October 19, 2020

Those working to revive local news just got a big new dose of motivation: The vacuum created by local news’ collapse is now being filled aggressively by local sites that are pay-to-play, ideological and/or partisan.

If “we” don’t flood the zone with more local reporters at stronger local newsrooms — committed to independent, intellectually-honest journalism — local news ecosystems will soon resemble national cable TV … or worse.

The New York Times yesterday reported that there are now 1,300 troublesome local sites: “The network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.”

The Wall Street Journal posted a piece today giving more attention to the leading progressive purveyor of such sites, Acronym. The organization’s founder recently told progressive funders that since “‘the right is monopolizing’ political-leaning news, the Democrats needed to find a counterweight,” according to the Journal. (Alternative idea for funders: supporting actual, independent local journalism!)

There are a few sub-currents within this toxic trend.

First, there are sites that emphasize pay-to-play. These sites basically allow paying clients to order up stories — for instance, a hotel magnate paying for articles that tout his businesses. These sites often do have a partisan bent, but it’s also easy to see non-ideological versions of pay-to-play emerging as well (as they did for years in local TV).

Second, there are sites that are directly funded by partisan or ideological sources and which have little to no community reporting. For instance, today’s home page of the Youngstown Times (part of a chain called Metric Media) features some Ohio-wide news and a prominent opinion piece titled “OPINION: Three reasons for Youngstown to Re-Elect President Trump” (written by a Trump campaign advisor). What it does not include is any news about Youngstown, Ohio.

Many of these sites have been established in swing states — for instance, more than 50 just in Ohio.

A study by Philip Napoli of Duke University and Jessica Mahone (then of Duke, now the research chief at Report for America) found that there are both progressive and conservative versions, though as of now there are more on the right. They include sites that are funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and political action committees.

Finally, there are some that are partisan and/or ideological but do some local reporting too. The local TV stations run by Sinclair Broadcasting sometimes fit in that category, as do some of the Courier Newsroom websites, on the left.

What can be done about this? There may be a few instances in which election laws can force the sites that are truly thinly disguised political operations to disclose their sources of income. But honestly, most of the sites would not fall under those rules, and aggressive enforcement of that approach could cause more problems than it solves.

First, we need to dramatically and rapidly increase the number of local journalists on the ground in communities doing real, independent, transparent, intellectually-honest journalism. The best way to minimize the importance of shady information is with valid information, in heavy doses.

Philanthropy (large and small) needs to step up boldly and quickly — to put $1 billion in local journalism, not to save journalism but to save democracy on a local level. That would get about 10,000 journalists on the ground. Conservative and progressive philanthropists alike have good reason to join forces on this bipartisan cause. (By the way, those funders who are focused on other issues like the education reform, environment or criminal justice no doubt recognize that they won’t make much progress in those areas without local accountability reporting.) All local news sites should be called upon to disclose their sources of funding.

To truly sustain a healthy local news system, we probably will also need some sort of taxpayer support — which can be done in a way that preserves editorial independence. A nonpartisan proposal from the Rebuild Local News coalition (which I’ve helped lead) would likely double the number of local reporters, in part through a refundable tax credit that Americans could use to buy newspaper subscriptions or donate to verifiable nonprofit local news organizations. A similar bipartisan bill has managed to get support from both Rep. Louie Gohmert, one of the most conservative members of Congress, and Rep. Bobby Rush, a former civil rights leader.

As of now, in the race between fake and real news on the local level, fake is winning. As a point of reference, consider this: One of the most positive trends has been the rise of local nonprofit news organizations. Today, there are about 300 of them, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Yes, that’s less than one quarter of the number of these faux news sites that have popped up recently.

The problem is increasingly not that communities will get no information but that they’ll get disinformation, or information whose provenance is unknown.

The three-alarm fire for local news is now calling all engines.

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Steven Waldman is president of Report for America, which places journalists into local newsrooms, and chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition.
Steve Waldman

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