ethnic and minority populations who are often overlooked by the journalists at mainstream news organizations. “In the best case, we are undercovered. In the worst case, we are ignored,” says Hilda Gurdian, publisher of a weekly newspaper covering the Latino community in North Carolina.

The nation is moving inexorably toward a date in the fourth decade of this century when whites will become a minority population in this country. Without strong local news coverage, the voices of residents in overlooked and underserved communities are not heard, and their stories are not told – to the detriment of democracy and society. Many of the communities that have lost newspapers have no alternative source of reliable local news, such as digital outlets or regional television, which are mostly clustered in affluent metro areas.

Strong local journalism builds trust in democratic institutions and it builds strong communities. In a 2018 column in The Washington Post, “The Local News Crisis is Destroying What a Divided America Desperately Needs: Common Ground,” media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote, “One of the problems of losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.”349 In the early decades of the 20th century, journalists focused on establishing codes of conduct built around objectivity and fairness. Making certain that no community is disenfranchised because its residents lack access to critical information is the journalistic challenge of the 21st century. The burden for accomplishing this mission is not only on journalists, but also on community activists, philanthropists, owners of news organizations and government officials to make sure newsrooms have the resources they need to enfranchise everyone.

Business Model: Rethinking journalistic principles necessarily involves reinventing the business model. The collapse of the commercial model that sustained most newspapers, large and small, for 200 years has caused legacy and start-up news organizations to scramble to find new sources of revenue, including digital subscriptions, memberships, crowdsourcing and nonprofit grants. But so far, no silver bullet has emerged, nor is it likely that any single source of new revenue can adequately compensate for the loss of advertising dollars. As a result, local newspapers have turned to round after round of dramatic cost-cutting, which has, in turn, led to the loss of half of newspaper journalists over the past decade. Overall newsroom employment – which includes journalists working for television and digital outlets – has decreased by a fourth.

Locally owned and operated news outlets located in more affluent communities have much better prospects of cobbling together for-profit and nonprofit funding from a variety of sources than those in economically struggling communities. While some deep-pocketed benefactors have purchased larger, well-known newspapers – or financed the start-up of a local or statewide digital site – hundreds of other dailies and weeklies in less affluent, small and mid-sized communities have been shuttered when no one stepped forward to either buy the paper or support the establishment of an alternative news source. Furthermore, asking residents in poor communities to pay more for the news they receive – in order to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue – has the far-ranging consequence of exacerbating the chasm between communities that can afford quality journalism and those whose residents cannot.

Journalism is considered a “public good” because, in theory, better informed citizens make better decisions about important matters than enhance their own lives and their neighbors’. Yet, the United States is unique among democracies in its lack of government support for public media. Even the country’s public broadcasting mainstays – PBS and NPR – rely primarily on nonprofit, not taxpayer, financial support. However, nonprofit support of local news amounts to a minuscule fraction of what is needed to replace the loss of revenue that has supported strong on-the-ground reporting. Increasingly, it appears that the only way to ensure that all communities – rich and poor – have access to critical information on vital topics, such as health and public safety, is to allocate more public funding toward local news. This means building out the journalistic model already established by NPR and PBS, which embodies editorial independence, and finding new ways to support legacy and start-up news organizations with taxpayer money.

Technological capabilities: Ironically, in the internet age, we are a nation divided digitally between those who have access to high-speed internet and those who don’t. Even in communities where broadband and wireless are available, many residents cannot afford the monthly bill to access those services. Bypassed by the technological revolution, residents of inner city neighborhoods, as well as rural communities and Native American reservations, struggle to get timely information about the spread of the coronavirus, for example, and their children are unable to participate in online instruction when schools are closed. Without a significant commitment at the local, state and federal levels to building out the digital infrastructure that will connect them with the rest of the country, these communities – many of which are poor and have large populations of minority residents – will slowly wither and die.

We are also a nation divided politically, in large part because of algorithms that determine the news and information we consume. News organizations – as well as international bad actors – rely on the metrics supplied by Facebook and Google to provide instant feedback on how widely a news article or misinformation is being shared and cited. Public service journalism – investigative and analytical reporting on matters of critical importance, such as education, the environment, politics and the economy – fails to gain traction on the internet, while sensational crime stories and offbeat features become a mainstay of our news feeds, and conspiracy theories rise to the top when we search for information.

Simultaneously, the dominance of Facebook and Google in the digital ad space has stripped news organizations of the revenue and profit needed to support strong public service journalism. Although both Google and Facebook have pledged $300 million to support local news, it does not begin to replace the local journalism that the two tech giants have destroyed. In testimony before Congress in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg billed Facebook as “a technology company where the main thing we do is have engineers and build products.”350 The insistence on being viewed as a technology company – not a media company – absolves the tech giants of making tough editorial decisions about their algorithms that determine the news and misinformation we receive on our feeds. It also allows them to avoid dealing with the financial hardships confronting local news organizations, especially the ones serving small and mid-sized communities, where residents need access to reliable news and information in order to make wise decisions that will affect the fate of the place they call home.

Policies and Regulations – Local journalism has been in dramatic decline over the past 15 years, as news organizations and journalists have disappeared. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, almost three-quarters of people surveyed in 2019 were unaware of the financial difficulties confronting local newspapers and digital sites, and less than 15 percent had paid for a subscription over the past year. The variety of policies currently being considered and supported by legislators and government agencies in Washington, D.C., speak to an awakening at the federal level of what is at stake. Yet, as our overview of pending bills and policies points out, many of the proposals are targeted and limited in scope – and do not address the underlying fundamental issues.

In order to reinvent local news to meet the needs of the 21st century, new policies and regulations need to simultaneously acknowledge and address the interconnectedness of journalistic mission to the business model and technological capabilities. Massive consolidation in both the news and technology industries has shifted journalistic and business decision-making into the hands of a few corporate titans, who are detached from the impact their choices have on communities. Addressing these issues will be fraught with controversy in a polarized nation. In order to succeed, there needs to be a coordinated effort among government officials and ordinary citizens at the national, state and local levels.

The United States is a nation of both big cities and small towns. Only 775 cities have a population of more than 50,000, while almost 20,000 incorporated places have fewer than 5,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Our system of governance relies on the consistent flow of reliable information to the 330 million residents of this country, regardless of whether they live in a high-rise apartment in the Manhattan borough of New York City, or on a farm near Manhattan, Kansas. In “Democracy Without Journalism,” University of Pennsylvania professor Victor Pickard writes,” It is through local journalism that communities stay connected to and informed about what is happening in their backyards – especially in their schools, their governments, and other critical institutions and infrastructures. They rely on local news to find out about the quality of their environment – whether their air and water are safe – and who is running for local office and why. Yet it is precisely this kind of journalism that is quickly disappearing. If we as a society want to encourage this sort of reporting, we must find ways to support it.”351

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