Local journalism is on its knees – endangering democracy. Who will save it?


One of the worst affected industries during the coronavirus outbreak has been, ironically, a profession that should have been reporting on it.

Scores of newspapers have laid off staff, or closed entirely, in the past four months, in what one expert has predicted will be an “extinction-level” event for the industry.

The more recent cuts come to an industry which has long been in decline, robbing large swathes of the US of news coverage, and it’s the state of journalism that is examined in Ghosting the News, a book by the Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, which lays out the state of journalism in America, and the desperate need for its revival.

Sullivan writes that while the disinformation spread by Donald Trump and his supporters, and their subsequent cries of “fake news” at anything unfavorable about the president or his administration covered by mainstream news organizations, is well documented, something just as important – and equally depressing – in journalism is happening.

“While these may grab the public’s attention, another crisis is happening more quietly,” Sullivan writes.

“Some of the most trusted sources of news – local sources, particularly local newspapers – are slipping away, never to return. The cost to democracy is great. It takes a toll on civic engagement – even on citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts, the very basis of self-governance.”

The news industry, where profits tend to vary between slim and non-existent, has particularly suffered over the past four months. Scores of newspapers have laid off staff or closed entirely, according to Poynter, and in April Penny Abernathy, the Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina, told the Guardian she expected “hundreds, not dozens” of newspapers and news websites to close.

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But this acute loss is the result of a long decline, Sullivan writes. More than 2,000 newspapers have closed since 2004: “and many of those that remain are mere shadows of their former selves”.

Facebook and Google have borne much of the blame, sucking up the advertising that local newspapers, in particular, once relied on. The 2008 recession meant further losses.

Margaret Sullivan, the author of Ghosting the News.
Margaret Sullivan, the author of Ghosting the News. Photograph: Michael Benabib/Washington Post

“Round after round of layoffs and buyouts at nearly every paper in the country resulted; local journalists who thought they had a lifetime job covering local government, for example, were out on the street,” Sullivan writes.

“Copy editors were deemed nonessential. Unsurprisingly, the quality of many newspapers went down.”

The result was many communities no longer having a newspaper dedicated to local coverage, resulting in “news deserts” – areas which have no local news coverage at all. In 2018 a study by Abernathy, at the University of North Carolina, found that 1,300 US communities have completely lost news coverage.

The impact, Sullivan says, is stark.

“Studies have shown us some interesting things. For example, municipal borrowing costs go up when local news declines. Why? Because the watchdog isn’t there – and so, local government becomes less efficient and more prone to corruption or at least wasteful spending,” Sullivan said.

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“We also know that people become less civically engaged when local news declines. They become more partisan: Less likely to cross the political aisle to vote for a candidate whose party they don’t belong to. It increases the tribalism that is already such a curse in American politics.”

While this has been a long time coming, Sullivan believes it could have been exacerbated by the ascension of Trump, and his loathing of any media which disagrees with him.

“I don’t know that it can be proven, but I firmly believe that Trump’s attacks on the press have caused harm,” Sullivan said.

“When Americans are told day after day that reporters are dishonest, that they are ‘scum’ or ‘the enemy of the people’, it has an effect. It turns people against the press. And at least some people will react by walking away from traditional news sources.

“Of course, the converse is also true – many people have decided they need trustworthy news sources more than ever. So it’s a mixture, and I think we need some time to pass before we figure out what the real effects have been.”

It’s not all bad news for journalism, however. Sullivan points to the success some non-profit organizations have had in recent years as a way news organizations could revive their fortunes.

“The philanthropic, non-profit model is important, as national organizations like ProPublica have demonstrated so beautifully. That is already an important piece of the local-news puzzle, as we see outlets like Voice of San Diego, MinnPost [which covers Minnesota], CalMatters [a California-based politics site], The City [in New York City] and many others doing vital work.

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“I’m also hopeful that more traditional outlets, particularly regional newspapers, will continue to increase the digital subscriptions in a way that will sustain them. There need to be many different ways to fill the growing void.

“It’s really important because the way our democracy functions squarely rests on having informed citizens.”



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