Midterms in the local news void

The struggles of America’s local press are well-documented, but what effect that might have on Tuesday’s midterms is less clearly established. As voters prepare to go to the polls, researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media want to show the scale of the problem. In a recent report on America’s “news deserts,” they update prior research to calculate that at least one in five newspapers has shuttered over the past 15 years, with a net loss of nearly 1,800 local titles nationwide.

Speaking on Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources podcast this week, Penelope Muse Abernathy, the report’s lead author, was explicit about the potential electoral impact of the findings. “There’s been a huge diminishment of what is available, especially in terms of public service journalism, the very sort of journalism that you need as you’re going into a very crucial election and need to decide what issues are important,” she said. When Stelter asked her if there is “a possibility a lot of people really don’t know what’s on the ballot,” she replied, “There’s a good chance of that.”

ICYMI: America’s growing news deserts

Ken Doctor of Nieman Lab reported yesterday that, at least partially to cut costs, Gannett titles in 109 markets across the United States will not print comprehensive election results on Wednesday morning. Gannett websites will drop their paywalls to let visitors see results online, but the impact of decisions like this should not be downplayed: according to a Pew Research Center study published in January 2016, around half of US newspaper readers only consume a printed product.

Over several weeks, CJR has published more than a dozen dispatches from across the country focusing on local midterms stories that have not gotten the attention they deserve. Several contributions contrast perceptive local reporting with less insightful—or, worse, non-existent—national coverage.

Writing from California yesterday, Jean Guerrero credits KQED, the local NPR affiliate, and San Diego CityBeat, an alt-weekly, with “exceptional” reporting amid inadequate coverage of Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter’s xenophobic attacks on Ammar Campa-Najjar, his Democratic challenger, who is Latinx-Arab-American. With local newspapers disappearing, insightful local journalism of this type is fast becoming a defiance of the troubling norm.

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Below, more on the crisis in local news and the midterm elections:

  • “States of the Union”: Click here to read all of CJR’s dispatches from Montana, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, Iowa, Washington, Indiana, New Mexico, Florida, Oklahoma, and California.
  • “News deserts”: Last year, CJR compiled this county-by-county map of America’s news deserts to highlight parts of the country under-served by local news.
  • “It’s doing fine”: Yesterday, when The New York Times posted healthy subscriber and financial figures, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton urged readers to “Take 98 percent of whatever energy you devote to worrying about the future of the Times and re-channel it into worrying about your local daily, which is very likely approaching existential crisis.”
  • Not so fake news: The same President Trump who’s busy stoking a nationwide immigration panic has also been engaging local outlets on local matters ahead of the midterms. Politico’s Jason Schwartz and Christopher Cadelago reported on October 22 that Trump had done at least 10 local interviews tied to his rallies, “chatting about nuclear-waste disposal in Nevada and soybean trade in Kansas.”
  • What fills the void, I: Not all local news is retrenching, of course. Having acquired stations in battleground states, Sinclair, the conservative TV conglomerate, is mobilizing its properties behind the Republican cause as the midterms approach. According to Media Matters for America’s Pam Vogel, Sinclair has been beaming Trump booster Boris Epshteyn’s midterm message into homes across the country for weeks.
  • What fills the void, II: The past year has seen a nationwide boom in hyper-partisan conservative news sources, many of which look and feel like traditional local outlets despite lobbying for a candidate, party, or cause. In April, Politico’s Schwartz dubbed such sites “Baby Breitbarts.” And in May I took a closer look at one of them, The Idahoan for CJR.


Other notable stories:

  • MSNBC declined to broadcast an immigration briefing by Trump yesterday. Having trailed a new asylum policy, the president instead served up reheated fear-mongering and falsehoods. “The president’s relish for lies is unchanged, and live television is absolutely no match for the fury with which his falsehoods tumble forth,” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote afterward. “There’s no excuse for any US television network to take his appearances live, at any time. The question now is: Which network will be the first to declare that it will not provide a live airing of next year’s State of the Union address?”
  • CNN did carry the briefing, with Jake Tapper fact-checking it on-air once it finished (“I could spend three hours doing this,” he said). Politico reported yesterday that CNN President Jeff Zucker will stop hiring as talking heads ex-administration staffers who can’t be counted on to tell the truth. But the network won’t be toning down its Trump coverage as a whole. Zucker told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo: “People say all the time, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about Trump. I’ve had too much Trump.’ And yet at the end of the day, all they want to do is talk about Trump. We’ve seen that, anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away.”
  • A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted last week and released yesterday asked whether Trump and the media, respectively, had done more to unite or divide the country since Trump took office in January 2017. Fifty-six percent of respondents said Trump had stoked division; 64 percent said the same of the media.
  • Technology website Recode is folding into Vox.com, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reported yesterday. Vox Media acquired Recode three years ago.
  • Following the murder of its contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post yesterday announced a new Press Freedom Partnership. The paper will join with the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders, and other groups to champion fearless reporting around the world. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower went dark for a minute last night in tribute to Khashoggi and other murdered journalists.
  • Journalist and activist Shaun King is relaunching The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper founded in 1847 by Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany.
  • Bill Keller will retire from his role as editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project next year. A former editor of The New York Times, Keller helped found the criminal justice-focused website in 2014.

ICYMI: Where did Robert Mueller go?

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.