Local journalism in America is in “crisis,” according to a report last month from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy and research organization in Washington, D.C. Pen America, a nonprofit free-speech advocacy group in New York, followed a week later with its report that local news across the country faces “decimation.”
I’d like to offer some optimism, please.
First, though, let’s be clear that U.S. communities do have a serious problem on their hands when it comes to sufficiency of local news reporting. Since 2004, 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers – that’s one out of every five – have gone out of business, according to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina. At least 200 counties, including 91 counties in the South, have no newspaper to serve them. More significantly, many of the newspapers that remain, especially in urban areas, have abandoned or diminished their coverage of news in individual communities. It’s part of a broader shrinkage that includes reduced geography, fewer pages and publication dates, and especially destruction of newsroom staffs. In the past 15 years, according to Pen America, the number of newspaper newsroom jobs has shrunk by 47%. With such a drastic decline of people to report and write, organizations gravitate toward stories of broad audience appeal. Working all day to produce a story of interest to only a single suburb is economically inefficient.
The result of closures and intentional neglect is “news deserts.” But do not imagine these deserts are only rural communities with two streets and one stoplight. Pen America and other researchers say underserved communities are urban as well, with many of them being minority, low-income communities where problems and issues cry out for attention.
Why does it matter that local news is diminishing? Because civic involvement and good governance diminish with it. Studying cities where local news outlets have closed or shrunk, researchers have reported numerous harmful effects, including lower voter turnout and fewer candidates for public office. Clara Hendrickson of Brookings wrote: “When important stories are not told, community members lack the information they need to participate in the political process and hold government and powerful private actors accountable.” In other words, local government officials and other local leaders who are corrupt, self-serving or merely inept are loving every minute of this.
Amid the direness, though, are hopeful signs and avenues for citizens to get the local news they need. Across the country, independent journalists with an entrepreneurial spirit are launching small, online news sites intended to fill the local coverage gaps created by the financial troubles of traditionally dominant dailies. They produce stories ranging from basic government meetings to in-depth investigations. Some choose topic niches, such as education. Some are for-profit, some are nonprofit (such as BirminghamWatch). Revenue sources include subscription sales, business sponsorships, public event hosting, investment money, and donations from journalism foundations and civic-minded individuals. (Ad sales? Not so much.) High-profile success stories include the Texas Tribune, the Voice of San Diego and the VT Digger in Vermont. Some have tried and failed, and no one claims that these ambitious startups have successfully replaced everything lost among legacy media. But it’s a promising development – one that needs the readership and financial support of respective communities.
Other avenues to local news exist. Some resourceful college journalism schools are teaching students by letting them cover communities or statehouses, then syndicating those stories to professional media. Yes, students make mistakes, but I know first hand that many of them are highly capable. Citizens can report news, too. I know what’s going on in my municipal district because a citizen activist attends city meetings and writes a free email newsletter. Yes, there may be greater issues of accuracy or bias in news that’s not from professional journalists, but benefits outweigh risks.
Local newspapers, particularly those owned by large public chains or hedge funds, deserve fault for neglect of local obligations. Occasional high-profile investigations, as praiseworthy as they are, do not nullify the need to report the daily functions of governments and other institutions that affect so many lives. Still, commendably, some newspapers are trying to support local news gathering in new ways.
Some (not all!) report increasing success with digital subscriptions, with the key being quality local news worth paying for. In general, though, that revenue hasn’t replaced money lost in print advertising, and the verdict remains unsettled on how much a paywall can support journalism at outlets that aren’t national. Some newspapers are soliciting philanthropy – either for a general fund or for specific reporting initiatives. Local partnerships are promising, too. Former media competitors can and should work together to accomplish reporting projects that would be tougher or impossible if done alone. Partnerships can connect local and national organizations, as well. The Alabama Media Group, for instance, formed a productive partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. One of my students this semester studied coverage of rural issues by selected local newspapers. All showed a dismal lack of attention except one. Why the strange aberration? It had formed a partnership with Report for America to embed a reporter who focused exclusively on covering the area’s neglected rural communities.
These and other new ideas are encouraging. But sometimes newness isn’t required. Sometimes a local audience just has to look around a little more. At least in large and medium-sized communities, the market usually supports a host of local news sources, even if their scope of coverage and frequency of publication are less than that of the dominant daily. Let’s consider metro Birmingham. The Alabama Media Group’s coverage of the basic events of area governments has gradually become – how shall I put this? – highly selective. But there are other places to turn if you wish. I’ll focus on print and digital media because of their ability to offer more breadth than broadcast media (though WBHM public radio does very well at local news). I’m aware of the Birmingham Times, the Starnes newspapers (downtown, Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook, Vestavia, Trussville area, northern Shelby), the Over the Mountain Journal, the Trussville Tribune, the North Jefferson News, the Leeds Tribune, the Western Star, the Shelby County Reporter, BirminghamWatch and one that some people may not be familiar with: Patch.
The revitalized Patch local news network opened a “patch” in Birmingham in August 2017. It currently focuses on Hoover, Mountain Brook, Vestavia, Trussville and Pelham, with plans to expand to at least Irondale and Homewood. Its platforms include a website, an email newsletter and social media. The mission, according to Birmingham editor Michael Seale, is to report “hyperlocal” news. “That type of news has been gradually neglected over the years,” he said.
Looking over the totality of Birmingham media – geography, resources, commitment – can every individual community feel informed and attended to? No, absolutely not. The answer would be the same elsewhere too. Just read those latest reports. But if news organizations both new and old deem it as important as they should, and if audiences respond with readership and money, local news coverage in America can avert crisis and decimation.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.
About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.