Fortifying Democracy through Local Journalism
We trust news that is independent and professional, maintaining journalistic standards and integrity. False information, in the United States and abroad, contributes to a decline in the public’s trust in the media. Today, the expansion of digital access has increased the likelihood for false information to easily go viral and become a misinformation—or disinformation—campaign. Confrontational and investigative journalism that centers accountability and analysis is an important part of the Fourth Estate’s contribution to a robust, well-educated citizenry. Unfortunately, that type of journalism requires time and resources, both challenges for the profession today.
The decline of local news outlets is compounded by their consolidation. More than 70 local newsrooms have closed between March 2020 and July 2021, with some estimates that 2,100 local US newspapers have closed since 2005. Alden Global Capital now has stakes in more than 200 American newspapers and hedge funds, or private equity firms, now control half of US daily newspapers. The streamlining of news information fuels the dissemination of topline news from a national perspective that contributes to growing divides and increasing national populism. Prioritization on clicks is the result of media monetization, fueled by ongoing news outlet acquisition by for-profit owners. These corporations also have a capitalist propensity that favors powerful voices in validating an economic narrative of inequality. Local journalism struggles to compete with these market forces, suggesting it is past time to rethink the news business model through the lens of a common good.
What’s more, we value local journalism and, in turn, local journalists. These trusted individuals are at the center of communities, they are the ones that talk to people and build relationships. Their knowledge and expertise are the cornerstone of quality media. This is particularly evident in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, as Western media outlets are relying on those on the ground for information, coverage, and frequent analysis. However, local news outlets are usually underfunded and, as a result, understaffed. Their capacity to cover local stories in depth is limited, from breaking news and local politics to corruption and issues of public interest. As a result, the community lacks critical information on decisions and matters that have a direct impact on their lives. A robust and vibrant democracy should ensure that residents have ways to engage and influence those processes and outcomes.
Localities need robust local “journalism,” not just local newspapers or outlets. The coverage needs to be more than just a rephrase of divisive national political events. Local officials and government need to prioritize, invest, and support local journalism in all forms, from investigative to critical reporting. Transparency through press coverage helps hold powerful people accountable for their actions, ensure the law, and engage the court of public opinion. When local leaders dismiss or diminish the value or importance of the press, or even obstruct it, they fail to validate a vital component of a thriving democracy. Former President Donald Trump is one of the more egregious examples of this in recent years, but local leaders may also avoid questioning or respond acrimoniously to media scrutiny.
Finally, local journalism thrives when it is truly integrated into the community and centered around people and places. Community in turn is central to a strong local journalism ecosystem. An ecosystem approach identifies a broad range of stakeholders and their accompanying needs. Organizations, particularly those representing diverse communities, provide both different audiences and content. This reflects another democratic role of the Fourth Estate. One might argue that this dynamic is a foundational piece of how local news entities survive. As localities seek ways to support local journalism’s role in democracy, beyond vocal legitimization and funding, they can take a leadership role in conducting an ecosystem assessment and acting on those results. As the saying goes, “all politics is local,” and much of the news should be, too.
Cities Fortifying Democracy
The Cities Fortifying Democracy project is a first-of-its-kind cohort of American and European cities working together in teams to collaborate on what cities do and can do to strengthen the foundation of democracy from the ground up.
The Cities Fortifying Democracy (CFD) initiative at GMF Cities focuses on how cities can support and invest in local practices that help preserve and fortify our democracy—at all levels of society. This piece introduces a series on the value and importance of local journalism for democracy.