When we think about the media’s role in the run-up to 2020 most of the conversation centers around cable news and national papers. Despite the Tip O’Neill-coined adage, “all politics is local,” local news often escapes mention in the context of our national civic and political discourse. However, as the former Speaker of the House astutely recognized, much of our civic life and policy is shaped by our mayors and city councils, our county commissioners, our state legislators and our Members of Congress. Much of what happens in our towns and cities percolates upwards, shaping the broader dialogue. So, what happens when local power and politics is left unexamined, unchallenged and unchecked? What happens to our democratic process nationally?
I fear that we are finding out the hard way. Objective, independent local news is disappearing from communities across the United States and with it a vital piece of our democracy. The impact is real. Studies have shown that the decline of local news has contributed to, among other things, increased partisanship, waning civic engagement and mostly recently, fewer people running for mayor.
Even though there’s limited awareness amongst the public, there is an acute sense of urgency in the media and, now tech giants, to find a solution. Facebook announced in 2018 an initiative to boost local news, called Today In, that is supposed to aggregate local news and push it out to users. It turns out, the solution further illustrated the problem — there aren’t enough local news sites across large portions of the United States to make it work in the way it was conceived. Indeed, nearly half of Americans reported in a recent Pew survey that their local news outlet “covers an area other than where they live.” There is a real and pervasive void in local news.
Where there is a void, there will always be something to fill it. Unfortunately, some of what has filled it has been a torrent of disinformation, intentional or otherwise, and websites that masquerade as real journalism. One needs to look no further than a recent investigation by Snopes.com that revealed a proliferation of politically-biased websites that are built to look like legitimate local news but lack a code of ethics and sufficient transparency. It has created an environment where Americans have had to figure out how to sift through and make decisions about the information they see online without the necessary tools. Combine this with declining overall trust in the media, and we are confronted with a real challenge to our democracy and civic discourse.
Amidst all of the doom and gloom, there is reason for hope, but we have to collectively acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and act decisively. Local news isn’t nice-to-have — it’s essential. We need to rebuild our local news ecosystem. It is from this foundation that we will rebuild trust and our civic discourse. The numbers are there to support it. Looking again at Pew’s research, 85% of Americans say that it is important for journalists to understand the history of the communities they cover and another 81% say that it’s important for journalists to have a connection to the community. We see this in action every day across our TAPinto sites. Readers connect on a deeper level with the news when it’s covered by people who care.
Building these deep and meaningful connections with readers is the first step. According to Pew, most Americans don’t recognize the financial challenges local news outlets face, and only 14% reported having paid for local news. The point is, we have to invest in a bold national strategy to spur innovation and strengthen and expand objective local news to communities large and small ahead of 2020. We need to begin by educating the American public about the importance of local news and we need to start now.