A coalition involving the National Newspaper Association, the Institute for Nonprofit News and a dozen more news organizations recently rolled out an ambitious plan to channel $3 billion to $5 billion dollars from the government, businesses and philanthropies into local journalism.
The plan for newsroom funding, called Rebuild Local News, comes as local news organizations in many communities are crumbling. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that more than one-quarter of the nation’s newspapers had disappeared during the past 15 years.
As policymakers, news organizations, advocates and community members think about how to save news organizations that can (and should) be saved and how to replace those that can’t (or shouldn’t), it is vital to remember that simply “providing the news,” shouldn’t be a journalistic organization’s only responsibility. Local news organizations also must be committed to a community, promoting inclusive dialog to help them see and solve local problems.
Encouraging local control and ownership of media organizations is one of the best ways to make sure that happens. The Rebuild Local News plan focuses heavily on finding ways to encourage local nonprofit news and to create incentives for local ownership of commercial media. Any large-scale effort to reform local news ecosystems must include efforts that preserve or create local editorial control.
Hedge funds’ acquisitions of community newspapers is a serious threat to local news in many communities because hedge funds typically value profit over community service. When media owners live in communities that their organizations serve, they are more likely to understand nuances of local problems and are in a better position to earn the trust of their readers.
Recognizing Local Issues
Local ownership is certainly no guarantee that a newspaper will be good; local owners can sometimes be just as inattentive or disconnected as out-of-town corporate or hedge fund managers. But local media ownership and nonprofit news innovation are more likely to recognize local issues, understand local voices and respond to local community needs.
The economic strains that came with the spread of COVID-19 and the coronavirus have reduced the number of local journalists across the nation. Writing in this space in May, Tom Arenberg noted a spate of layoffs, furloughs and closures at newspapers in Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, Calhoun, and Etowah counties. The closures and layoffs — especially at news organizations owned by large chains and hedge funds — have continued through the summer and into the fall.
At the same time, communities have a dire need for critical information that local news organizations can produce. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center this spring, nearly half the respondents said that local news outlets were a major source for their news about coronavirus. In the same survey, half of Americans said their local news organizations were likely to report accurate information about COVID-19. By comparison, “the news media in general” were viewed as generally reliable by 44% of those surveyed.
Too often, the responsibilities to provide vital information and to help individuals build a shared vision for their communities take a back seat to the desire to produce revenue. I spent much of the summer talking to nearly two dozen journalists, activists and community development professionals about the local news crisis in rural communities. They often told me the same thing: that local news organizations tend to mirror the attitudes of their owners, and that far too many corporate owners value profit over community service.
It is hard for companies to automate community cohesion or to develop it from afar. If you’re going to help people in a community find common ground, you need institutional knowledge of that community. Staffing cuts and newspaper consolidations can quickly wipe away that institutional knowledge.
The news industry is often squeamish about public subsidies for journalism, particularly about the idea that those subsidies could erode editorial independence and, as Politico’s Jack Shafter put it in April, could bail out news organizations controlled by hedge funds “that have made a practice of squeezing high profits while … cutting staff and escalating subscription prices.”
A Civic Crisis
As the authors of the Rebuild Local News proposal note, the local news crisis is also a civic crisis — one that has outpaced the capacity of philanthropy and business innovation. They’re right.
Efforts to make it easier for nonprofit news organizations to take root, or to “replant” failing newspapers as ones focused on filling needs rather than pocketbooks, are critical. Small towns and rural communities especially are where local news offerings already are limited.
People say, if you lose your post office, you lose your community. If you lose your school, you lose your community,” Dee Davis, founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies, recently told me. “Those things are true – you lose your capacity to keep a town together and rally around a common purpose. Newspapers are, by definition, the places where we get our common views and rally around a common purpose.”
Local newspaper owners and publishers, acting first and foremost on behalf of the communities they serve, can create those opportunities to find common ground. They can encourage broad civic involvement and information to be active participants in their communities.
When it comes to rebuilding local news, those values are pretty good cornerstones.
Michael Clay Carey is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University and a contributing scholar with the Center for Journalism and Liberty. He is the author of “Local News and Community Resiliency in Appalachia” and “The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia.”