Into the Issues

Now we have to make people want local news

Al Cross

By Al Cross

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at irjci.blogspot.com and the Midway Messenger at MidwayMessenger.org.

In the last six years, interest in local news has declined, for several reasons. Community newspapers can’t do much about most of the causes, but there are some things they can do. It starts with understanding the problem.

Media reporter Jack Shafer of Politico wrote about it recently, first laying out the familiar arguments for local news, with references and links at https://politi.co/3zRT9ij: “Local news makes representative government more accountable, scholars claim. Books and monographs extolling the virtues of local reporting on everything from public health to economic vitality abound. When local reporting goes south, researchers tell us, political polarization, civic corruption, lower voter turnout, reduced civic engagement and even authoritarianism follow.”

Then he pointed out some hard facts: “A 2018 Duke University study of 16,000 local news outlets (including broadcasters) in 100 communities deemed only about 17 percent of articles as truly local (i.e., they took place in or were about the local municipality), and just over half were hard news. Another 2018 finding by Pew revealed that only 16 percent of Americans get their news ‘often’ from a newspaper, further lowering the status of the press.”

When Facebook looked last year for local news to include in its new ‘Today In’ section, “It found that one in three of its users lived in places where there wasn’t enough local news published to sustain the section,” Shafer wrote. As for TV news, most Americans’ main source of local news, Shafer cited a 2018 Emory University study suggesting that “low-cost, quality national news online . . . has siphoned off readers who might otherwise partake of local news.”

Surprisingly, Shafer did not mention the study’s top two findings. The researchers found “substantial increases in coverage of national politics at the expense of local politics,” and “a significant rightward shift in the ideological slant of coverage,” driven partly by Sinclair Broadcasting, which disproportionately serves TV markets with large rural audiences.

And what was going on during the study period? Donald Trump was getting elected, dominating news coverage with his unorthodox approaches, and attacking traditional news media as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.”

That affected rural and community journalists even before Trump was inaugurated, as I wrote on The Rural Blog in 2017 (at bit.ly/35Mgi7V and bit.ly/3qnW1yV). The latter piece was about Walla Walla editor Brian Hunt’s “calm, respectful but strong defense of journalism and its essential role in democracy.”

In the last four years, some newspapers (notably those of Arkansas-based publisher Walter Hussman) have done a better job of regularly explaining how journalism is supposed to work, but I don’t think most news outlets do that well.

They also largely fail to remind Americans of the differences in news media and social media. You’ve probably read the following elevator speech in this space before, but it’s worth repeating, so you can repeat it: News media practice a discipline of verification; we tell you how we know something, or we attribute it. Social media have virtually no discipline, and no verification.

Social media and the torrent of other online information leave readers with less time to consume local news. And that news is often not as interesting or entertaining as what they are getting from outside their community. Trump steered many people away from local news and toward national news, community editors and publishers have told me.

Mike Buffington, who publishes five Georgia weeklies, wrote, “During the Trump tenure, we saw a huge uptick in local interest of national news. When we’d write about local controversies, not much reaction. But when we’d write about Trump or national politics, all hell would hit. (All of our editors wrote mostly anti-Trumpism columns and editorials.)”

Mike also wrote that social media have “so distorted reality that a lot of people live more online than in their own towns.”

Those towns, communities of geography, are the basis for local news outlets. They now compete with social media’s communities of interest; the more time people spend with them, the less time they have for their geographic communities. That drives down newspaper readership, which means fewer ads, which leaves less room for news, which further reduces readership and continues the downward spiral.

Stopping the spiral requires smart decisions about giving readers what they want, while also giving them what they need to be good citizens. The real trick is making them want what they need.

If your readers don’t seem to be interested in government coverage, maybe it’s because you’re not making it interesting. I read too many newspapers in which government coverage focuses on meetings. It’s an essential watchdog function, but covering a meeting is like watching a train pull into a station, discharge and take on passengers, and leave. You get glimpses of the passengers, but have no idea of how they may be interacting on the train.

There’s a lot more going on among members of local public agencies than among people on a train. Those members usually have different perspectives, and many like to share their views, which can produce good stories. They can also be good sources of fact – sometimes, facts that other officials would rather keep quiet.

Stories that go beyond meeting coverage are not only more interesting; they are testimony to the value of a local newspaper.

This is just one example of how we can get Americans interested in local news again. We can’t just talk about why newspapers are needed. We have to prove it.

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