In my newsletter today, the top story looks at the impact of the decline in local news outlets in the US. The statistic that one in five Americans now
I edited local newspapers for a very brief period of my career – about 21 months. I joke that I survived the six rounds of cuts but not the seventh. Those cuts included simple budget cuts, hiring freezes, a major reorganisation and an early retirement scheme.
I actually really enjoyed working in local media, despite the incredible pressure of trying to expand two newspapers amidst an industry collapse. I managed the newspapers in two towns in Wisconsin: Sheboygan, population 50,000ish, and Manitowoc, with a population of around 35,000. For the first year, I felt like an old-fashioned small-town editor. In Sheboygan, where I lived, people would stop me on the street, just to talk because I was the editor of the newspaper . But the cuts drove home just how badly the newspaper industry had shrunk. In 2005, the newspaper in Manitowoc had about 12 editorial staff. When I arrived in 2014, the local staff was still about nine. Today, it’s four.
During my time in local newspapers, one particular question gnawed at me: Was one factor in the decline in newspapers down to a decline in local civic engagement or was the decline in local civic engagement driving the decline in newspapers?
Research is now beginning to answer that question. Take this from an article in Governing:
According to a study published in November in the Journal of Communication, voters rely more on national outlets — and become more partisan — as local newspapers decline or close.
“The more obvious implications of newspaper closures are
that residentsare becoming less informed about the issues that affect them mostand less engaged with local government,” says Johanna Dunaway, professor of communications at Texas A&M University and coauthor of the study.
When No News Isn’t Good News: What the Decline of Newspapers Means for Government , Alan Greenblatt, Governing
The article goes on to highlight an increase in partisanship as the news becomes “nationalized”. Again, I saw this at the local level. People didn’t really distinguish between the local newspaper, the New York Times or cable news. It was all just one undifferentiated mass for them. People would call me up as the editor and shout at me about things in the “the media”, usually cable news – CNN or Fox, depending on their politics. I tried to explain to them that we didn’t have anything to do with that, were owned by entirely separate companies and that our focus was the local community, not commenting on the latest hot issue in Washington.
At the same time, they were very disengaged from local politics. In a conversation with our city clerk in Sheboygan, who helped run our local elections, she made the point that in the previous spring’s election we only had a turnout of 7
When local people did talk about politics, particularly on Facebook, it was frustrating to see them grouse rather immaturely about local government, rather than engaging with issues in a substantive way. More than that, they often made it clear that they were doing this from the sidelines and not as active voters or civic participants. It was civics as a spectator sport.
The article in Governing does a good job of pulling together the threads of a lot of research showing the negative consequences of this loss of coverage including a decline in local government accountability and even negative environmental impacts. But this kind of local reporting is really expensive and no one seems willing to pay. I had several ideas on how to begin rebuilding local reporting and, although my first year in Sheboygan gave me the opportunity to start putting some those into practice, the continued cuts and reorganisations made it impossible to capitalise on those early gains.
What we’re losing with respect to local journalism is hurting our society. And we need not just creative ways to start rebuilding that. We should all acknowledge that these organisations will not cut their way to growth or cut their way back to meaningful, engaged local news outlets. We have to find a way for this to work, for the sake of our communities and our citizens.