3 STRATEGIES FOR ADDRESSING THE LOCAL NEWS CRISIS
By Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, PhD | MAR 20, 2023
The Roadmap For Local News is a welcome addition to the urgent agenda of addressing the local news crisis in our communities. I was honored to be interviewed for the initiative and encouraged to see the National Trust for Local News’ work reflected alongside that of many of our colleagues.
The Roadmap is framed around the idea that the primary function of local news is to provide civic information. Civic information as a cornerstone concept has much to recommend it: Misinformation and disinformation are warping civic life. We are in a crisis of local democracy, and civic literacy and engagement are at an all-time low.
However, as I spend time with community news publishers, journalists, and their readers across the country, the mission of local news that resonates is one of community building. The publishers we work with at the Trust understand that the power of local news goes beyond civic information. Quality local news organizations have the power to build and transform the social ties that are essential to democracy.
As much as we are in a crisis of (mis)information as a country, we are perhaps more profoundly in a crisis of polarization. Polarization tears at our social fabric and is remarkably resistant to high-quality verifiable information from any source.
A community-building approach to addressing the crisis in local news asks, “What can local news do to strengthen local communities?” Widening the lens of civic information to community building reveals how local news can strengthen local communities and ultimately address the problem of polarization at its roots.
Through this lens of community building, a broader strategy for rebuilding local news begins to take shape:
1 | Focus on the community-building value of local news.
2 | Build from the local news resources communities already have.
3 | Prioritize local governance and ownership.
STRATEGY 1: FOCUS ON THE COMMUNITY-BUILDING VALUE OF LOCAL NEWS
Spending time with small newspaper publishers has taught me much about the community-building functions of local news. The love and attachment people have to their local newspaper isn’t only about the utility of its information. The value of a local paper is how it reflects and explores the identity, values, and lived experiences of the community it serves, through words, in pictures, and in person.
The academic work on social cohesion provides a useful framework for understanding what it looks like when communities hang together and thrive. In brief, strong communities are defined by resilient social relations, positive emotional connectedness between their members and their collective identity, and a pronounced focus on the common good. These are natural byproducts of the best local newsrooms across many communities today.
At the Trust, we measure the impact of our community news titles by the degree to which they bring people together and motivate people to act. We believe there is a direct relationship between quality local news and a community’s well-being. The core question that drives our work is:
HOW IS LOCAL NEWS BUILDING STRONGER LOCAL COMMUNITIES?
Our work focuses on the potential of quality local news to achieve these outcomes of community connectedness:
Promote resilient social relations by connecting neighbors to each other.
Build engagement in community life.
Celebrate the diversity in a community.
Strengthen the sense of local trust by connecting citizens to their communities.
Foster public accountability.
Celebrate community and civic pride.
Promote feelings of belonging.
Mobilize citizens to act for the common good.
Increase awareness about civic participation and civic action.
Adopt a solutions focus on critical local issues.
Foster inclusive approaches to the common good.
We’ve learned that a focus on building communities through quality local news may mean giving as much space to covering the high school’s winning team or a local restaurant’s grand opening as to an accountability investigation of the local school board.
STRATEGY 2: BUILD FROM THE LOCAL NEWS RESOURCES COMMUNITIES ALREADY HAVE
It’s true we operate in a sector with limited resources, and we have far from the necessary number of local journalists and local news organizations we need for true community service across the country.
As we make the case for substantially increased investment, we should ensure we are stewarding the hard-won local news resources we do have. “Efficiency” is the byword for our economic climate, and that calls for a clear-eyed evaluation of existing assets and capacities versus what we must build from scratch.
Practically, this has to include giving local newspapers another chance. It’s easy to dismiss newspapers as “legacy”—with all the implied negatives. And it is true that many newspapers could be doing much more to serve the needs of their communities.
But much like terrestrial radio today remains an enormous and vital service even decades into the streaming and on-demand audio revolution, there are still millions of Americans who turn to their local paper for something that isn’t available anywhere else. That kind of loyalty and behavior can’t be dismissed as nostalgia or merely a generational fixation.
The local paper conveys something about a community beyond a bundle of civic information and is not easily replaced by an email newsletter or aggregated into a news feed. The “brand equity” of local newspapers—some half a century or more in existence—is an invaluable advantage that is impossible to recreate in short order.
Focusing on existing newspapers is also a critical strategy for ensuring the community-building impacts of strong local news reach even the smallest communities in our country. There are 4,000 legacy local news titles left, many of which serve small and rural communities where the economics and demographics will not easily support a replacement source of news. This is a resource base we must take advantage of.
The good news is we have the data to understand the scale of the problem and the opportunity. Working with Penny Abernathy at the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University and with Cameron Hickey at the National Conference on Citizenship, we took a close look at the 1,400 counties that have one remaining newspaper and have medium incomes below the national average. Overall, 45 million Americans live in these at-risk communities, most of which have populations of less than 250,000 people. More than half of Americans in at-risk communities live in southeastern states. These places will most likely become permanent news deserts if their local paper closes.
These communities should be first in the queue for shoring up local news resources. We will never be able to afford—in time and resources—building a completely new civic information system fast enough to replace what is currently at risk of being lost in small towns and rural communities across the country. And the investment needed is within reach. We estimate that transforming the remaining independent papers into nonprofits would require $300 million.
STRATEGY 3: PRIORITIZE LOCAL GOVERNANCE AND OWNERSHIP
A focus on building communities through strengthening local news also puts local ownership and local governance front and center. No one knows what is most important to everyday life in a place more than the people who live there. Local governance and local ownership of local news is the foundation for building stronger communities.
As the commercial side of the local news business has increasingly consolidated, local ownership and local governance has been attenuated. But it still exists—we have met with dozens of proud local newspaper owners in rural communities in Eastern Kentucky and Middle Georgia. And we’ve spoken with dozens more across the country whose primary concern is ensuring their newsrooms can keep serving their communities in the decades to come. These local owners are vital civic leaders who can serve as an inspiration for the field overall.
LET'S STRENGTHEN DEMOCRACY FROM THE GROUND UP
At the National Trust for Local News, we know our work is part of broader efforts to strengthen local communities and buffer against polarization. We see a huge opportunity to conserve, transform, and sustain legacy community newsrooms that have been providing a service to small and rural communities for decades. This does not mean “saving” organizations for their own sake. We have to meet communities where they are, with what they have. If what a community has is a legacy newspaper, let’s build on that civic asset and deepen its community-building capacity. I believe we will strengthen small communities, and ultimately our democracy, in the process.
The National Trust for Local News