The Manassas Journal Messenger had more than a century’s worth of a storied reporting record. Established at the end of the Civil War, the Messenger was part of the rich number of competing local papers covering Prince William County on the outskirts of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. It had survived Reconstruction, economic downturns, and multiple world wars. But in late 2012, the 10,000-circluation daily newspaper suddenly closed its press and shuttered its doors after 143 years of operation. The Messenger had been struggling to compete for a stable readership and necessary advertising revenue, especially in a market saturated by the Washington Post that drew a much larger audience. Berkshire Hathaway terminated the paper just six months after it purchased the Messenger’s parent company Media General in 2012, citing its inability to generate profits. The closing took with it 33 jobs at the paper and an additional 72 corporate positions at the parent group.
While unfortunate, the Messenger’s fate is the story of thousands of other local news publications across the country. The traditional business model of print media is rapidly succumbing to the emergence of alternative news platforms that splinter pre-existing bases of readership while also draining the necessary ad revenue that came with it. This has forced publishers to make hard choices such as ending print editions, laying off workers, or asking for donations—all to stay afloat in an increasingly decaying print business. As local newspapers die off, so too does their vital reporting of issues that affect local communities including school board and city council meetings, political and community events, government malfeasance, and public health crises. For many, the local newspaper was the vanguard of community reporting, the embodiment of a “good neighbor” watchdog that held others honest and accountable for their actions.
This shifting news landscape has left as many as 65 million Americans with either one or no local paper in their county. Once-dedicated local readers have fretted the erosion of the stories that filled their pages. “After years without a strong local voice, our community does not know itself and has no idea of how important local issues are or how the area is changing and challenged by the growth and impact of climate change,” said Mount Dora, Florida, resident David Cohea after the weekly Mount Dora Topic closed in 2006. “We are a nameless and faceless town defined only by neighborhoods.” Those from within are also lamenting the decline. Stephen Kaye, former editor and publisher of the New York-based the Millbrook Independent noted the disappearance of coverage on local news. “We were a check on governments, on endless environmental and zoning hearings, on budgets that we often published in detail, on misdoings and good doings,” he said. “There is now a void. No one took up the slack.”
For others at still extant papers, their choice words reflect the almost inevitable reality that their outlets will be next. With dramatically curtailed staff, the thoroughness and originality of their reporting suffers, providing just minimal oversight of the figures on which they report. “[T]here is little oversight of local government and local business,” said Stan Freeman on the Massachusetts-based Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Republican. “The checks and balances afforded by this don’t exist, and it is only a matter of time before the potentially corrupt realize they will be able to get away with corruption more easily.” Says Idaho Statesman reader Penny Beach: “Our local newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, hasn’t closed, but it might as well have. There is nothing of value in it, unless you want to read about Boise State football. I worked as a local newspaper reporter for six years, so I know the stories that are missing: government meetings, politics, court stories, cultural events, stories about new businesses and restaurants.”
Others recount the shift in strategy when big players buy out local papers and divert their focus away from local events to national ones. “National and state news has improved, but local coverage has suffered,” said Bruce Higgins after his local the San Diego Union-Tribune was bought out by the owner of the Los Angeles Times. “We regularly have a section of the paper called ‘California’ that is filled with stories from Los Angeles. Most of us here don’t live in Los Angeles for a reason, and don’t care about what is happening there.” After Berkshire Hathaway swooped in and bought North Carolina’s Greensboro News & Record, reader Sandi Campbell saw the new paper as “a mere shadow of its former self,” barely covering topics in surrounding counties. “It is harder to even find a copy in public places like stores.”
Each of these stories can be retold by the countless numbers of communities witnessing the decline of local print media, a large share of which served as the primary source of reporting about their communities. Now, these once treasured guardians of local news have been left to wither under the conditions of a shifting media landscape, with its ample outlets for specialized news consumption, dog-eat-dog competitiveness for advertising dollars, and the alluring access, timeliness, and efficiency of the digital age.
The Irreplaceable Ideals of Local Journalism
For decades, local newspapers have been the frontlines of original reporting on community affairs. Their place in the American diet of new consumption has been critical, informing readers about events in their local city town halls, school board meetings, or on the campaign trail in local political races. Their meticulous local coverage, raised often by concerns within the community and pursued with a vigilant heed to holding others accountable, has been the “good neighbor” watchdog many have relied on to expose injustices and enforce communal norms of good behavior.
According to Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford and author of Local Journalism: The Decline of Newspapers and the Rise of Digital Media, local journalists provide at least three unique services to their communities through their work: (1) they hold local officials accountable by publicizing their behavior to the wider public, (2) they inspire civic and political participation, and (3) they bind disparate groups to the social fabric of the local community. The content local journalists produce is thus vital to the both the civic mindedness and connection individuals have to their communities.
Many of the stories local newspapers produce are original stories investigative stories in the form of Nielsen’s first description. According to researchers at Harvard’s Nieman Lab, a program that charts journalism’s course in the digital age, local newspapers pull more than their own weight in original reporting. They found that while local papers composed only one quarter of local media outlets in their sample, they contributed about one half of all original news stories. “Essentially, local newspapers produced more of the local reporting in the communities we studied than television, radio, and online-only outlets combined,” they wrote. The Nieman researchers also found that local papers produced more than one third (38 percent) of stories that addressed a “critical information need,” which increased to 60 percent in their sample of all original, local stories. All of these statistics suggest that local papers provide disproportionate value to their communities by originating critical, timely, and original journalism.
A robust ecosystem of local newspapers also has other effects on civic engagement, as Nielsen notes. Research indicates that the loss of local journalism makes people on both sides of the political aisle less likely to vote, since they receive a lower volume of news coverage and thus are able to evaluate political candidates less effectively. Fewer local papers also depresses voter turnout across time, while also strengthening the position of incumbents since fewer candidates decided to run for municipal office. Overall, civic participation falls when citizens become both less informed about circumstances in their local communities and less motivated to seek political office to ameliorate those circumstances.
Another increasingly important reason why a vibrant local news community is important to the body politic is its dampening effect on political polarization. As local journalism cedes ground to national outlets, viewers and listeners are more likely to become polarized. This “nationalization” of news, as researchers have called it, leads to political polarization and more zero-sum conflict between parties, making government work less efficiently at both the local and national levels. This has been documented in the literature: voters were about two percent more likely to vote for the same political party for president and senator after their local newspaper closed compared to voters with an extant local paper.
Pundit Ezra Klein considers higher attentiveness to local media as a potential antidote to the nation’s growing political divide in his new book Why We’re Polarized. He considers several aspects of local news coverage that counteract incentives for political controversy. Klein says that local communities, by nature, are more homogenous and are less likely to engender polarized politics. The questions local communities have to grapple with are also more tangible and less symbolic, so the discussion tends to be more productive and less hostile. Klein also agrees that local politics are more malleable and likely to have a concrete and discernable impact on local conditions, thus empowering people to make a difference. Local news not only informs, but it inspires individuals to engage with their communities and identify with their neighbors, rather than polarizes them to reflexively distrust the other side.
The services local journalism can provide are needed now more than ever. “A vibrant, responsive democracy requires enlightened citizens, and without forceful local reporting they are kept in the dark,” says a report by PEN America. “At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and more elusive than ever.” The number of local papers is evaporating, but their value in providing important facts in the most vital times has not. This, as I will later explore, is especially important in times of unprecedented crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where misinformation is rampant, and fear and distress are palpable.
The Fraying Model of the Hometown’s ‘Printed Diary’
In times of declining trust in media generally, with just 32 percent of Americans trusting the mass media and an equal percentage considering the news media to be the “enemy of the people,” local news is highly favorable. Seventy-three percent of American report trusting their local newspapers—well higher than their national counterparts. Sixty-three percent of adults consider local journalists to be in touch with their communities. While Americans say they value their local news outlets, far fewer actually understand the grave conditions under which they are operating. According to Pew Research, 71 percent of Americans think their local papers are doing financially well, but only 14 percent say they have paid for or donated money to a local outlet in the past year. “They don’t realize that their local news outlet is under threat,” said co-author of the report Viktorya Vilk, manager of special projects for PEN America.
When Pew asked respondents to explain why they had not contributed to local news sources in the past year, the most common response (49 percent of those answering in the negative) was the widespread availability of free content elsewhere. These preferences reflect the decline of print media over the last few decades. The estimated total U.S. weekday newspaper circulation in 2018 (28.6 million) was just half of its total just two decades ago, and those number continue to fall at a brisk pace. Weekday print circulation decreased 12 percent Sunday print circulation decreased 13 percent just between 2017 and 2018.
Declining circulation is also attributable to the widescale decay of local news outlets. Since 2004, more than one in four papers—greater than 2,000 in total—have disappeared either because of mergers or shutdowns. This shuttering has created at least 200 so-called “news desert” counties with no local paper at all. Many more papers have been deprived of most of their once-solid revenue streams, leading them to become mere “ghost papers” that do minimal original reporting. Collectively, as many as 65 million Americans live in counties with either one or no local paper at all.
A dwindling readership also reduces advertising demand, leading papers to buckle without a stable and predictable flow of revenue. Over the last 15 years, newspapers collectively lost more than $35 billion in ad revenue, a trend which has only accelerated as of late. Between 2008 and 2018, local paper revenue fell 68 percent, leading to mass layoffs as papers are subject to the cost-cutting measures of its owners or shut down altogether. Almost half (47 percent) of local newspaper staff have been cut over the last 15 years, and total newsroom employment is now where it was in the 1970s.
The dynamics of a splintered, digitally-inclined readership with an increasing number of free content at its disposal, the competitive pressures to of a ballooning media ecosystem over limited ad revenue, and the increasing allure of salient national political issues have all contributed to the steady decline of a once-thriving local news industry. While the newspaper business still generates more revenue collectively than other outlets, the revenue is spread across roughly 1,400 daily papers, meaning the average paper receives $28 million in annual revenue. Yet the growing consolidation of the news industry means that the bigger players with larger readerships are capturing more of this revenue pot, and the few remaining readers of local papers are not enough to attract necessary ad revenue to sustain pre-existing print operations. As a result, local outlets die off and are supplanted by large national outlets with strong digital operations and a news focus that is predominantly national.
On the other hand, outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today are able to court a high-margin digital subscriber base by offering original content such as video analysis and newsletters. As Pew notes in its annual “State of the News Media” report, this comes especially as the new media landscape is notably national in its orientation and digital in its presence, with “new forms of storytelling—from video to crowdsourcing to new documentary styles—and new ways to connect with audiences, often younger ones.” This has led content creators to experiment with new storytelling devices and data visualizations. This has been a harder lift for local outlets struggling to adapt to the digital age; fewer than half offer either video content or newsletters, and one in ten do not even have an Internet presence at all.
Even local news itself does not fare well, regardless of the outlet. “Legacy” journalists emerging from the rubble of the local newspaper business have attempted to fill the gap by launching local and “hyperlocal” news sites around the country, but even these outlets have fared poorly. Many of these ventures, launched by their creators out of reverence for the bygone era of local reporting, have foundered on their finances. “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a ton of profit on this,” said Jan Schaffer, executive director of American University’s now shuttered J-Lab, a research and funding organization for media entrepreneurs. “It’s always going to be a low-margin business.” Even the big outlets have been unable to profit from these local ventures; newspapers such as the Washington Post, Politico, and the New York Times have abandoned their hyperlocal pilot programs entirely. Only six out of 44 for-profit independent hyperlocal news websites surveyed by community news expert Michele McLellan in 2012 managed to generate more than $250,000 each.
The crosscurrents of the modern media age are forcing local newspapers into obsolescence. The local newspaper, once described by the legendary American newspaper editor Horace Greeley as “the printed diary of the home town,” is vanishing under the shadow of larger national outlets hyper focused on revamping and reinforcing their digital presence. The local coverage that was once the lifeblood of many communities is rapidly disappearing, taking with it all of the attendant political and civic benefits.
“A Storm of a Disease”: How COVID-19 Underscores Local Journalism’s Value
One of the unique functions of local journalism is its ability to act as “an amplifier and alarm for critical information,” especially in times of local crisis. Take, for example, the Flint, Michigan water crisis, when lead from aging water pipes leaked into the water supply and exposed over 100,000 residents to toxic contaminants. Local news outlets like the Flint Journal reported early on the story and continued raising the issue for months. Weeks after the city changed its water source in April 2014, the Journal reported on resident complaints about the color, odor, and taste of their tap water. These reports were also amplified by local TV and radio stations.
By August, the Journal’s reporters were breaking stories about water samples testing positive for contaminants, leading the city to produce an important public health notice advising city residents to boil their water. The next month, the Journal’s Ron Fonger reported that General Motors would no longer use the Flint River water supply at its engine plant out of fears of causing corrosion to engine parts. Over the next several months, Flint residents continued voicing concerns about the crisis through several letters to the editor of the Journal.
It was not until January 2015 that other statewide news outlets, and national outlets soon thereafter, began to cover the water crisis. It took until October 2015—a full seventeen months after the Flint Journal started reporting on the issue—that Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill to fund Flint’s switch water supply back to Lake Huron. PEN America notes that this incident underscores the importance of local news outlets in breaking urgent local stories, voicing resident concerns, amplifying public health warnings, and covering the public response to the crisis. “Without the work of Flint’s local news media to amplify the concerns of community activists and public health officials, residents may have missed out on necessary information about water contamination and may not have seen their concerns validated,” the group wrote in their report on local journalism. “National media may not have subsequently picked up coverage and added public pressure. And the government may not have been pressured into taking action.” Their role was especially important in prosecuting the case against government officials accountable for the crisis, where the Journal discovered public officials had been aware from risks from the Flint River for months without telling the public.
It is not unimaginable to see the importance of local news and reporting amidst the unprecedented time of the COVID-19 pandemic, which poses the largest public health crisis in decades with over 50,000 casualties at the time of writing. Similar to the role played by the Flint Journal during the city’s water crisis, local papers can have the unique role of broadcasting public health warnings to local residents, reporting and tracing local outbreaks, holding officials accountable and following up on community needs such as protective equipment or testing supplies, and communicating local and state policies to suppress the outbreak. Many local outlets have played this role, broaching stories about viral outbreaks at community nursing homes, for example. And for papers with an online presence, their value is only magnified. Website traffic patterns have shown an uptick in traffic to local newspapers, some by as much as 150 percent, for updates on the virus. Where demand for reliable and timely reporting is high in times of crisis, local outlets can supply informed coverage and fulfill their role as representatives of the public interest.
But, as this paper indicates, the state of local news is in peril. For many outlets, the pandemic is one of the biggest stories they will ever cover, but the challenges of keeping their finances afloat complicates those efforts. Advertisers reluctant to place their ads next to stories about rising death tolls and hospitalizations frustrate the depleting pool of ad money from which local papers can draw. Sanford Nowlin, the chief editor of the San Antonio Current, said the virus “was one of those things that hit us out of the blue,” despite the paper’s strong advertising and events businesses. Larger publications such as the New Orleans and Baton Rouge-based Advocate and Times-Picayune have been forced to furlough a fraction of their work force. A local Charleston, South Carolina paper compared the outbreak to a “storm of a disease,” and a Durham, North Carolina paper described it as an earthquake that could drag the paper for “weeks or months deep in the red.”
So, what can be done to redress the decline in local news? Many have called for new commitments to high quality local journalism supported by philanthropic efforts, new investments in alternative revenue streams, more oversight of equity and access to local news by Congress, and more frequent communication about the value of local journalism. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic only underscores the urgency of action that is needed to sustain local reporting. More than a dozen senators have called for future stimulus money to include economic relief for local journalism, citing the virus as a threat to the survival of these important news sources. “Local news is in a state of crisis that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote in a letter sent to Senate leadership in early April. Some local papers such as the Tampa Bay Times, have received Small Business Administration loans from the recent fund created for businesses affected by the crisis.
Bailing out local outlets is only a short-term solution. More long-term investments are desperately needed to ensure a sustainable place for local journalism, and only a coordinated action plan from all stakeholders will suffice. Protecting its tradition must be a priority, a matter of ensuring that the treasured public good—one of the country’s oldest institutions upholding civic participation and political accountability—does not wane into oblivion forever.