Can Local Journalism Be Saved?

PRINCETON – “All politics is local,” proclaims an old American saying. That might partly explain why democratic politics is going so badly – especially, but not only, in the United States. For local government to work properly, there must be local journalism to hold politicians and policymakers to account. But local journalism has been collapsing in many parts of the world.

This makes it more difficult for citizens to connect to civic life, both locally and, eventually, nationally. Local problems that could have wider significance go unreported, and many of the on-the-ground effects of national policies are unrecognized. But though there is no single “fix” for the decline of local journalism, we are not helpless. Experiments in different countries suggest ways to revitalize local reporting. All make the production of public-interest news, by whatever economic means available, a priority over seeking to salvage outdated commercial approaches.

For most of the twentieth century, the news business relied on advertising revenue. But that model started collapsing in the late 1990s as the internet became ubiquitous. Local journalism was hit especially hard, not only because ads migrated to free online classified boards (like Craigslist), but also because local papers lacked the resources to build an attractive web presence that could support a successful subscription model.

The consequences have been dramatic. By some estimates, one-third of the newspapers that existed in the US in 2005 will be gone by 2025. Some 70 million US citizens already live in “news deserts,” or will soon. In the United Kingdom, 320 local newspapers closed between 2009 and 2019. The private-equity firms that have been buying up news organizations tend to make things worse. Rather than investing in journalism, their focus is on ruthlessly reducing the size of newsrooms and selling off newspaper buildings (many of which are in lucrative downtown locations).

The implications for democracy are beyond debate. Social scientists who study the issue have demonstrated clearly that less local journalism results in higher levels of corruption, undermines political competition, and reduces citizen engagement.

Because politicians representing rural or neglected areas are subject to less accountability, the effects of their decisions on their constituencies are then also less likely to be investigated properly. And even if there is good local reporting, it too often remains local. George Santos’s serial lying was known around Long Island and covered by a local newspaper, but it did not become a national news story until weeks after he was elected to Congress.

Making matters worse, the vacuum created by the absence of local news is often filled by national culture wars. Of course, engagement with local issues does not automatically make people more civil or pragmatic. Disputes among neighbors are often the most unpleasant of all, and culture wars can just as easily be stoked at the local level by operatives who create moral panics through propaganda outlets that are designed to look like newspapers.

In these cases, cynical activists are taking advantage of the fact that most people remain more trusting of local publications. Such “pink slime journalism” (a reference to the filler in processed meat) serves solely to foment acrimony and polarization. Having been inundated with conspiracy theories and propaganda masquerading as reporting, people living in news deserts generally do not even necessarily realize that they are being deprived of news.

Although no single business model has emerged as a reliable replacement for advertising revenue, alternatives to the tyranny of the market exist. Consider philanthropy. While there is an obvious danger of creating dependencies or conflicts of interest, a mixture of philanthropic funding and volunteering can give rise to inspiring initiatives like Report for America, which places people in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues.

Moreover, countries like the UK could make it easier for journalism to qualify as a charitable activity, and governments everywhere can provide grants. The peril of creating dependencies or conflicts of interest is avoidable if there are enough layers between the state and recipients of taxpayer money.

Contrary to what Elon Musk wants people to think when he smears the US broadcaster NPR as “state-affiliated media,” mechanisms for insulating journalists from political pressures have long been available in public-service broadcasting. There is no reason why they can’t be extended to local journalism as well.

Other innovative approaches include employee- and community-owned news organizations. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, is run as a public-benefit corporation, and owned by a nonprofit institute devoted to reinvigorating local journalism. In any case, what matters is not just that news organizations receive sufficient funding. It is that they also make creative use of technology to engage local audiences and, ideally, enable previously marginalized communities to generate their own reporting.

Democracy depends on communication. But effective communication, in turn, depends on understanding which democratic decisions really matter. To that end, the US-based nonprofit States Newsroom focuses squarely on state-level policies that affect citizens in ways that are not obvious even to the relatively well-informed.

The Documenters program trains and pays people to report on local government meetings that otherwise would go unobserved. And the BBC, for its part, has partnered with local newspapers to increase the quantity and quality of local reporting, sending a clear signal that decisions on the ground matter.

Some approaches will function better than others, depending on the locale. But as a general matter, it is crucial to avoid strategies that primarily benefit larger regional or even national newspaper companies, rather than local institutions. Well-intentioned plans to let newspapers negotiate for content fees from big platforms like Google have worked for powerful media companies in Australia, and they may yet work for big organizations in the US, thanks to the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. But money must go to the grassroots, too. The goal, after all, is to generate genuine news of public interest about and from places otherwise forgotten or ignored.

Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; Allen Lane, 2021).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.


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