June 24, 2024 , in technology


Saving Local News

As local news sources continue to dry up in many parts of the U.S., new funding initiatives are trying to reverse the process by supporting small newsrooms.

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Saving local journalism | Eidosmedia

Our last look at local news in 2022 noted its serious decline in the United States and explored some possibilities for reviving the format, but that was nowhere near the end of the story. Two recent reports from Pew Research and Northwestern University confirm the continued loss of local journalism. Still, as is so often the case, the impact is not affecting every community evenly.

Some communities are being disproportionately impacted by the contraction of local news. Now, however, an ambitious new funding initiative attempts to address the problem. Will it be enough? Let’s find out.

The decline of local news reporting

The statistics are grim. Local news in the U.S. is facing a serious decline, especially in print formats. According to Pew, the share of adults who say they pay close attention to local news has dropped since their last major survey in 2018. Importantly, this mirrors a drop in attention to national news.

But it’s not all bad news: “A large majority say local news outlets are at least somewhat important to the well-being of their local community. Most people also say local journalists are in touch with their communities and that their local news media perform well at several aspects of their jobs, such as reporting the news accurately.” This sentiment seems to extend across both major political parties. However, that feeling does not necessarily translate to financial support for the media outlets people depend on.

Pew reports just 15% of respondents say they have paid for local news in the last year. Furthermore, “many seem unaware of the major financial challenges facing local news: A 63% majority (albeit a smaller majority than in 2018) say they think their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially.”

Meanwhile, audience habits are shifting. Pew found that 26% of Americans prefer to get local news online, either through news websites (26%) or social media (23%). On the other hand, just 9% of people say they prefer to get their news from print newspapers — that number remains the same for radio. While the issues impacting local news are nationwide, they are not felt equally across all communities.

Geographical disparities in local news coverage

Local news is experiencing a contraction, but it is not uniformly distributed across the U.S. Rural areas and smaller communities often bear the brunt of these changes as they face a stark absence of dedicated news outlets. The report from Northwestern University, “The State of Local News 2023”, looked at the counties currently experiencing news desert conditions and attempted to predict those that may be vulnerable in the future.

According to the report, there are 204 news deserts or counties with “no newspapers, local digital sites, public radio newsrooms or ethnic publications.” Moreover, after analyzing the trends and conditions that led to these news deserts, “Medill experts have identified another 228 counties at substantial risk of becoming news deserts in coming years.”

In the year preceding the report, 131 newspapers in 77 counties shuttered. Many of the communities impacted by these losses are already struggling. “In 16 economically struggling counties located in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky—with poverty rates four percentage points higher than the U.S. average—residents were left with no local alternative news source once the weekly newspaper closed,” says the report.

Despite all the bad news, it does seem that in some communities, the dearth of news leads to the growth of new models. A growing number of independent newspapers are filling the gap—the report identified three dozen newspapers established over the past five years. New upstarts like these lean on commercial and philanthropic funding to build new, more sustainable media models. These new sources of information are more important than ever, as the lack of reliable, accurate information can have dire consequences.

No news is bad news - the social costs

The erosion of local news has significant social implications, from reduced civic engagement to the rise of misinformation. Without reliable local reporting, communities struggle to stay informed about important issues, which can undermine democratic processes. Many of us intuitively know this to be true, but what do the facts tell us about the impact of declining local journalism?

According to the Washington Post, “Studies show that people who live in areas with poor local news coverage are less likely to vote, and when they do, they are more likely to do so strictly along party lines. To put it bluntly, the demise of local news poses the kind of danger to our democracy that should have alarm sirens screeching across the land.”

Research also shows us that readers trust their local news outlets, which cannot be said for larger news outlets. Pew reports that 78% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans say their local media do well at reporting news accurately. On the other hand, a 2022 survey found that 51% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans say that news organizations, in general, do a very or somewhat good job of reporting the news accurately. It’s clear that local reporters, often part of the communities they serve, are integral to the fabric of society — and finding sustainable business models is more important than ever.

New funding - will it work?

To counteract the decline in local journalism, new efforts aim to revitalize local news through financial support, focusing on underserved areas and addressing historical inequalities. For instance, Press Forward is investing $500 million to reimagine how local news is funded.

Press Forward launched an open call for applications on April 30: Local news outlets that provide original reporting and have a budget under $1 million are eligible to apply for Press Forward funding. Non-profit news entities have been popping up to fill coverage gaps and are eligible for grants and other funding, but Press Forward is changing the game. Importantly, “The Press Forward Open Call on Closing Local Coverage Gaps will provide 100-plus news outlets with an expected $100,000 each in funding, whether they are non-profit or for-profit entities. The funding will be unrestricted, general operating support, allowing the news organizations to spend it as needed to sustain and grow their operations.”

While some groups have concerns about the equitable distribution of these potentially game-changing funds, another obvious question is: Can these funds truly succeed in reversing the decline of local news? Yes, $100,000 can absolutely infuse a small newsroom with much-needed cash, but is it enough to keep the doors open indefinitely — especially if it's a one-time award?

The answers to these questions will likely depend on how the award-winners use their funds. Do they simply pay reporters and keep the lights on, or will they invest in creating longer-term strategies to build sustainable business models? Only time will tell.


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