Business of News

Reviving democracy requires reviving local journalism

September 16, 2020

The foundations of local journalism are crumbling, as this newsletter seeks to explain each week; over the past few years, as the US has faced voter suppression, foreign meddling, and executive overreach—and as political polarization charges the atmosphere around the world—the foundations of a democratic government can also seem precarious. 

In April 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that more than half of survey respondents were dissatisfied with the way democracy was working in their country (among US respondents, 58 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the state of democracy in America). This concern—that our democracy is falling short—echoes throughout news headlines, ominous opinion pieces, and social media screeds—and it has only been heightened and complicated by the upheaval of a global pandemic in a significant election year, with the loss of 194,000 American lives to covid-19 and the ongoing protests against systemic racism. Conversations about reviving democracy are complicated, as are efforts to revive local news, but the two are inextricably linked and ought to be treated as such

The loss of local newsrooms has hurt civic engagement. The Knight Foundation’s new report on the relationship between media habits and voter participation found that people are more engaged with national news than local news. “Non-voters and voters are both more likely to feel more knowledgeable about national affairs than about what’s happening in their local communities,” the report states. Considering that the newsrooms at US newspapers are half the size they were in 2008, this dynamic is hardly surprising.

Nor is it new. In 2009, following the financial crisis, Congress held a hearing to discuss “The Future of Newspapers: The Impact on the Economy and Democracy.” Various researchers and publishers gathered to bear witness to the swiftly growing corrosion in journalism’s traditional economic models and to plead for a public commitment to finding solutions. In an opening statement, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, said, “Without our newspapers, we lack a critical uniting feature which fosters broad participation in our democracy and community.” More than a decade later, research has proved her assessment correct, but the crisis has only worsened

In a 2003 study, researchers found a strong association between newspaper circulation and corruption: the lower the circulation of newspapers in a country, the higher that country’s appearance on the corruption index. For Nieman Reports last year, longtime journalist Mary Ellen Klas wrote that “less local news means less democracy,” highlighting work that drew bright lines between declining newsrooms, government overreach, and declining civic participation. One study found, for example, that the decline of local news correlated with reduced political knowledge and participation. A Harvard report indicated that increased dependence on national news and social media platforms left readers more vulnerable to misinformation. Other researchers discovered that as local newspapers closed, public administrators’ salaries increased, and taxes did too. 

In a 2015 study on local news and civic engagement, Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless wrote, “Citizens exposed to a lower volume of coverage are less able to evaluate their member of Congress, less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote.”

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National reporting has its own role to play in a democratic nation, but it is a poor replacement for a local newsroom. As researcher and Texas A&M professor Johanna Dunaway told me last year, national political news “is naturally more partisan—centered around the disputes between the two major national parties, and way less about what local representatives are doing for their districts.” A study from 2018, for which Dunaway was one of the authors, found that the decline of local news correlated with the decline of split-ticket voting in that area—local news outlets were weakening, and so, too, was political nuance at the ballot box. “People were voting in less complicated ways,” Dunaway said. 

Democracies are complicated, and so is the nuanced and specialized coverage that only a local newsroom can provide. Finding a sustainable model for democracy requires foregrounding local news. And finding a sustainable model for local journalism is more than a public good; it’s a civic necessity. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next.
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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past six months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

ATTEND OUR SYMPOSIUM: Join us this afternoon for the second day in our online symposium aimed at fostering fresh thinking about the media—considering how to rebuild the news industry after this season of loss. We’ll hear from some of the most urgent voices in the profession to talk about where journalism goes next. You can register here.

Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • NPR LAUNCHES LOCALIZED PODCAST: NPR announced a new localized daily news podcast, produced in partnership with twelve local news stations. When tuning in, listeners in these regions “will hear a version of Consider This with reporting on their community from their community, alongside a national view from NPR to help listeners make sense of the day,” the publisher said. For New York magazine, Nicholas Quah offered his thoughts on the new model.
  • THE ATLANTIC FLIES PAST SUBSCRIPTION GOALS: The Atlantic has added 325,000 paid subscribers since implementing a paywall one year ago, triple its goal for the year, CNN reported. Still, in May, the outlet laid off 17 percent of its staff, reportedly as a result of revenue losses from advertising and in-person events. The magazine hopes to hit one million subscribers by the end of 2022, and it’s not the only publication that has seen subscription growth. What’s New in Publishing recently highlighted the ways in which publishers have found new ways to engage audiences and generate revenues amid the pandemic.
  • VERMONT SITE CREATES SELF-SERVICE PORTAL: Last year, VTDigger, a nonprofit news site in Vermont, launched an initiative that allowed readers to submit reader-written birth announcements, marriage announcements, obituaries, press releases, and more. Editorial staffers review the material, which is submitted via public portal, before publication. After experiencing success in the program’s first year, the site has begun charging for publication of such content. The Lenfest Institute has more on the “self service” process.
  • THE DEFENDER EXPLAINS ITS DIGITAL MODEL: The Chicago Defender, a longtime authoritative voice in the Black press, is now exclusively digital. Hiram Jackson, CEO of the Defender’s parent company, Real Times Media, spoke with the Newstart Alliance about the transition from print. “To us, it was a necessary step to ensure that we had a future,” Jackson told Newstart. “We wanted to be proactive about it as opposed to waiting until we got to a point where we were financially impaired and it was a mandatory move.” To diversify its revenue streams, Real Times Media has also turned to events and the creation of a marketing consultancy. According to Jackson, “the future is pretty bright.”
  • SALT LAKE TRIBUNE FACES CHALLENGES: Since reincorporating a year ago as a not-for-profit company, the Salt Lake Tribune has experienced challenges in the newsroom, including the resignation of editor Jennifer Napier-Pierce last month, Poynter reported. In her resignation letter to the board, Napier-Pierce cited “differences of opinion about newsroom coverage, management and policies” between herself and the board chair, which Poynter reporter Rick Edmonds attributed, in part, to the paper’s coverage of Utah gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman, brother of board chair Paul Huntsman. Edmonds writes of the Tribune’s new model that “The Huntsmans’ ambitious effort is arguably still a problematic work in progress rather than a replicable way forward.”
  • THE JUGGERNAUT GETS CREATIVE: For his Substack newsletter, A Media Operator, Jacob Cohen Donnelly interviewed Snigdha Sur, founder and CEO of The Juggernaut, a publication aimed at the South Asian diaspora. Sur discussed the company’s business model, which includes “lifetime subscriptions” and new tools to use Instagram for distribution.
  • WAPO AND FINANCIAL TIMES PARTNER UP: This week, the Washington Post and Financial Times announced a joint subscription, with which subscribers can gain access to both publications.
  • SUBSCRIPTIONS SOAR, EVEN WITHOUT SPORTS: The Athletic recently hit one million subscriptions, CNBC reported, a notable feat on the other side of the sports shutdown caused by the pandemic. Though executives credit their subscription-based financial model with their survival, the company laid off 8 percent of its staff and implemented pay cuts in early June. “The Athletic publishes more than 200 stories a day and has spent the past four years pillaging local newspapers around the country to scoop up their sportswriters, offering higher salaries, stock options and more stability,” Alex Sherman writes.
  • DEFECTOR MEDIA PILOTS WORKER-OWNED NEWS: For Deez Links, a media-beat newsletter on Substack, Delia Cai interviewed Diana Moskovitz, investigations editor at Defector Media, the worker-owned publication launched by former employees from Deadspin. Moskovitz explains the worker-owned model, noting that the money is currently split evenly among staffers, but that the publication eventually plans to implement more traditional tiered salaries. Right now, team members wear many different hats as they fill the many roles needed in a growing newsroom, but they support one another, Moskovitz says. “What’s been so much fun, at least for me, is realizing what it’s like to build a newsroom without having to worry about how much has already been dictated by the whims of others,” she adds.
  • COMPANY AIMS TO SIMPLIFY PUBLIC NOTICE PLACEMENT: A new company called “Column” built an online portal to simplify the process of placing public notices in local newspapers, Axios reported. Thus far, it operates in nine states and the District of Columbia.
  • J-SCHOOLS SHOULDN’T GLORIFY UNPAID LABOR: For The Objective, on Substack, journalism student Deanna Schwartz argues that journalism schools should stop encouraging students to publish unpaid work. “News outlets can talk about investing in diversity and wanting to be more representative of the communities they cover, but they can’t truly make this investment when they’re creating opportunities that only privileged students can take part in,” Schwartz writes.
  • MORE LAYOFFS, MERGERS: British business publisher Euromoney has announced plans to cut 240 jobs, mostly in events, as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, Press Gazette reported. Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Broadcasting stations announced plans to merge. And for Poynter, Kristen Hare added a number of mergers and layoffs to her ongoing list, including layoffs at four Virginia papers owned by Lee Enterprises: the Times-Dispatch, Roanoke Times, Daily Progress, News & Advance, and Free Lance–Star.


JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers (at no cost) and job providers. The Ida B. Wells Society announced that its micro-loan program for journalists would no longer require recipients to repay their loans—you can apply here and donate here. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. And the International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites