Cities Benefit from Local Journalism

They should do more to support it.
April 10, 2024

The crisis in local journalism and its political ramifications are finally getting widespread recognition. Various legislative proposals, primarily at the US federal and state levels, are arising in an effort to stabilize this declining media sector. US philanthropy is also increasing its commitment to local journalism.

Cities, the civic entities arguably most directly affected by the crisis, however, have done little to help support and sustain local news. Much has been written about the ways in which communities benefit from local journalism and are harmed by its absence, but little of this analysis has focused on the implications for city authorities.

The relationship between government and the media is often seen as adversarial. Part of the reason for this is local journalism’s watchdog function, holding local government accountable. City authorities may wish to avoid this kind of scrutiny, but they actually benefit tremendously from it. Local journalism helps to curtail corruption and discipline spending.

There are additional advantages that extend beyond this adversarial dynamic. 

First, local journalism’s watchdog function extends beyond government accountability. Research shows that local news coverage incentivizes private-sector adherence to laws and regulations. In this sense, such coverage serves as an extra-governmental watchdog. 

Second, local journalism is a significant and effective means for city governments to disseminate public notices and information on a wide range of topics such as emergency preparedness, education, and transportation. Not every resident is online and, among those who are, not everyone is on social media. Dedication to information equity, therefore, requires city governments to disseminate news via local outlets. These authorities consequently should ensure that such outlets remain viable. Without them, segments of communities are unlikely to receive important civic information.

Third, cities need to consider the news and information sources that emerge to fill the vacuum left by the demise of traditional news outlets. In many communities, “pink slime” news sources, often funded and run by political action committees, political parties, or political consultants, are filling the void. Such sources function essentially as political influence operations, not as news organizations. They typically provide little, if any, legitimate local journalism, and they aim to influence public opinion and election results (often through disinformation) without the transparency that should accompany political campaigns. The trend represents a threat to an informed citizenry and effective local self-governance.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, local journalism is more than a provider of news and information. It is also a mechanism for building a community and maintaining its cohesion. Local news sources can reflect a community’s distinctive values, an increasingly important factor as news consumers migrate toward national news sources, a process that contributes to increased political polarization. But if communities are to come together to confront their unique problems, they need the sense of shared history, values, and priorities that local journalism can provide.

The relationship between city governments and the media is as interdependent as it is adversarial, which compels municipal authorities to consider doing more to ensure that their communities are served by a healthy and vibrant local news ecosystem. Cities should look upon local journalism as they do other vital local institutions such as libraries, schools, museums, and community centers. 

Some cities have already begun to do so. Lisbon has revised municipal statutes to allow local journalism projects to receive funding from city agencies. The Washington, DC city council has introduced a bill to provide government-funded coupons for registered voters to gain free access to the local news outlet of their choice. 

Is it essential for cities to support local news coverage while ensuring that they do not exert undue influence over it? Absolutely. The aforementioned examples do this. More will undoubtedly arise as the importance of preserving the benefits of a healthy local news ecosystem gains further recognition.