Recommitting to Local Journalism as a Public Good

November 02, 2022
6 min read
Photo credit: 1000 Words /
What is a news desert? What are the impacts in failing to create relevant and robust local content? The traditional news medium is struggling, and both new funding models and content sources are needed to help rebuild it as a democracy fortifier in our communities.

For residents to engage in their democracy, they need access to information about public services, notices about opportunities to engage, and balanced analysis that allows them to make individual choices and decisions as part of a broader populace.

Local news content supports those behaviors in several ways. First, it covers local government actions and decisions, providing accountability and transparency, along with opportunities for resident input and the implications of policy decisions. Second, it serves to provide information about the community, events and activities, town happenings, local business offerings, and more. Finally, it offers a variety of perspectives and concerns, analytical content, and, ideally, investigative reporting on issues of concern and interest. Given these contributions to civic engagement, local entities should consider collaborative funding approaches to shore up this vital function.

Shining a Light on Diverse Experiences and Perspectives

In 2017, Report for America (RFA) launched a news fellowship program and today they have more than 200 fellows in newsrooms across the country committed to a variety of local beats. The journalists focus on local and often unheard stories, analyzing data and trends, holding local governments accountable and offering proactive solutions-oriented coverage. They also center the voices of underserved communities, particularly the challenges they experience as a result of ongoing marginalization. In doing so, they generate local news content that addresses the negative externalities of a news desert. Finally, the program supports journalists of color in the profession, providing a critical diversity that in turn diversifies the type of news we consume.

In much of the national commentary, the voices of marginalized communities are underrepresented. This dynamic results in a lack of awareness among the broader community as to the challenges and barriers to opportunity that these residents face daily. It is not uncommon to believe there aren’t issues if you rarely hear about them. Lynandro Simmons reports on communities of color in Athens, Georgia, for an Equality Lab designed to lift those perspectives in broader coverage on a range of issues.

RFA fellow Aaliyah Bowden at the Charlotte Post reports on the African American community in Charlotte, North Carolina. Black Americans have higher levels of comorbidity and less access to health care. This was brought into stark terms during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bowden covers healthcare and her stories highlighted the success local universities had in keeping cases low and how frontline farm workers and food handlers tested positive. Local stories, even with a statewide lens, help provide accountability and create a clearer picture of how global events like the Covid-19 pandemic are impacting localities.

Samantha Searles covers the gun violence epidemic in Philadelphia, but by centering the voices of those communities directly impacted by the experience. Gun violence is often highly politicized, and solutions are buried under the ongoing debate about the second amendment and gun control. By engaging with affected communities, Searles highlights the broader systemic challenges that, when combined with easy access to firearms, have deadly consequences.

The Afro News serves Baltimore’s Black community. RFA fellow and political beat reporter Tashi McQueen is part watchdog and part educator. She covers voter education and its impact on Black residents and news on voter suppression. McQueen also helps readers navigate the implications of issues like redistricting and the importance of voting in midterm elections. In her watchdog capacity, she covers the impacts of impending legislation and ways that readers can exert power to support it or not. This beat plays a critical role by providing nuanced analysis for those residents who are most frequently oppressed and left out of a core democratic function.

These examples are critical to understanding the challenges that people and communities face in our democracy and the ways that they experience disenfranchisement as a result of systems, policies, and decisions. These perspectives and the diverse storytellers get lost without local coverage, and even if the stories are told, they may be less likely to permeate the national consciousness. The presence of local news provides a more level playing field for voices to be heard and considered by decision-makers and leaders. News coverage is not typically considered a public good in the American ethos; as such it is a less likely candidate to receive already scarce public resources. But in some respects, the fact that it is not considered a traditional public service or good, something that is decidedly more controversial in the United States than Europe, but rather a core tenant of a free and democratic society that encourages participation and debate should make it easier to invest in, not harder.

High-quality rigorous local journalism is a cornerstone of democracy, it functions as a common public good.

Adopting European Approaches?

Many European countries have a different view of news. They see it as a public good and fund it accordingly. According to the Pew Research Center, public news media plays a prominent role in Western Europe, with high levels of trust reported, particularly for Swedes and the British, less so for Spaniards and Italians. Professors and researchers Timothy Neff and Victor Pickard note that Nordic countries also have a distinctly high level of per capita public funding for their news, along with high rankings on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index. The United Kingdom came in the middle of the pack and the United States is an outlier for public funding. Those at the state-sponsored end—the leftists—made for odd bedfellows at first glance. A study of democracies ranked on the EIU survey showed that a strong public media system is highly correlated with characteristics of a full-strength democracy.1

Americans may be skittish about the idea of a state-funded press, a concern that is worth acknowledgement. However, high-quality rigorous local journalism is a cornerstone of democracy, it functions as a common public good. Neff and Pickard’s data shows that countries with strong public media systems are also strong democracies. Again, unlike so many other issues, it is not partisan to be pro-democracy.

Local community foundations in places across the United States are taking an increasingly active role in supporting local journalism from Seattle and Traverse City to Lancaster and Lexington through the establishment of community news funds. These partnerships with newsrooms provide a single permanent fund for ongoing newsroom support. According to Report for America, between 2009 and 2021, 153 community foundations invested $124 million in 3,815 “journalism, news, and information” grants to 700 recipients.

Hence, the argument for a combination of funds helps establish a strong financial foundation, but also helps reduce the need for polarized partisan coverage, particularly at the local level. A combination of public funds, investments from community foundations, and normal revenue streams paint a more holistic financing picture for local news. Cities should advocate and support a diverse and dynamic funding portfolio that includes local philanthropic support from community foundations along with government funds.

  • 1Timothy Neff and Victor Pickard, “Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries,” The International Journal of Press/Politics (1-27), 2021.

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 democracyat all levels of society. This piece is the third in a three-part series focusing on the importance and value of local journalism in maintaining democracy.