Op-ed: Local journalism is dying. Bold action can save it.

November 29, 2019

Since before the founding of our republic, local news has kept our communities informed and engaged, and held the powerful to account. Yet, despite its importance, local journalism is disappearing, and its demise strains the fabric of our society. Researchers have linked local journalism’s decline to less competitive elections, declining transparency and a less engaged public, increased local government costs, and more. Fewer people turn to newspapers to access local news; most prefer to get their local news online or via TV. A full 38 percent of Americans do not often access any local news at all.

The most substantial and dangerous threat to local journalism has been the rise of tech companies—particularly social media networks and news aggregators. While the tech superpowers have connected billions of people across the globe, they have also fundamentally altered how we access and process information. They operate with a disregard for basic journalistic standards, allowing the spread of misinformation at an alarming rate, often with disastrous results. Sensationalism flourishes and displaces actual reporting. Without much-needed reform, the size, power, and reach of these platforms presents a danger to the existence of local news and the future of our democracy.

But local news, both print and digital, can thrive in a market of shallow stories and misinformation if it has a business model that can succeed.

I introduced the Saving Local News Act (HR 3126) to create a pathway for print and digital news organizations to become nonprofits, as the Salt Lake Tribune did earlier this month. This avenue would enable papers to tap previously inaccessible fundraising revenue, keep ad revenue tax-free, and focus on producing high-quality journalism, not padding profit margins. I also joined Representatives David Cicilline (D-RI) and Doug Collins (R-GA) to introduce the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (HR 2054). It would give news companies a short-term safe harbor in which to negotiate with tech companies for better revenue-sharing arrangements for news content that appears in places like Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

Neither bill is a silver-bullet solution, but together, and with more support, they can make a difference. Solving the problem of dwindling local news requires a conscious effort by industry, academia, government, and the public to prioritize high-quality local journalism over sensationalism and the convenience of large-scale national news outlets.

The future of local journalism can be bright, but we must all decide that we care enough to invest in our communities. I am willing to work with anyone who shares my dedication and belief that we can help rebuild this important contributor to our democracy.

Sign up for CJR's daily email
Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) represents Contra Costa County and is the founder of the Congressional Working Group on Saving Local News.