For Democracy's Sake, Local Journalism Needs to Thrive

Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

The localism movement is encouraging, but as it gains momentum, local journalism organizations are still struggling to find a sustainable economic model. This impacts not only journalism, but also our democracy.

This time last year I wrote about communities innovatively responding to local economic and social challenges. The trend continues, strengthening democracy at the grassroots level. 

One new wrinkle is the Aspen Institute’s Weave project, the goal of which is to identify ways to heal the social fragmentation chipping away at many levels of American society. Led by New York Times columnist David Brooks, the project asks participants what they can do to “replace loneliness, division and distrust with relationship, community and purpose.” 

This movement is encouraging, but as it gains momentum, local journalism organizations are still struggling to find a sustainable economic model. Without one, they will not be able to maintain their connection to local readers and viewers as well as attract the younger readers and viewers they need for the future. (For the purposes of this piece, I am concentrating on print and TV, not local radio.) 

Nor will they be able to cover their communities well. Some news organizations, like the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News, have suffered deep cutbacks in staffing and coverage after new ownership took over. 

This challenge impacts not only journalism, but also our democracy. An informed public is essential in a system of government that relies upon the consent of the governed. Perhaps that is why a 2016 Pew Research Center study reveals a strong correlation between people who consume local news and people who vote in local elections. 

Of course, national newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal draw national, even international audiences to their print and digital products. But local, state, and even regional journalism organizations lack that reach. They instead are searching for economic security in a digital age, often to no avail. According to a University of North Carolina study, 60 percent of U.S. counties are “news deserts” that lack a local newspaper. 

The Pew Research Center just finished a new look at local journalism and found73 percent of respondents follow local news somewhat closely. But only 14 percent of local news consumers pay for it. What’s more, 71 percent think media organizations are doing fine financially. 

This discrepancy is at the heart of the problem. The internet has made news ubiquitous and largely free, so why should we have to pay for it? That question is natural, and vexes local news organizations. It also is prompting alternative models, such as nonprofit news organizations. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, is now part of the nonprofit Philadelphia Media Network, which the Lenfest Institute for Journalism owns. 

Two drivers of the nonprofit model recently raised $42 million to rebuild local news operations. John Thornton, the venture capitalist who banked the launch of the successful nonprofit Texas Tribune site, and Elizabeth Green, founder of the popular Chalkbeat education site in places like New York and Colorado, recently created the American Journalism Project

They are taking their experiences in providing compelling coverage of state and local issues and supporting existing and start up local news organizations. The initiative wants to involve philanthropies in rejuvenating civic news organizations, much like philanthropy has had a major impact on education, health care, and the arts. 

Report for America also offers a new model for local journalism. Like Teach for America educators, participants sign up for stints in local communities. This time it is in news organizations, where grants from Report for America help finance their enterprising work. 

These are encouraging developments, but more needs to be done to sustain vibrant local news operations. And the challenges are not all financial. 

For one thing, local journalists need to keep searching for more people to involve in their reporting. That Pew 2016 study revealed those who vote less often in local elections are less likely to think their local news organizations are in touch with their communities. And they are far less likely to have been interviewed by a local journalist than those more highly engaged local citizens. 

I am not saying journalists should interview more people in order to get them to vote. But expanding the network of sources can broaden their work while also increasing community engagement, which is one of the goals of Weave and others in the localism movement. 

The potential and hope of that movement is that it results in stronger communities, the kind with firm enough bonds that they can work through the social and economic challenges that inevitably hit every community. Journalism has a role to play in meeting that challenge.