A confession: I was a “watchdog reporting” snob. At Report for America, which I co-founded, we bragged mostly about the corps members who did “accountability stories” — corruption at city hall, dirty drinking water and horrible conditions in the local prisons. We celebrate these crucial stories for good reason. If we’re not doing them, often no one else will.
But in only emphasizing this kind of journalism, we have offered a grossly incomplete explanation of why the collapse of local news poses a threat to the country.
In addition to the watchdog function, local news — of a different sort — has a community cohesion role. Obituaries, high school sports, school board meetings, the new economic development plan, the amateur theater production, a couple’s 50th wedding anniversary — these types of stories teach neighbors about each other, provide basic information on community problems and create a sense of shared interest.
In fact, the decline of local reporting has helped fuel polarization, misinformation and the growing tendency for Americans to demonize each other. If we have any hope of addressing those democracy-crushing problems, we have to dramatically strengthen local news.
Zombies, ghosts and news deserts
The daily newspaper of Salinas, California, now has no reporters. A zombie newspaper. Like its namesake in movies, it keeps moving, twitching and acting like it’s alive, but there’s no heartbeat, no judgment and little usefulness. On May 4, of 30 editorial links on the homepage of the paper’s website, TheCalifornian, only one was “local” — a piece reprinted from another newspaper about events in Shasta County, 300 miles away.
The degradation of local news has been so sudden and dramatic that it’s spawned a new vocabulary. In addition to zombie newspapers, we have “news deserts,” the 1,800 communities that used to have local news and now don’t. Two newspapers are closing each week on average. And there are “ghost newspapers,” where many of the desks in the newsroom sit spookily empty. There are several thousands of those because there’s been a 57% drop in the number of reporters in less than two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are now more local librarians than local newspaper reporters.
We all know this decline leads to worse government and more corruption. But here’s what we discuss less often: It affects how we interact with each other. When newspapers closed down in Seattle and Denver in 2008 and 2009, scholars found that residents were less likely to participate in communal activities such as the PTA, a neighborhood watch or a civic organization such as American Legion or Lions Club. Civic engagement in Denver dropped approximately 30% between 2008 and 2009.
In another study, the Pew Research Center found that 59% of those who followed local news closely had a strong sense of “community attachment” compared to 27% among those who didn’t follow local news. People who closely followed local news were far more likely to know their neighbors’ names.
The problem is not just that they know less about their town, it’s that they slide toward “knowing” a bit too much about their country. The vacuum created by the decline of local news has been filled in large part by national news. One astonishing study of 16,000 stories in local newspapers found that only 17% were about local civic issues. And those who stopped reading the paper have likely turned to cable TV.
This matters because national news is more likely to heighten our us-vs.-them mindset. In fact, professors Joshua Darr, Johanna Dunaway and Matthew Hitt have noticed that when local news availability declined, voters became more partisan — the proof being that they were less likely to split their tickets on election day. So they asked: Could strengthening local content reverse the trend? Luckily, he came across a “natural experiment” that could help them find out. The newspaper in Palm Springs, California, The Desert Sun, decided to purge its opinion pages of any national pieces for one month. That didn’t eliminate controversy. Far from it. Residents fought over a variety of issues, especially whether a new downtown arena would clog traffic and harm the Native American tribe on whose land it was.
But the battle lines were not Democrat vs. Republican, and that turned out to matter. They surveyed readers in Palm Springs and then residents of a comparable town, Ventura, where the national pundits dominated the editorial page. The result: High-information consumers in Palm Springs were less polarized compared to the nationally focused folks in Ventura. For instance, they were less likely to object to their child marrying someone of the other political party!
The advantage of local conflict is that it helpfully messes with our sense of tribal identity. Each person has several identities. You might be a Fox News viewer and a member of a church and a member of a labor union. When your ideological and partisan identities are fully aligned — all the people from all your worlds are on the same side politically — you are more likely to get emotional about it all. The walls of your bubble grow thicker. But on a local matter, an MSNBC watcher by night may find that her closest ally by day in the don’t-build-a-playground-near-the-prison fight might be a Fox News watcher. Mind blown, or at least opened.
Also, it’s usually harder to caricature someone as satanic if you’re hitching a ride into town with him. You may still think he’s an idiot, but you might be less likely to think he’s a pedophile Communist.
The local news crisis probably fuels rage for another reason: People who are less informed about their communities often feel more powerless and alienated. That same Pew Research Center study found that 52% of those who skip local news say, “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” Local news junkies were more upbeat; only 38% felt that way. What’s more, while only 31% of the less-informed group said they know how to “make a difference,” 65% of the local-news-heavy consumers felt empowered.
Perhaps this partly helps explain the sense of anger often seen among rural Americas. They have less local news — and don’t see themselves in their own media. Only 41% of those in rural areas said the local media mostly covered their communities; by contrast, 62% of urbanites said the local news had them covered. It’s likely that the decline of local news has harmed conservative residents as much if not more than progressives. Since some 93% of the counties in the U.S. that have no news sources were small towns (under 50,000 population), it’s not surprising that 74% voted for Trump.
The collapse of local news may even exacerbate the spread of misinformation. People are more likely to get their information from Next Door or social media sites, which are full of both truths and falsehoods, competing with each other based on equal terms. When the conservative town of Ogdensburg, New York, lost its paper for two years recently, leaders there rallied to revive it. Republican leader James E. Reagen of St. Lawrence County suggested that misinformation spread more rapidly when the Ogdensburg paper shut down. “Once the Journal closed down so many people were turning to social media, to Facebook, anonymous blogs where people could make whatever accusations and allegations they wanted to without identifying who they were,” he said in a forum held by Editor & Publisher. “There is no one to sort out the truth from the fiction.”
These negative forces feed on each other. Polarization — which we know is exacerbated by the decline of local news — also makes misinformation worse. If we start off inclined to think the worst of our opponents, we’re also more likely to believe crazy misinformation, and click retweet or forward.
The importance of obituaries
My wife, Amy Cunningham, is a funeral director. In that capacity, she once had a case that defied all presumptions. The deceased appeared to have had a hard life. Her physical body didn’t fit into a conventionally sized casket. The loving family didn’t have much money. The planned event was far from fancy. But on the day of the funeral, everything turned around: The room was packed. Young and old came to express appreciation, love and admiration. It turns out the deceased woman had for years taken in runaway children, coached neighborhood teens through suicide crises, and had been the bastion of unconditional love and constancy. For the folks in attendance, this woman was a much-beloved heroine and a rock star.
I wanted to share her story. “Can I read the obituary?” No, there was no obituary. The local papers in New York rarely do those anymore. And it would have been inconceivable for these folks to pay several thousand dollars for a paid death notice in The New York Times. The funeral filled in the black and white lines with beautiful colors and nuances — but because of the lack of obituaries, few other people in the city had that experience.
Indeed, one of the worst casualties of the collapse of local news is the elimination of staff-written obituaries (as Poynter’s Kristen Hare has documented well). Few newspapers have the staff for that kind of thing and, anyway, forcing readers to pay for death notices instead is a revenue stream. But those are getting more and more expensive. A 500-word death notice now routinely costs more than $500 in metro papers (far more than an annual subscription to the publication!). A New York Times death notice of that length would cost more than $4,000. The death of the obituary matters because local features can be an antidote to the trends of polarization and demonization. Cable news dehumanizes. Community news can rehumanize.
You might be thinking — well we can see all that personal stuff online. I regularly see posts about friends whose parents have died on my Facebook feed. I view pictures of interesting restaurants on Instagram even more. But these are siloed experiences, not fully communal. You’re learning about your friends’ friends, not a stranger’s friends.
There is a sense of validation and pride that comes from being witnessed in a communal setting. My son’s high school wasn’t known for sports but one year it happened to have one of the top long-distance runners in New York state. There was no shortage of information about this guy. Beautiful color images of him huffing and puffing could be found on Facebook or Instagram. But when one of the oldest of the old media, the New York Post, did a story about him — that was a big deal for my son and his friends. These were kids who never picked up a printed newspaper, and yet being in an independent journalistic entity gave his story credibility.
When the Ogdensburg Record shut down, the head of the chamber of commerce bemoaned, “It’s where we get our personal stories. It’s where we get our announcements for weddings and births and obituaries. It’s where we sing the praises for student of the month or for their sports activities they’re involved in.”
Finally, having community news enables a town to better solve its problems. Sitting somewhere in between investigative reporting and human interest stories are the regular stories about civically important issues, told accurately and regularly. In writing about Salinas’s zombie paper, the Los Angeles Times noted, “When brown water overflowed the banks of the Salinas River in January, flooding thousands of acres and throwing an untold number of farmworkers out of jobs, the leading newspaper in this agricultural mecca did not cover the story. Candidates in the November race for mayor also went absent from the pages of the 152-year-old news outlet.”
Scholars Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless studied thousands of local news articles around the country and came to this astonishing conclusion, “One out of every three stories written about school boards in 2003 had disappeared by 2017,” they reported in “News Hole.” The trend was more alarming in small outlets. “Among those with less than 15,000 circulation, the average reduction in schools’ coverage was 56%.”
Americans in these communities have less information to guide their decisions in local elections. “In Boise, Idaho, for example, as mayoral coverage in the Idaho Statesman fell from 7.7% (2001) to 3.5% (2011) of the news hole, mayoral turnout declined from 24.8% to 11.4% Remarkably that’s a virtually identical 54% drop in both,” according to Hayes and Lawless.
Finally, good local news organizations profile the actual solutions — providing concrete ways to improve communities and also a sense of optimism about problems being solvable. A study by the Institute for Applied Positive Research found that when Detroit residents read local news articles about successful mentoring programs, 15% reported being more confident they could solve problems and 10% said they felt more connected to their communities.
Building trust, one beaver at a time
One of the first stories I did for a local newspaper was about beavers. I was a summer intern at the Duluth News Tribune in northern Minnesota. I got an assignment note from the city editor: “The folks in that neck of the woods are up in arms because some beavers or muskrats have built some kind of dam in a stream in or near the park. It’s caused some flooding and some sewer problems.”
I did what I thought was a rather thorough job. A full feature stretching half of a page, chock full of great detail about feuding neighbors, stymied bureaucrats and the ingenious beavers who had transformed a little stream into a big lake. The city editor, Dennis Buster, called me into a conference room and closed the door. He informed me that I’d gotten something very wrong. I had implied that the beavers hibernate during the winter. They don’t, and most people around there knew that so when they read the story they would realize I had been sloppy. It may not seem like a consequential error but when people read stories about topics with which they have some familiarity they make judgments about the accuracy of the story and the publication.
It was a searing lesson. No fact was too small to fret over because each is an element in building trust. It is not the accountability journalism that builds trust; it’s the stories about the beavers. Or, at least, it’s both.
The good news is that unlike some of the other causes of extremism/ misinformation/polarization/demonization, this one has a relatively simple solution: We need about 25,000 more local reporters. Yes, we should do other things to help restore democracy — ranked choice voting, gerrymandering reform, etc. But any democracy reform effort that doesn’t include an effort to sustain 25,000 more local reporters just isn’t being serious.
How to field 25,000 reporters
It’s important that we have not just more local reporting but more local reporters (i.e. not just artificial intelligence-generated stories). Fewer and fewer people have ever met a reporter. In 2019, 21% of Americans had ever met a local reporter, down from 26% in 2016. That’s not surprising given that the number of reporters per 100,000 has dropped a staggering 62% since 2004. That will lead to local news being less trusted. (Oh, and another factor that makes people more likely to spread misinformation? When they don’t trust the media.)
Note that I’m casting the goal in terms of the number of local reporters, not the number of local news outlets, hours of coverage or number of articles. We shouldn’t care about “saving newspapers,” or any particular delivery system. New models of news distribution will continue to be invented — along with compelling new storytelling techniques — and it doesn’t matter whether the information is delivered on paper or a virtual reality headset. What matters is whether there are professional journalists, living in communities, reporting on their neighbors and government. The most important thing we can do is encourage the hiring of local reporters.
25,000 would not get us quite back to the number of two decades ago but if wisely distributed it could dramatically strengthen communities. As a point of reference we have 3,031 counties, 19,522 municipalities, and 12,884 independent school districts.
Some of the new reporters may be deployed by existing commercial newspapers or websites. Despite the powerful forces pushing against local news — most especially that the internet has drawn away most of the advertisers — quite a few family-owned newspapers are breaking even by expanding digital subscriptions. Many smaller papers that happen to be in more affluent areas seem to be surviving, too.
About $1 billion annually needs to come from philanthropy, especially to help those communities that are middle or lower income, in rural areas, or have declining populations (the areas in which the commercial model seems doomed). More than 300 nonprofit newsrooms have formed in the last decade, many of them stepping into the gaps created by local newspapers. Most are terrific. They just need more support, just as public radio got in the 1960s and 1970s. If foundations and individuals put 1% of philanthropic spending toward local reporting, that would be enough. And foundations would then make more progress on the issues they support with their other 99%. (Philanthropy has spent billions on school reform. Perhaps more progress would be made if there were more reporters covering the schools?)
We also need smart, First Amendment-friendly government policy. Yes, we can all imagine how government support for news could go very badly. But our anxieties about that should not paralyze us because we have plenty of examples of how to do policy without endangering editorial independence. James Madison — a.k.a. Guy Who Wrote the First Amendment — argued that newspapers should have a massive subsidy from the federal government to encourage the distribution of newspapers. The “postal subsidy,” which provided discounted mail, would be about $46 billion in today’s dollars — bigger than the NASA budget.
There are creative new ways to do this. In Wisconsin, a Republican assemblyman proposed a tax credit for small businesses that advertise in local news. In New York, the legislature is considering a refundable payroll tax credit that would provide a tax break for news organizations that hire or retain local reporters. In New Mexico, the legislature provided money for a fellowship program to place reporters in local news, run by the university and a nonpartisan nonprofit organization. In areas that have no broadband connection and no local news — OK, another new phrase is born: “double deserts” — we could use some of the $100 billion in funds for broadband to help strengthen community information.
Some policy changes can help without involving subsidies. For instance, the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission should look closely when hedge funds or private equity firms buy newspaper chains. The Federal Communications Commission could allow local TV stations to fulfill their “public interest” obligations by putting money into a local fund for journalism.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, the Republican co-author of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, an excellent bill that attacks the problem through the payroll and small business tax credits, described the benefits less in terms of the threat to democracy than the threat to community.
Local journalism, no matter what form it’s in, truly does contribute to the fabric of a community. You’re not going to find too many large market sources of news reporting on your local city council or the high school basketball scores. Things like that might sound silly to a lot of people but truly are important to small communities… Keeps us tied together and I think it makes for stronger communities. This is an effort to preserve that really important aspect of our small communities.
If we continue to have strong local media outlets, that might help to ameliorate that polarization in the country. … Instead of just focusing on those hot button national and international issues, we spend equal amounts of time focusing on what’s happening in our own backyard.
I’m happy to say that in addition to its great accountability reporters, Report for America now has religion reporters and — this year, for the first time — sports reporters. Saving democracy, one junior varsity basketball game write-up at a time.