Local news and information providers — legacy newsrooms especially — face a challenging reality, even an existential crisis. Yet research shows again and again the crucial connection between local news and civic health. Communities where trusted, high-quality sources of local news and information are readily available see higher levels of political and civic participation, lower levels of polarization, higher government and corporate accountability, and higher levels of community connection.
This does not mean that the only path forward for Oregon’s civic health is simply to try to restore the journalism system of the past. Too much has changed — technologically, economically, politically, and culturally — to turn back the clock. And while the internet has made possible the wide dissemination of mis- and disinformation, digital technologies have also created, in the best sense, rich possibilities for non-journalistic sources to fill critical information needs and for communities to serve as their own story-tellers. Today’s news and information ecosystem is complex, and news organizations no longer occupy the same privileged place they once did at the center of community life.
But despite that changing context, communities still need a steady supply of high quality, inclusive and trustworthy information about community life and public affairs. And journalistic organizations are still critical producers of that kind of information.
Journalism’s crisis presents opportunities for significant innovation in journalism practice — in particular, around new ways to engage in deeper relationship building with communities. University of Oregon journalism scholar Seth Lewis identifies points to the practice of “relational journalism” that is “focused on better understanding, listening to, and engaging with people in ways that are mutually beneficial, solutions oriented, and fundamentally relationship driven.”1Regina Lawrence, Eric Gordon, Andrew DeVigal, Caroline Mellor, & Jonathan Elbaz, “Building engagement: Supporting the practice of relational journalism,” Agora Journalism Center (2019); Seth Lewis, “Lack of trust in the news media, institutional weakness, and relational journalism as a potential way forward,” Journalism 21(3) (2020): 345-348. Indeed, among the leading recommendations in a 2019 Knight Foundation report on trust, media and democracy is for journalists to “develop strategies to better engage with the public and reflect the interests of their communities.”2Knight Commission, “Crisis in democracy: Renewing trust in America,” The Aspen Institute (2019)).
Clearly, journalism has much work to do as it adjusts to changed economic realities and finds new footing with a more fragmented public. While the news industry works to transform how journalism is practiced, opportunities beckon to create more foundational and state-wide support for our local news and information infrastructure — work that can be undertaken not just by journalistic support organizations, but also by institutions of higher education, philanthropies and other funders, and by policy-makers. The research reported here points toward several recommendations:
- Update curriculum and training for journalists to better prepare them to fulfill journalism’s democratic functions in an environment of rapid change and ongoing uncertainty — for example, training in collaborative and community-centered journalism.
- Create a statewide framework for ongoing, integrated newsroom support and collaboration that increases the underlying pool of journalistic resources. Successful models for newsroom collaboration need to be adapted to Oregon’s unique information ecosystem, and resources identified to make that adaptation happen in a sustainable way.
- Adapting and learning from models being tried in New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina, and New Jersey, create a state-wide local news innovation hub with potential collaboration across universities and other institutions. This hub would work to leverage support from journalistic support organizations and foundations to grow the state’s infrastructure of local news through close community collaboration, grant-making and other critical support for newsrooms large and small.
- Identify and activate potential sources of sustained funding for local news — including reimagining the role of public funding in creating a healthy local news infrastructure. The research reviewed here demonstrates that quality, accessible local news truly is a public good. Sustaining a robust local news ecosystem is, simply put, critical to community civic health — as critical as clean air and clean water are to the physical health of communities.
- Create opportunities for ongoing research across institutions. This report has offered an important first step, but much more needs to be learned about our local news ecosystem, and key statistics (e.g. staff sizes, circulation data, declining and emerging beats, etc.) need to be tracked over time. Researchers can do more to pinpoint gaps and emerging strengths in local news around Oregon and to document successful innovations.
As our state grapples with its mounting challenges, improving the vitality of the local news infrastructure may prove pivotal to Oregon’s future.
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