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Local news is crucial to governance, and it’s hurting.

By Mark Funkhouser 

Last month it was announced that DCist, a local news website in Washington, D.C., would be shut down. Since 2018, DCist had covered local government, criminal justice, business, the environment, education and more. Fifteen journalists lost their jobs, and the community lost a valuable source for information and connection.

This is not an isolated closure, and traditional print newspapers have been hit especially hard. Since 2004, more than 20% of newspapers around the country have ceased publication, and the ones that remain now employ only half as many journalists as they did 20 years ago.

It’s resulting in real problems for the communities that once relied on the information those newspapers and their associated websites produced. And it’s a trend that should concern local government leaders, as well as the residents of their communities. A robust local media benefits local governments, and it’s in the best interest of local officials to support their news organizations.

Research shows that when news organizations close, cities and residents pay—starting with increased borrowing costs. A first-of-its-kind study in 2018 from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that municipal borrowing costs increased by as much as 0.10% after the local paper closed, translating to costs in the millions for those communities.

There’s also a correlation between higher taxes and higher government wages in areas that have lost a news organization. Fewer local reporters likely translate to decreased transparency surrounding local government and business officials, leading to potential increases of fraud, waste and abuse. Further, communities that have lost a news organization show decreased voter turnout and resident engagement.

“National news may get the lion’s share of attention, but local news has a far greater impact on our daily lives,” said Amanda King, director of communications and public involvement in Fort Collins, Colorado. “The accountability provided by local media for government officials is critical to democracy.”

It’s a viewpoint shared by Margaret Sullivan, a former media columnist for The Washington Post who’s now executive director of the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University. “Local media helps to foster good government and society,” she said. “Local news can help [officials] get their message out. They can also subscribe and support local news themselves and encourage their staff to as well. They can be good role models for others who want to live in a well-informed community, nation and world.”

A Little Help from State Capitals

There’s a role for state policymakers in supporting local media. In New York, the state that employs the most journalists nationwide, state lawmakers have proposed the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits to consumers for subscriptions to local news outlets and to news organizations for the employment of reporters.

In Illinois, two proposals are currently under consideration by state lawmakers. The Strengthening Community Media Act would offer tax incentives and scholarships intended to increase hiring in newsrooms and require employers to provide 120 days’ notice before selling a news organization to an out-of-state company. The Journalism Preservation Act would require technology companies like Google and Facebook to provide compensation to news organizations for the content shared, linked or displayed on their platforms.

Those bills, and similar ones across the country, are worth supporting. “Overall, we need to do something,” noted Sullivan. “These aren’t grants to news organizations, they’re tax credits. The press is recognized in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. […] This is something we should give a modicum of support through legislation.”

That support would recognize an important fact: “The hunger for local news remains,” as Caitlin Schmidt, co-founder of the Tucson Agenda, a hyperlocal news source for the Arizona city, puts it. After witnessing the detrimental effects layoffs at the local paper had on her community, Schmidt wanted to do something to fill the information void. A year later, the Agenda exceeds 100,000 page views a month. Part of its strategy, Schmidt added, is “updating the community monthly about subscriber growth, helping readers become emotionally invested” in its success.

Getting Past the Skepticism

Aside from measures at the state level, there are steps local officials can take to support local journalism and improve media relations. When I was the mayor of Kansas City during the Great Recession, I realized anew the power and impact of local media. The best city government public information officer in the world doesn’t have the reach and credibility of a local journalist.

Public officials tend to be skeptical of the press, but reporters are valuable partners for engaging with the community and should be treated as such. It’s a journalist’s job to be curious and find out what’s happening, and local officials should make themselves a trusted source of information and insight.

Investigative reporting is about more than finding out what’s wrong, Schmidt pointed out. “Reporters are critical when we need to be critical, but we will also be fair,” she said. “I think it’s really important to find out what government is doing when it’s working.”

As a public official, you can build relationships by proactively making contact, such as by scheduling informal, on-background sessions on matters of current policy debate. You can also invite reporters to meetings with staff and advisors. It’s a chance to explain the policy rationale behind proposals, educate them about new programs and initiatives, and share stories you’d like to see amplified to the community.

Being responsive to questions is the first step toward building rapport with local reporters, said King, the Fort Collins communications director. Journalists have a job to do and are usually working against a deadline. Being responsive to their inquiries in a timely fashion is one way to build a mutually respectful relationship, she said.

To support transparency and enhance trust with the media—and by extension, the public—Fort Collins provides media training and coaching so officials feel more confident interacting with reporters, King said.

In Tucson, government officials have supported the Agenda’s growth by linking articles in their communications with constituents, which helps spread the word about the news outlet’s coverage and encourages subscriptions.

With just two full-time journalists and three interns, like many of today’s local newsrooms the Agenda is understaffed, so it welcomes tips from the community to help flag potential stories and prioritize its coverage. “We have our hands full between Pima County and the city of Tucson, but we have several municipalities that are under covered and also equally important,” Schmidt said. “Sending in story ideas is great. Even if they think it’s something that’s little, let us decide.”


As noted by Sullivan, journalism is the only profession that’s protected by the Constitution. The free press is often called “the fourth estate” because, along with the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, it provides vital checks and balances on those in power while connecting and informing the community.

The importance of the Fourth Estate is even more pronounced at the local level. More than national outlets, news platforms in cities and towns surface important local issues, forming the basis for discussions among residents that are essential, basic elements of democracy. It’s easy to connect the demise of local reporting to the declining social capital we see in communities across the country today.

Savvy local government leaders who prioritize community engagement and government transparency, accountability and performance will work to embrace local news organizations and look for creative ways to preserve the flow of information within their communities. In the end, and most important, this strengthens the democracy of our nation from the ground up.

This article was first published on Route Fifty. Read the original article.



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