We need to complicate the “save local news” mantra

On Saturday, Politico media reporter Jack Shafer wrote a column arguing that the primary challenge facing local newsrooms is not supply, but demand. “It’s not that nobody wants to read local news; it’s just that not enough people do to make it a viable business,” Shafer wrote. “Maybe the surfeit of local news of yesteryear was the product of an economic accident, a moment that cannot be reclaimed.” Shafer’s identification of declining demand is a worthy point, complicating overly simplistic calls to “save local news.” But placing too many eggs in the “demand” basket, and over-emphasizing economics,  risks dismissing needs and desires that aren’t being met in the current system, warped as it is. Declining readership, after all, is also an impact problem.

Shafer’s column follows a rise in national coverage and political discourse lamenting the degradation of many local news outlets across the United States. Penny Abernathy—the researcher behind the oft-cited news desert map—told me last August that “there has been a real awakening in the industry, among community activists, and among certain politicians as to what is at stake if we lose the local newspaper, in whatever form it is delivered.”

Shafer is right to say that discussions about the stakes often place an outsized emphasis on supply, equating the presence of any local outlet with public good. He’s also right that declining demand is a big part of the problem; local reporters have made similar points themselves. In January, Pat Rynard, the founder and managing editor of digital local politics site Iowa Starting Line, wrote an anguished post to explain that the publication was going on hiatus because he was deeply discouraged by the limits of journalism’s impact in Iowa. “Good journalism should hold the powerful accountable, but it should do so in reality, not just theory,” Rynard wrote. “And if voters aren’t listening to it, then what are we doing here?” When he spoke with me in January, Rynard expressed frustration with the national emphasis on the supply of local news over its ability to reach readers. “It’s all about, How do we keep this stuff surviving? and not so much, Is it having its full impact?” The local news industry, he added, needs “a lot of new and more imaginative thinking.”(Iowa Starting Line returned to publication in February, after a hiatus lasting just under a month.)

It’s all too easy, though, to confuse “imagination” with “innovation,” that elusive capitalist promise that working harder and being smarter will yield economic benefits. The past decade has proven that the traditional local news model cannot innovate itself out of the mess it’s in: innovation cannot reverse vulture investments, break up tech monopolies, or compete with ubiquitous free junk news. And while innovation measures the financial benefit of making things better, imagination might tether improvement to public service instead. As Heather Bryant, deputy director of News Catalyst, tweeted, “We can ask ‘how do we get people to pay for journalism’ or we can ask ‘how do we cover the cost of producing and providing access to useful news and information.’ These are different problems.” To add to Shafer’s point, “saving local news” is a good mantra, but we should be clear about which of its functions are valuable and which we can discard.

There is significant evidence that localized, trustworthy information is essential to democracy, but it does not have to take the form of a traditional print newspaper. Abernathy’s work documenting news deserts was instrumental in bringing public attention to a real problem, but its metrics are limited—largely measuring the loss of newspapers across geographic regions—and national coverage depending on the “news deserts” research has become uncritically fixated upon those limited variables. As a result, we suffer from a lack of imagination about what local news can be, both in format and in funding model.

There’s also an important distinction between what people want and what people need; readers might not pay for coverage of election infrastructure as readily as they pay for Disney+, but that doesn’t mean a Disney subscription is more valuable. Victor Pickard, who has written extensively on the value of journalism as a public good, wrote on Twitter,”If there was an ‘accident,’ it was that an advertising revenue-driven business model and newspaper publishers’ monopolistic power over local markets created the illusion that journalism should always be highly profitable.” At present, a lot of local reporting suffers from a feedback loop in which margins shrink, coverage declines, and margins shrink some more. The problem is not an unworthy goal, but the inability to produce a worthwhile result using a broken system.

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Something must change in order to connect readers to the democratic value that robust, localized reporting can offer, and that’s a challenge worthy of extra attention. There’s not a single solution, but there are a host of possibilities that can be used in concert—some of which are already taking place at publications across the country—eliminating barriers to access, reimagining the relationship between journalism and its audience, finding new funding models, getting government support, better explaining local journalism’s value proposition, or humbly accepting that it may be far from the traditional past we cling to. “Improve and support the function accessible localized information plays in undergirding democracy, and educate people about its value” is a much less pithy mantra than “save local news,” but perhaps it is what “save local news” can come to mean.

Below, more on the economics of information:

  • Opportunity: A recent report from the International News Media Association found that business subscriptions are an under-tapped resource for news publishers, as PressGazette reported. Some publishers indicated finding businesses increasingly willing to pay for subscriptions.
  • Nonprofits: Two-thirds of nonprofit news outlets saw an increase in foundation funding and individual giving in 2020, NiemanLab reported, with individual donors playing an increasingly large role in lending support. (Half of nonprofit outlets experienced lower earnings from revenue alone.) For more on the state of nonprofit news, read INN’s annual index report.
  • Bouncing back: Thanks to swift and sudden growth in advertising, in addition to the return of live events, many media companies are rebounding, with hundreds of new media hires, Axios reported.
  • On “value”:  For The Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote about the monetization of the attention economy. “We might also wonder what follows from the understanding that every little thing we do—every second of our time, every funny thought that pops into our mind—is something to be owned or sold,” she writes. Ensuring that people are paid for their labor is important; still “when a market value is assigned to every utterance, we’re acquiescing to the premise that no other sort of value matters as much.

Other notable stories:

This story has been updated to clarify that while the “Expanding News Desert” map focuses on the loss of newspapers, the project’s scope extends beyond newspapers alone

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