In May, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families reported a 55 percent drop in reports of child abuse and neglect. No one believes that instances of child abuse were down by that much. They were likely not down at all, especially considering the extenuating circumstances and stress of families being quarantined together. The difference was no witnesses—the teachers, doctors, neighbors, family friends and bystanders weren’t there to notice something was wrong and report it.
The parallel to journalism is obvious. More local newspapers will shut down this year than in recent memory. New rounds of newsroom layoffs are turning others into weak and woefully incomplete stewards of local journalism.
With no witnesses, reports of corruption and incompetence in powerful institutions will go down, as corruption and incompetence in powerful institutions actually increases. No one will be watching.
We know that the decline of local journalism leads to less civic engagement. Fewer people run for local offices when newspapers disappear. There’s evidence that the cost of government goes up without the scrutiny of local reporters.
If the powerful can consolidate their control of information, what chance will the disadvantaged have to reverse structural inequality?
If the journalists and the public are not regularly exercising their Right to Know and their power under the Freedom of Information Act, that muscle will atrophy, and eventually be ignored and become useless.
More urgently, the loss of local journalism could impact public health in the wake of a global pandemic that could re-emerge. And economic recovery in some communities will be slowed by the absence of scribes providing context for small businesses’ challenges and opportunities.
Community leaders can step up to address this information needs, and the national organizations and institutions focused on the sustainability of journalism can help provide a playbook.
One way is to help prevent the loss of a local news outlet in the first place. Digital subscriptions are up in response to the COVID-19 crisis, but publishers will need significant help in overcoming the loss of advertising revenue this year. Some for-profit local news orgs are for the first time ever turning to donations from readers, and grants from the likes of Facebook and Google. Community and place-based foundations could play a significant role in saving local news outlets. Major businesses could be pitched advertising programs that are more of a “sponsorship” model—half brand awareness, half support of a local media institution they want and need to survive.
For communities that have lost their local newspaper or are grossly under-served, one wonders about the potential for citizen organizations and activists to use journalistic tools to engage in civic life. The ACLU conducting water tests in Flint, Mich. when the government wasn’t comes to mind. Or a tenants’ association using FOIA to uncover a city officials’ collusion with landlords.
Perhaps a resurgence in public access television or low-power FM radio could fill some gaps. In Chicago, City Bureau’s “Documenters” program, in which non-journalist citizens are paid to take notes or record local government meetings, could be a model. It expanded this year to Cleveland.
Those efforts are great for government transparency and a healthy democracy, but are still missing the journalistic layer that a professional news organization can provide.
A range of both for-profit and nonprofit models for grassroots media startups exist, and organizations such as LION and INN exist to help nurture them. A coalition of industry players and funders should consider a road show to news deserts, convening community leaders for a presentation on what their options are and what resources are available to support them.
Regional newspapers could figure out how to step into the hyperlocal void left by smaller community outlets that have shut down with new products. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, is experimenting with neighborhood-level newsletters.
We’re still just scratching the surface of the potential for larger newspapers, public media, niche outlets and others to form regional collaboratives that partner not only with smaller local news organizations, but also universities, student media, community groups and public institutions such as libraries.
Such collaboratives also offer community leaders and place-based foundations a great look at the entire local news and information ecosystem, including gaps, and new ideas and resources could emerge from that.
Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers.