Combating Disinformation Through Local News Ecosystems

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

Building up local journalism can strengthen communities, combat disinformation, and ultimately bolster our democracy.

(Editor’s Note: On Thursday, July 29th at 11 a.m. CT, the George W. Bush Institute, Freedom House, Issue One, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted the third webinar in the Reimagining Democracy series. You can now watch the session, which focused on the challenge that disinformation presents democracies.) 

One of the more encouraging signs in the fight to save local journalism is the response across the country from community leaders, media organizations, and journalism collaboratives to ensure that communities continue to enjoy a reliable flow of information. This counter-revolution not only can buttress the spread of disinformation, but it also offers communities one of the most essential ways to create a shared culture. That, in turn, is a sure-fire way to strengthen our larger democracy. 

The response is coming because a troubling number of readers lack a local news source. A University of North Carolina study found that the country experienced a net loss of 1,779 newspapers between 2004 and 2018. Existing newspapers either closed or merged, and in some cases, they were so gutted for financial reasons that they became known as “ghost papers.”  

Whatever the reason for the demise, disinformation can easily spread in a news vacuum. Just think about the spread of false information about the highly effective COVID-19 vaccines  

Fortunately, organizations like the nonprofit Local Media Association are stepping into the breach. The Association works with 3,000-plus journalism organizations to build strong local media ecosystems, which its website contends are “essential to a healthy democracy.” 

In Oklahoma last year, the Local Media Association spawned the Oklahoma Media Center. A collaboration among 25 Oklahoma newsrooms, the center seeks to expand audiences for existing media outlets, spur statewide collaboration to benefit diverse audiences, and create new business models.  

Rob Collins, a respected Oklahoma journalist who has led newspapers and a magazine in his home state, is heading the collaborative, which now is applying for tax-exempt status. During a recent phone conversation, Collins explained how the enterprise will attempt to sustain existing media organizations. 

A key part of the effort, he reported, will involve working with media partners to build trust with local readers and viewers. One recent training session explained to readers how the news gathering process actually works. 

The center also oversees grants through its 2021 Innovation Fund, which benefited from a start-up contribution from the Inasmuch Foundation in Oklahoma City. Included among the 12 stipends were grants to: 

*The Frontier in Tulsa to create a website to explain how a landmark Supreme Court ruling affects Oklahoma’s indigenous tribes; 

*The Lawton Constitution to develop a media literacy curriculum for Lawton middle school students; and 

*The Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact Oklahoma, a NPR-affiliate, to launch a traveling-and-listening project as a way to develop better coverage of underrepresented Oklahomans. 

The American Journalism Project likewise seeds and grows local news organizations and operates from the belief that democracy and journalism are interdependent. An informed citizenry, after all, is essential in a healthy democracy. 

The project concentrates on developing nonprofit news operations, providing them financial grants and business expertise. As American Journalism Project CEO Sarabeth Berman said last week, the aim is to bring more nonprofit news organizations to scale. Then, they can do their work of providing original reporting about local affairs. 

Public-spirited investors and foundations are an essential part of the new nonprofit media ecosystem. James and Deborah Fallows created the Our Towns Civic Foundation to help connect people who are interested in strengthening local communities. They did so after traveling 100,000 miles across America, culminating in their bestselling book, Our Towns 

One area of focus for the foundation, as Jim Fallows put it in a Democracy Talks interview, is “the range of experimentation to keep local journalism going.” He also captured the larger reason to be concerned about vital local journalism: “The economic pressure on journalism as a whole, which has been most intense on local community papers, is maybe the biggest challenge now to civic engagement and civic vitality.” 

Civic engagement and civil vitality are certainly at risk whenever communities lose their newspapers. A Knight Foundation study highlights how people who regularly read and follow local news are more likely to vote and be engaged civically. Similarly, a  study by researchers at Yale, MIT, and Sciences Po Paris discovered that voters are less likely to support candidates beyond one party when they rely largely on polarizing national news outlets. And a study by professors at Notre Dame, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology shows that government costs go up when communities lose their local papers. 

But, encouragingly, a counter-revolution is underway. For our nation’s sake, let’s hope it flourishes. Building up local journalism can strengthen communities, combat disinformation, and ultimately bolster our democracy.