Like it or not, the idea that “all politics is local'' is no longer reality. Instead, local government has been poisoned by the toxic political environment once confined at the state and federal levels.
Local reporters used to be shielded from the national political discourse, in part because municipal elections typically don’t include Rs or Ds next to candidate names—and even when they do, as the saying goes: "There is no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole."
National politics and local politics rarely mixed as a result. But it’s almost impossible now to separate local and national politics, presenting unique challenges for community news websites that rarely if ever include “Biden,” “Trump” or “Obama” in a headline. Social topics and other controversial issues normally discussed at the federal level now seep their way onto local city, county, and school district agendas.
For example, one New Jersey community just voted to not fly the gay pride flag in June, which doubles as Pride Month, after some members of the community pushed the idea. Every school district is also grappling with reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a tense situation for every district superintendent and education beat writer alike.
Even issues too risqué for the federal government have become hot-button topics locally, especially recreational marijuana. Many states that approved legal pot have permitted communities to restrict dispensaries, creating yet another divisive showdown at the local level.
This makes it harder than ever for news operations to stay credible with roughly half of their readership, depending on the political makeup of their community. Most local news outlets still make a genuine effort to be “objective” and “fair” when covering these sensitive topics and outspoken local officials. If they fail to do so, they lose their credibility at the local level. But truth is now in the eye of the beholder, causing the definition of objectivity and fairness to vary widely.
So how can our industry avoid alienating this fractured audience? Simply put: Stay out of the political fray. There is no winning when it comes to politics right now, which is probably why more local news sites are cutting columns about national politics.
There is also no avoiding controversial topics such as immigration, police use of force and gun control when they enter the local political discussion. But we can cover these topics the same way we cover a zoning appeal or budget approval. Include all essential perspectives, let your readers know what the decision means to them and share how to participate in the political process before any final decision is made. Report the outcomes as accurately and concisely as possible, and then spend more time and energy on agenda items of greater consequence locally.
Don’t provide inordinate resources to covering these issues just because they drive engagement from a few vocal readers. Most of your readers want to know about quality-of-life issues at the community level. In fact, the vast majority are probably sick of the divisive nature of national politics and stopped following it after the 2020 election—so don’t risk being tuned out, too.
Michael Shapiro is founder and CEO of http://TAPinto.net, a network of 80+ franchised online local news sites in New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Texas.