Thu, Sep 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Local news is dying, taking small-town America along with it

Less than one-fifth of stories produced by US outlets have anything to do with their region, carrying serious consequences for social cohesion, voting and even bonds

By Riley Griffin  /  Bloomberg

The US is overrun with “news deserts,” cities and towns where local coverage is lacking or altogether absent. As newspaper circulation continues to decline along with advertising revenue and newsroom employment, a common casualty is the expensive, time-consuming practice of original reporting.

Without journalists digging through property records or attending city council meetings, looking for official wrongdoing and revealing secret deals, local politicians can operate unchecked — with predictable consequences.

However, the fallout is much bigger than just keeping municipal government honest.

Studies have shown that communities without quality local news coverage see lower rates of voter turnout. Cities where newspapers shut down have even seen their municipal bond prices rise, suggesting an increase in government costs due to a lack of transparency.

More broadly, towns without serious local news coverage demonstrate less social cohesion, corroding any sense of community.

A Duke University study published last month found that the quantity and quality of local news stories is lacking across the US.

Only 17 percent of stories produced by local outlets are based on events that actually occurred nearby, and more than half of their news reports originated somewhere else, such as a wire service.

With television, segments often come from a network or parent, easily repurposed by affiliates anywhere in the country.

Moreover, only 56 percent of all local reports addressed a critical informational need, such as crime or infrastructure, rather than celebrity gossip or sports.

The study used US Census Bureau data to identify almost 500 communities with 20,000 to 300,000 residents and randomly selected 100 of them. The analysis surveyed 16,000 stories produced by print, radio, television and digital media from both English and non-English outlets, found through media databases and manual searches.

“It’s the job of these outlets to focus on the civic, political and economic issues that are uniquely relevant to these geographic communities, because they will not be covered by out-of-market media outlets,” said Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the lead author of the study. “Local government is exactly the kind of place where journalistic resources are being cut.”

However, Napoli does not blame the media for the lack of quality local journalism. Rather, he empathizes with their financial struggles.

To keep pace with a changing and consolidating media ecosystem, local news outlets have dedicated their limited resources to covering and aggregating national stories reported by national news organizations.

As a result, only 11 percent of the surveyed news stories were local, original and addressed hard news, while some outlets stopped producing stories about their local communities altogether, the report showed.

Stephanie Murray, the director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Monclair State University, works with so-called hyperlocal media outlets in New Jersey that focus exclusively on providing news to small communities.

However, Murray said these bootstrap organizations are a long way away from filling the overarching local news gap that is plaguing the US.

Of course, the economic reality facing local news operations makes it difficult to stay afloat, said Joe Lanane, the executive editor of Community Impact Newspaper, which produces free hyperlocal papers for 45 communities in Texas.

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