The Civic Importance of Local News Ecosystems

The number of local news outlets around the country has declined rapidly and significantly over the past several decades. One recent report determined that “over the past 15 years, the United States has lost 2,100 newspapers, leaving at least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 without any at the beginning of 2020.”1 Penelope Muse Abernathy, “News deserts and ghost newspapers: Will local news survive?” University of North Carolina (2020), p. 13. 

At a time when the nation and Oregon are facing serious challenges, the shrinking supply of local news is a problem. Before we catalog the current state of Oregon’s news media, it’s important to think about why the health of local news ecosystems matters.

Local News and Community Civic Health

The importance of news to community civic health may not seem obvious at a time when so many Americans say they don’t trust the media. Echoing findings by other surveys, a recent Gallup poll found Americans’ confidence in news at historic lows.2 Megan Brenan, “Media confidence ratings at record lows,” Gallup (18 July 2022).  Research suggests, however, that attitudes toward local news are more positive. A recent study by the Knight Foundation, for example, found that Americans tend to trust local news more than national news, and that, “compared with other sources of local information, Americans say local news does the best job of keeping them informed, holding leaders accountable and amplifying stories in their communities.”3 Sarah Fioroni, “Local news most trusted in keeping Americans informed about their communities,” Knight Foundation (19 May 2022).  A recent OVBC survey shows the same pattern here in Oregon: 65% of respondents said they follow news about local politics and neighborhood or community issues at least somewhat closely, and 75% of respondents said they trust the information that comes from local news organizations.

Source: Survey of adult Oregonians (n = 1,781), Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, August 2022

That foundation of trust is important because local news plays a critical role in the civic health of communities. Studies have shown that the supply of local news is correlated with higher rates of civic engagement.4 Lee Shaker, “Dead newspapers and citizens’ civic engagement,” Political Communication 31, no. 1 (2014), pp. 131-148; Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless, “The decline of local news and its effects: New evidence from longitudinal data,” Journal of Politics 80, no. 1 (2018), pp. 332-336. Robust local journalism matters to how informed citizens are,5 Erik Peterson, “Not dead yet: Political learning from newspapers in a changing media landscape,” Political Behavior 43 (2021), pp. 339-361. and according to another recent Knight Foundation report, a healthy news and information ecosystem creates “a virtuous circle whereby improved information contributes to improved community outcomes.”6 Hannah Stonebraker and Lindsay Green-Barber, “Healthy local news & information ecosystems,” Impact Architects (March 2021). By the same token, when the flow of community information declines, so does civic engagement. As political scientists Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless put it, declining civic engagement is linked to “the dwindling supply of information that citizens need to keep apprised of their elected officials’ actions and behavior.”7 Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless, News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 5.

The loss and shrinkage of local news organizations also reduces accountability of government and of corporate interests. A recent study by the Harvard Business School showed that regulatory violations increase in towns that lose their local newspaper.8 Avery Forman, “How newspaper closures open the door to corporate crime,” Harvard Business School (8 October 2021). The city of Bell, California learned the hard way how local journalism matters: While local news budgets shrank leaving fewer reporters to cover city politics, city officials misappropriated funds and voted themselves substantial raises that made them among the highest paid local officials in the country.9 David Folkenflick, “How the L.A. Times broke the Bell corruption story,” NPR (24 September 2010). Newspaper closures are also associated with higher local taxes and lower government accountability.10Pengjie Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy, “Financing dies in darkness? The impact of newspaper closures on public finance,” Journal of Financial Economics 135, no. 2 (2020), pp. 445-467; Lindsey Meeks, “Undercovered, underinformed: Local news, local elections, and U.S. sheriffs,” Journalism Studies 21, no. 1 (2020), pp. 1609-1626; James M Snyder Jr. and David Strömberg, “Press coverage and political accountability,” Journal of Political Economy 118, no. 2 (2010), pp. 355-408. Local news outlets are also important for setting the agendas of larger news outlets and of higher levels of government, bringing attention to local-level problems.11Steven Barnett, “Journalism, democracy, and the public interest: Rethinking media pluralism for the digital age,” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (September 2009). As one recent book about local news argues, while “a robust local news media by no means ensures good government, its absence almost guarantees worse government.”12Hayes and Lawless, News Hole, p. 11.

How Important are Newspapers?
Despite dramatic changes in the media industry, local newspapers remain a critical linchpin in local news ecosystems because they are the most significant producers of local news in most communities.13Philip Napoli and Jessican Mahone, “Local newspapers are suffering, but they’re still (by far) the most significant journalism producers in their communities,” (9 September 2019), The Conversation.Among other things,  strong local newspapers can “force local TV to raise its game [and] make elected officials more responsive and efficient.”14Joshua Benton, “When local newspapers shrink, fewer people bother to run for mayor” (9 April 2019), Nieman Lab.
One study of California cities showed that mayoral elections became less competitive when local newspapers closed, illustrating how the loss of local newspapers creates a “low information environment” that gives political incumbents an advantage over challengers.15Meghan E. Rubado and Jay T. Jennings, “Political consequences of the endangered local watchdog: Newspaper decline and mayoral elections in the US,” Urban Affairs Review 56, no. 5 (2019), pp. 1327-1356. Despite the challenges local newspapers face in an increasingly disadvantageous market, they “may…ironically become more important for local journalism as our media environment changes, because they increasingly are the only organizations doing ongoing on-the-ground reporting on local public affairs.” 16Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Local Journalism: The Decline of Newspapers and the Rise of Digital Media (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015).

However, newspapers are not the only component of healthy local news ecosystems. Public radio, local television stations, digital-only start-ups, and social media networks can all help to fill critical information needs. The notion of “news deserts” sometimes equates the loss of newspapers with the complete disappearance of local news, and focuses attention on saving traditional newspapers rather than examining the overall health of local news ecosystems. In this report, while acknowledging the accumulating research that shows the critical importance of newspapers, we have intentionally looked beyond newspapers to many forms of local news.

The loss of local news also contributes to political polarization. When local newsrooms are hollowed out and news focused on national politics replaces a truly local focus, people learn less about city- and state-level politics, voting levels decline especially in down-ballot races17Christopher Chapp and Peter Aehl, “Newspapers and political participation: The relationship between ballot rolloff and local newspaper circulation,” Newspaper Research Journal 42, no. 2 (2021), pp. 235-252. , and polarized voting increases.18Joshua P. Darr, “Local news coverage is declining–and that could be bad for American politics,” FiveThirtyEight (2 June 2021); David J. Moskowitz, “Local news, information, and the nationalization of U.S. elections,” American Political Science Review 115, no. 1 (2021), pp. 114-129. In fact, research suggests that “When people read news about their neighborhoods, schools and municipal services, they think like locals,” but “when they read about national political conflict, they think like partisans.”19Joshua P. Darr, Matthew P. Hitt, and Johanna L. Dunaway, Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Shriveling local news also impacts peoples’ sense of community connection. A readily available supply of quality local news and information is especially important because for most people, who are balancing busy personal and professional lives and all the stresses of modern life, civic engagement is “costly” in terms of time and energy. When the ready supply of quality, trusted local news declines, staying civically engaged in one’s community can become even more challenging. 

Having access to and keeping up with local news is correlated with a stronger sense of local community attachment and higher community satisfaction.20 Stonebraker & Green-Barber, “Healthy local news,” p.  9; see also Nick Mathews, “Life in a news desert: The perceived impact of a newspaper closure on community members,” Journalism 23(6) (2020), pp. 1250-65. According to a recent report for the Knight Foundation, “Community connection is built through flows of information that fairly and accurately reflect the lived experience of all community members.”21 Stonebraker & Green-Barber, “Healthy local news,” p. 6. Indeed, “local media provide the informational backbone of what people know about social life in their city.”22 Anna Leupold, Ulrike Klinger, and Otfried Jarren, “Imagining the City: How local journalism depicts social cohesion,” Journalism Studies 19, no. 7 (2018), pp. 960-982.

This correlation between robust local news and a sense of community connection can be particularly important in small and mid-sized communities. Local news helps residents put national issues into local context while they “help residents in a community understand what interests they share with their next-door neighbors.”23 Abernathy, “News deserts,” p. 13. The loss of local news can mean that “we lose a fabric that holds together communities; we lose crucial information that allows democracy to function; at the most basic level, we lose stories that need to be told.”24 Whitney Joiner and Alexa McMahon, “The lost local news issue,” Washington Post Magazine (30 November 2021).

The loss of that sense of connection was poignantly illustrated in a 2021 story published in The Atlantic, titled What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town. The story chronicled what happened in a small town in southeastern Iowa when its local newspaper, The Hawk Eye, was acquired by the nation’s largest newspaper chain:

“These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as TheDes Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The Opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists.

….Stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away.”25 Elain Godfrey, “What we lost when Gannett came to town,” The Atlantic (5 October 2021). 

“Historical” News Deserts and The Importance of Inclusive Local News

While sounding the alarm about the declining local news industry, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that journalism has not always necessarily served communities or democracy very well. While the “centers of power” across the country “tend to be well served by news organizations, poorer and less densely populated areas suffer from chronic news drought.”26 Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, “The challenge of local news provision” (2019), Journalism 29(1), p. 163.  Indeed, many communities are what journalism scholar Nikki Usher calls “historical news deserts” – areas whose lack of access to professional, truly local news about their communities far preceded the contraction in the news industry over the last two decades.27 Nikki Usher, News for the Rich, White, and Blue (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021).

Moreover, much of the content provided by locally-based outlets may not actually be local news,28 Jessica Mahone, Wun Wang, Philip Napoli, Matthew Weber, & Katie McCullough, “Who’s producing local journalism? Assessing journalistic output across different outlet types” (August 2019), DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.  and local news outlets have often overlooked important public issues in favor of human interest, scandal, and salacious stories; by featuring content dictated by corporate headquarters over deep local reporting;29 See Matthew S. Levendusky, “How does local TV news change viewers’ attitudes?: The case of Sinclair Broadcasting,” Political Communication 39:1 (2022), pp. 23-38. and/or by featuring a heavy emphasis on crime, often through a racialized lens, creating distorted pictures of minority communities.30 Neff, Popiel and Pickard, “Philadelphia’s news media system,” p. 479; see also Sue Robinson, Networked News, Racial Divides: How power and privilege shape public discourse in progressive communities (Cambridge University Press 2017).

Indeed, whole swaths of the American public, particularly rural and BIPOC communities, have long distrusted and resented how the mainstream media have portrayed them, and news outlets around the country have only haltingly begun to deal with their own historical role in systems of racial discrimination and oppression.31 Brent Staples “Opinion: How the white press wrote off Black America,” New York Times (10 July 2021); Los Angeles Times Editorial Board “Editorial: An Examination of The Times’ Failures on Race, Our Apology and a Path Forward,” (27 September 2020); Wesley Lowery “Black City. White Paper,” Philadelphia Inquirer (15 February 2022). According to a recent book by journalism professors Candice Callison and Mary Lynn Young, provocatively titled Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities, journalistic “crises in representation, trust, and credibility” are “chronic and persistent.”32 Candice Callison and Mary Lynn Young, Reckoning: Journalism’s limits and possibilities (Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 48. From this perspective, legacy journalism’s problems run deeper than its faltering business model.

At the same time, as journalism scholar Andrea Wenzel observes, these same legacy news outlets are often still “the most effective way to meet many people where they are….Despite the reservations many have toward existing legacy outlets, residents of numerous communities continue to rely on these same outlets – rural newspapers whose reporting staffs have been gutted, or local television stations that devote a disproportionate amount of airtime to crime.”33Andrea Wenzel, Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging people, exploring solutions, and building trust (University of Illinois Press 2020), p. 158.

One of our hopes for this report is that it spurs conversation not just about the loss of legacy news outlets and traditional modes of journalism, but also about the kinds of information and connection local communities need and how those can be supplied in new ways that rebuild–or build for the first time–trust with communities. 

NEXT » The Nationwide Local News Crisis