The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that former Indiana Lieutenant Governor John Mutz has made a two million dollar gift to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The gift will establish a Chair in Local News that will focus on local news sustainability–a focus that is desperately needed.
The article quoted Mutz’ reasoning:
My political experience has dramatically shown me how important reliable local news sources are to local governments and economies,” Mutz, 85, told IBJ. “Without it we may lose our democratic society and that would be a tragedy. I’m greatly concerned about local communities that are essentially news deserts.
I have frequently posted about the dire consequences of this lack of local news. Not only do communities lose a necessary government watchdog, they lose an essential aspect of being a community.
In October, the Washington Post ran an article exploring one such “news desert”–following the loss of a small community’s only newspaper. Ashley Spinks had been the managing editor, and most recently the only journalist, at a weekly newspaper in a rural community in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. As the article noted,
Spinks took photos of the first day of school, laid out the newspaper and edited freelance pieces. She attended Floyd town council meetings, covered Confederate monument debates, did award-winning reporting on the water system problems and wrote news-you-can-use pieces, like the one helpfully headlined “Don’t feed the bears!”
Spinks had been interviewed by a local public radio outlet about cuts made to the paper after it was acquired by a corporate owner, Lee Enterprises. When she responded candidly, she was summarily fired, and Floyd lost its local news. As the report notes, Floyd is not alone. A recent study found that some 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers have simply vanished since 2018, and more outlets are disappearing since the onset of the pandemic-related recession.
Floyd’s Mayor told the Post that the newspaper had been the primary source of information on what’s happening in local government, and shared his concerns about citizens turning to unvetted social media posts for information.
Washington Monthly recently ran a series titled “Can Journalism be saved?”After repeating the statistics on journalism jobs lost and newspapers lost, the first article in the series reminded readers that the losses were industry-wide.
The damage ranges from the shutting-down of quality national magazines like Governing and Pacific Standard to large layoffs at online outlets like BuzzFeed and VICE. But the greatest shrinkage is happening at the local level, among large metropolitan dailies, neighborhood and small-town weeklies, and outlets that have long covered Black, Hispanic, and other minority and ethnic communities. As of last year, two-thirds of counties in America lacked a local daily newspaper. Half had only one newspaper, often just a weekly. And more than 200—mostly poor, rural counties—had none at all. Those news outlets that remain are often what are referred to as ghost papers, with few staff and little local reporting. (Local TV news has declined far less, but tends to cover stories that newspapers originate, and with less depth.)
The only remaining newspaper in Indianapolis, The Indianapolis Star, is one of those “ghost” papers. The Star was never a great newspaper, but years of corporate ownership have decimated editorial staff and stripped it of what reporting depth it may once have had.
The decline in what one scholar has called “the journalism of verification’ has been toxic to the functioning of American democracy.
One study found that in communities where newspapers close and there are no reporters keeping an eye on the decisions of local officials, municipal government wages, deficits, and borrowing costs rise. Local news outlets tend to be far more trusted by readers on both sides of the political aisle than national publications. When they disappear, citizens turn to national news sources, often partisan ones, or rely on social media for information. The result is more party-line voting and small-town residents mobilizing against mythical antifa infiltrations. Indeed, as this magazine has reported, the rise of authoritarian politics in America correlates to an alarming degree with the waning of local news.
When there isn’t a trusted source of local news that also carries some verified national reporting, it becomes much easier to construct an information bubble from social media posts and internet conspiracy sites.
The Washington Monthly series identifies several ways government might reinvigorate journalism without jeopardizing editorial independence–much as the Founders did by establishing favorable postal rates for newspapers.
Whatever the mechanism, a solution is critical and overdue.