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

Thu, Sep 13, 2018 - Page 9

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.

He understands the temptation to package news made elsewhere to cut costs, “but if we try to follow the rest of the news industry with national and state coverage, we’ll lose that battle,” he said.

It is not just rural America that has seen a decline in local news. Communities closest to large media markets, such as New York, Washington or Los Angeles, have the least robust local journalism, the study found.

“Content tends to flow from large markets to smaller markets, which can discourage consumption of local journalism,” Napoli said.

New Jersey, for example, lives in the shadow of New York and Philadelphia. Sandwiched between large media markets, the state has struggled to lure journalists to cover local news for smaller outlets.

Even inside the nation’s biggest media hub, outlets that cover local events are suffering. The New York Daily News halved its staff in July, and the Village Voice, a legendary investigator of malfeasance in New York City and Albany, New York, officially died last weekend.

In Washington, a slew of newspapers have shuttered, too.

Within urban, suburban and rural areas, minority communities remain the most underserved by local news coverage.

Regions with large Hispanic populations in particular received less robust local journalism, the Duke study found.

“Local news outlets play a vital role in the daily lives of communities who are often ignored by mega-media companies that are disconnected geographically and culturally,” National Association of Hispanic Journalists president Hugo Balta said in an e-mail.

“The regionalization of content production, a failed one-size-fits-all practice, is irrelevant to already underserved communities like Hispanics, especially in small markets where information about local government, education, health and other important issues is indispensable,” Balta said. “The public is suffering.”

However, there is some good news — local news media still garners more public trust than its national counterparts. More than seven in 10 Americans report they trust their local newspapers and television stations, while barely half say the same about national outlets, the Poynter Institute said.

However, this could change, Murray said.

“Building trust is a human-to-human endeavor,” she said. “I’m worried we’re going to see an erosion of trust in local media as the number of journalists on the ground in local communities declines.”

In New Jersey, the crisis has spurred government leaders to allocate US$5 million to revive and strengthen local media.

“Long term, this is a drop in the bucket, but short term this could spur some amazing projects,” Murray said.

Community Impact Newspaper has also attempted to fill the gaps in small communities surrounding media-rich cities, including Houston, Austin and Dallas.

Report for America, a journalism nonprofit modeled after AmeriCorps and Teach for America, has sought to bolster understaffed regional outlets by deploying 1,000 journalists to their newsrooms by 2022.

However, news media experts said this only scratches the surface of what is needed to rehabilitate local media.

“We’ve seen foundations and universities jump into this space, but we need more at the policy level,” said Napoli, who believes public funding could alleviate the local news crisis.

There might be little chance of that in the present political environment. The US already spends very little government money on the media compared with other countries.

Norway spends about US$140 per capita each year on its public broadcasters, according to media consulting firm Nordicity. The UK spends US$88 and Canada spends US$22, but the US spends less than US$3.

Executive editors at local news outlets across the US agree that there needs to be more economic incentives to cover their communities.

“At the local level, news doesn’t stop when the news coverage goes away,” Lanane said. “Somebody has to do this work.”