The University Network

Without Local News, Americans Are Left Severely Uninformed

All across the United States, local news sources are being gutted and shut down. As a result, Americans are left woefully uninformed. 

They’re shorted valuable information about how their taxes are being spent, what is said at local school board meetings, and whether their government officials and neighboring corporations are acting ethically, efficiently and responsibly. 

That’s the finding of a report recently released by PEN America, a nonprofit organization championing writing and freedom of expression. 

“Local news is basically a cornerstone of our democracy,” said Viktorya Vilk, a co-author of the report. “There are numerous studies that have shown that when local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity and efficiency.”

“We need local news as a watchdog to ensure that our governments, our corporations, our institutions are held accountable — that someone is keeping an eye on what they’re doing,” she continued. 

At this point, more than 1,300 U.S. communities have completely lost their local news sources, with newspapers being hit the hardest. Over the last 15 years, local newspapers have lost $35 billion in ad revenue and 47 percent of their newsroom staff. Altogether, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed, leaving around 3 million people without any local paper. And of the few that still exist, most local newspapers are republishing national news and do very little local reporting. 

Naturally, this decline in local news has hit hardest in communities traditionally underserved by local media — low-income communities, communities of color and communities in rural areas, the researchers note. 

A case study in Detroit, for example, shows that a loss of local news sources has resulted in many pressing issues failing to be adequately reported, from rampant water shutoffs to unethical real estate development.

In Denver, the loss of the once-thriving Rocky Mountain News and significant cuts to the Denver Post has resulted in a significant dropoff of civic engagement, according to a separate case study. 

Another case study shares the story of Greg Barnes who worked at The Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, North Carolina, for decades before taking a buyout in 2018. Towards the end of his time at the paper, he says that budget cuts and layoffs forced him into “plugging gaps” rather than doing investigative reporting, which was his forte. 

Yet, somehow, the decline of local news is lost on the American public. A Pew Research Center report found that seven in 10 Americans believe their local news outlets are doing “very or somewhat well financially.” However, only 14 percent have paid for local news in the past year. Across the board, many Americans are transitioning to digital.  

“There is a tendency to think that audiences are disappearing, but that is misleading,” the authors of the report write. “In fact, the appetite for powerful investigative journalism has never been greater — or more urgent. The collapse of local news ecosystems is actually a collapse of the business model, rooted in ad revenue, that for decades sustained local reporting.” 

Ad revenue that once went to local news outlets is now going to search engines and social media platforms. In fact, of the nearly $200 billion spent on ads in 2018, about half went to Facebook and Google, alone, according to the report. And in local markets, it’s even more extreme, with 77 percent of 2019’s digital ad revenue going to those two companies. 

Naturally, advertisers tend to be drawn towards Facebook and Google, because the platforms have so much user data and can narrow down an audience based on their demographics. 

For local newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, it’s hard to compete. Companies don’t want to buy ads to be placed on local news platforms, which are targeted towards the more general public, when they can instead buy ads from Facebook and Google and have their product targeted towards the specific demographic that is most likely to buy their product. 

And yes, local media sources can transition to digital — nearly all of them already have done so. But Facebook and Google also use algorithms to determine what content places ahead of others. 

“These algorithms affect the way that millions of Americans receive their news, so that the algorithms’ choices — over which content is prominently surfaced and which is downplayed — have a significant impact on how well news stories do with digital audiences,” the authors write.  

In the wake of local media sources’ deterioration, there are some new, digitally focused outlets that have stepped in to fill their place. The authors of the report reference Chalkbeat, a nonprofit site that reports about public schools and school board meetings across the nation. They also mention Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization, and Block Club Chicago, a local Chicago-based online media company. 

Additionally, there are many non-profit organizations working tirelessly to preserve local journalism. 

To name a few, the American Journalism Project helps find funders who are willing to support local news organizations while they search for a sustainable revenue stream. The Lenfest Institute has made it its sole mission to conduct research to help find local journalism a new, sustainable business model. And Report For America places young journalists in underserved newsrooms across the United States, thus helping both the new generation of journalists perfect their craft and providing willing journalists to communities that otherwise couldn’t afford them. 

Colleges and universities, too, have an important role to play in saving local news. 

Just a couple of years ago, Rick Brunson, a journalism professor at the University of Central Florida (UCF), helped launch an initiative similar to what Report For America does. 

“We got a grant two years ago from a very generous donor who is concerned about the state of local news,” said Brunson. “What we did was, we went to the Orlando Sentinel, our local paper here, and we asked the editors, ‘What local, small towns that are in your coverage area do you no longer have a beat reporter exclusively covering?’ ”

From there, senior journalism students were embedded as beat reporters in those underserved communities for the Orlando Sentinel, Brunson explained. 

“It was highly successful,” said Brunson. “They’re all employed because of their experience. And it gave the newspaper expanded coverage in communities that they no longer have expanded coverage in. So that’s a university partnering with a local news organization to be part of the solution.”

Additionally, as local news has gradually shrunk across the United States, student newspapers have stepped in to fill some of the gaps. 

Take the city of Norman, Oklahoma, for example. 

There, the local newspaper The Norman Transcript has a total staff of only 15. The paper’s lack of revenue has led to many cutbacks and layoffs over recent years. But the University of Oklahoma’s student-run Oklahoma Daily has a total staff of 60, and together, the newspapers keep each other attentive. 

“The OU Daily is very much a competitor,” Caleb Slinkard, Transcript’s editor-in-chief, told Poynter. “We take them very seriously and they do a great job. We don’t like being scooped by them, and in our minds, they’re a professional organization.”

However, while these are all significant and valuable steps towards preserving local media, they aren’t enough, according to the authors of the report. They’d like to see a more comprehensive approach, including the expansion of public and private funding. 

“Given the scope and scale of the problem, a solution is unlikely without dramatically expanding public funding for local journalism, through either reform and expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the creation of a new national endowment for journalism,” the authors write. 

And despite the current state of local news, educators and thought leaders are still encouraging students to enter the field. 

“There is nothing better than going into local media,” said Brunson. “It’s the closest thing to the ground and to terra firma and shoe-leather reporting that you’re gonna get. You can’t cover the news from Starbucks with your laptop flipped open and blogging about whatever’s on the top of your head.”

Vilk agrees. 

“We need students to go into local media,” she said. “We need dedicated, tireless, relentless young reporters to be our watchdogs and to keep governments and corporations accountable.”