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From a Lack of Funding to a Local News Drought: How News is Essential to Democracy

Per a 2018 survey, 71 percent of US adults believe their local news outlets are doing well financially, even though only 14 percent of those surveyed had paid for local news themselves in the past year. The belief that local news outlets are faring well is a widespread misconception. We need local outlets and journalists to cover local issues, hold our communities accountable, and drive grassroots growth. To sustain our news outlets, we will need to come together to support our local publications and push for legislation that raises funds for media outlets. 

News outlets’ financial reality is in stark contrast to many Americans’ perceptions. Many newspapers first experienced financial struggles that led to cuts in print day, furloughs, and layoffs. However, the issue has only been exacerbated by Covid-19, which has eliminated most revenue sources such as sponsorships, events, and advertising. Several small newspapers around the country have been forced to shut down, despite being over a hundred years old and serving as the only news source in the area. For example, in February 2020, newspaper chain McClatchy filed for bankruptcy. McClatchy owns media companies in 14 states including the Charlotte Observer, the Kansas City Star, the Miami Herald, and the Sacramento Bee. Per Charles Sennott, a veteran journalist, 2,000 newspapers have shut down in the past few years, leaving 2,000 communities without a local news source. Overall newspaper circulation fell in 2018 to its lowest level since 1940. Penny Abernathy, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, has stated that the pace of closures has been “100 a year.” PBS correspondent Nick Schifrin describes the phenomenon as creating communities that are “deserts of news.” 

The news is essential to democracy’s survival. As communities lose transparency and accountability, voter participation decreases. Charles Sennott, CEO of The GroundTruth project, affirms that a crisis in journalism equates to a crisis for our democracy. As voter participation drops, corruption inevitably begins to grow. The closing of local newspapers means one less journalist at your school board meeting or your county commissioner meeting. Local journalism has historically played a key role in setting the agenda for debate of important public policy issues. Consequently, such reporting has influenced the course of history with the stories published and actions recommended. Advertising from local newspapers has promoted regional economic growth and fostered social cohesion. People need independent, reliable, fact-based reporting to make informed decisions. Local news outlets have covered national issues through a relevant lens for citizens, thereby fostering grassroots change. 

To understand the extent of the issue at hand, consider the following anecdote from David Cohea, a citizen of Mount Dora Topic, Florida: “After years without a strong local voice, our community does not know itself and has no idea of important local issues or how the area is changing and challenged by growth and the impact of climate change. We are a nameless and faceless town defined only by neighborhoods.” 

The need for local newspapers is even greater this year as our nation goes through a pandemic as well as an election year. How will citizens be informed of local Covid-19-related shutdowns and policies? How will we be able to keep up with state and local ballot measures? For years, local newspapers have served as reliable sources of such vital information, yet they have been facing more severe financial setbacks than ever before.

The struggle of local news outlets can be attributed to the insurmountable growth of internet companies. Internet companies have eaten at least $5 billion in classified advertising. Additionally, social media has evolved to serve as an alternative entry point to daily news. However, there are both short- and long-term steps that communities and legislators can take to combat this phenomenon and to keep newspapers open. Communities can start by reading and supporting local newspapers. If you have the money, donate it to your local newspaper or purchase a subscription. Tune in to public and community radio that relies on listener support. In the short run, news outlets should consider monetizing the pandemic by finding a sponsor that can cover a newsletter’s focus on Covid-19-related updates. Philanthropy will also be a key in sustaining news outlets, although this support presents some challenges. For example, philanthropic support poses the risk of influencing what news gets covered and what news doesn’t. In the long run, this risk may be mitigated through the creation of a “deconsolidation fund,” or a community-based media fund, that will assist outlets into easing into nonprofit status. The fund may also be utilized to represent the public interest in bankruptcy proceedings or to buy local newspapers from chains. 

In the long run, it will be necessary to pass legislation that taxes large search and social platforms and uses generated funds to help the media industry. In 2019, Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, urged a tax targeting online platforms that would raise $2 billion to fund “diverse, local, independent, and commercial journalism.” Such legislation has already been passed in Australia, where the government mandated that Google and Facebook share advertising revenue with media outlets. Unions, journalists, and citizens all over the world are calling for similar measures in their respective countries, For example, the Irish Journalists Union called for a 6 percent tax on search engines and social media platforms. There is no question that newspapers serve as an essential component of democractic society. The local news drought that our country is currently experiencing is frightening. We need local outlets and journalists to cover local issues, hold our communities accountable, and drive grassroots growth. To sustain our news outlets, we will need to come together to support our local publications and to push for legislation that raises funds for media outlets. Such action is needed before our communities lose a crucial means of open communication and awareness. As Mitch Jeserich, broadcaster for KPFA Community Powered Radio, says, “Whether we are doing everything right will be judged by history, but right now there’s a feeling that we have to do everything we can do.”

Photo: Image via Flickr (Jon S)