As regular readers of this blog know, I have a couple of abiding preoccupations. Civic literacy is one, and an allied anxiety is the loss of local journalism.
Please understand: when social scientists and bloggers bewail the death spiral of America’s newspapers, we aren’t talking about physical paper. We are talking about a lack of journalism. If reporters are covering local news adequately, digital delivery doesn’t equate to loss–and the continuing presence of a print edition is not evidence that journalism is occurring.
I’m hardly the only person expressing considerable concern over the emerging consequences of this loss. A friend recently shared with me some preliminary findings from a study of Indiana journalism currently being funded by folks who are equally worried. It’s proprietary, so I can’t share it, but I can share one set of observations that I think sum up what might accurately be called our local news deserts.
The researchers identified six areas of coverage that most people would consider important: crime, governance, economic development, environment and public health, business and education. They then surveyed the local media in order to identify what was currently being covered in each of those areas–and followed up by interviewing a number of residents, people who live in the area served (or not) by that media. In those interviews, they asked people what sorts of information they think they need in each category.
You will not be surprised to learn that there was not a good fit between what people feel they need to know and the information they are actually getting.
In the category of government, for example, the research found “intermittent enterprise coverage” and “sporadic, stenography-style local and county coverage” that is often simply repetitive of public announcements. The announcements themselves received little scrutiny, and even that occurred only in certain areas. They found that statehouse coverage was “fragmented” and “not well distributed.” (My own description would have been considerably more critical…)
When they asked people to identify information that would make them more informed voters and citizens–they evidently got an earful. People wanted “more accessible, relevant explanations” of what is going on in all levels of governance; reporting, for example, on the planning processes that determine how millions of dollars of federal assistance will be applied, as well as much more information about government budgeting in general. And not surprisingly, people wanted more investigative reporting that would uncover and highlight corruption.
Across all of the categories, the research found a lack of context, and a lack of explanatory material connecting the dots between decisions made and the probable or demonstrated effects of those decisions on individuals and communities. Words like “unscrutinized” and phrases like “no follow-up” were frequent in the description of current coverage.
There is a lot to criticize about the media environment in which we find ourselves. Right now, Americans have access to a large number of sources covering national governance and politics. Several of those sources are solid and informative–others are closer to propaganda outlets–but adequate, even insightful news coverage of government at the federal level is available. The hole–the empty space–is local, and the research tells us that the consequences of that vacuum are both negative and serious.
Recent academic studies show that newspaper closures and declining coverage of state and local government in general have led to more partisan polarization, fewer candidates running for office, higher municipal borrowing costs and increased pollution.
“Inarguably, no matter what side of the political fence you sit, [in the absence of] a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things,” said Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive and current director of corporate affairs for Dollar Bank in Cleveland, in response to the most recent Plain Dealer layoffs. “Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”
To which I would add my recurring concern that, in the absence of a common, widely-read source of local news, it is all too easy for neighbors to occupy wildly different realities–to live in what are effectively different communities.
One out of five Americans currently lives in a “news desert” with little to no access to reliable local media coverage, and that doesn’t even count the many areas with “ghost” newspapers like the Indianapolis Star.
We desperately need a rebirth of local journalism, so I am rooting for the success of the Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital upstart launched by a Baltimore businessman, that will be dedicated to local coverage of the city. He must agree with me about the importance of local news–he has committed $50 million of his own fortune to the enterprise.
Lots of us will be watching. With bated breath.