What We Need To Know–And HOW We Need To Know It

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.

A recent article from Governing detailed some of those consequences.

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.


About That Dead Horse….

America faces a raft of very serious problems. This blog routinely pontificates about them–usually by citing from various media resources that have highlighted them. Over the past several years I have become increasingly convinced that it is the state of that media–especially its fragmented nature–that has exacerbated all of them.

That conviction won’t come as a surprise to longtime readers of this blog–it’s the “dead horse” I’ve been flogging for years.

The Pew Research Center recently issued a report on the current nature of what we like to call traditional media–primarily newspapers and broadcast (radio and television). For the first time, newspapers made more money from individual subscriptions than from advertising. That looks superficially like good news, but is really a reflection of the extent to which the business model that sustained those newspapers over the years has collapsed.

That collapse is why more than 2000 local newspapers have ceased publication during the past decade, and one of the reasons (along with their acquisition by greedy national companies)  why so many of those that remain have been able to maintain only skeletal reporting staffs.

Yes, national papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been able to maintain and even grow  both their reporting staffs and their subscribers, but in the cities and towns where citizens depend upon the press for the incredibly important watchdog function, these “ghost” papers no longer have the capacity to do so.

I’ve ranted about all of this in previous posts–flogging that “dead horse”–and noting the multiple consequences, but I keep coming back to what is, in my view, the most significant problem created by our current media environment: the facilitation of informational silos. Bubbles enable us to confirm our pre-existing biases, and–perhaps even worse– to avoid recognizing what we don’t know.

As I used to tell my students, even newspapers that were never particularly good–the Indianapolis Star comes to mind–served one very important function: they provided the citizens of a community with a common description of their local reality. Even if you only picked up the newspaper to see sports scores, you saw the same headlines your neighbors saw. The local school board was embroiled in a debate. Local crime rates had increased. The city was issuing bonds for a new library, and that might affect your property tax rate.


Today, good luck scanning the Indianapolis Star for education news– reporters will cover school board meetings only when enraged racists descend on board meetings to demand that schools stop teaching something they don’t teach anyway. If you want to know anything else about education policy, you need to go to sources like Chalkbeat, an online media resource covering education.

And that’s the problem.

In various conversations, I’ve asked people if they have ever heard of Chalkbeat–or a few of the other specialized sources that cover discrete areas of our common life. Very few have. We are at a point where the information we need in order to be minimally-informed citizens is “out there,” but only available to those who know enough–and are motivated enough–to search for it.

You may not have children in school, but what the local school board does affects your property values. You may be disinterested in the proceedings of your local department of transportation, but those proceedings will determine the condition of the streets you drive on. You may not care about the financial woes of a local hospital, but if you have a health emergency, those woes will suddenly become relevant.

Etcetera, etcetera.

Look–I’m not one of those people who looks back fondly at a past that never existed. I know that most people, even those who subscribed to local papers, tended to skim over the articles that didn’t interest them. For that matter, a lot of folks didn’t even subscribe–at best, they tuned in to the local TV news at dinnertime to hear brief summaries that the stations had usually gotten from the local newspapers. The point is, they saw the same headlines. They heard the same summaries.

They might argue over the accuracy of the reporting, or what it meant, but they shared a common starting-point.

The absence of local, in-depth news contributes to American polarization by  nationalizing news consumption. Pew found that in 2020,  Fox News’ prime time average audience increased by 61%, CNN’s increased by 72% and MSNBC’s grew by 28%.

Perhaps what we need are local versions of aggregators like the Huffington Post–one-stop “entry points” with short blurbs and links to the specialized sites that are doing credible, professional reporting on particular slices of what should be our common civic concerns.

National news is important–but so is verifiable, credible scrutiny of local governments and civic organizations.