Back when I was a cub reporter (a phrase precisely no one uses anymore), I was assigned to cover the Wichita, Kansas, traffic commission for the then-Wichita Eagle-Beacon.
I’d probably angered an editor to get such a dud assignment. I figured – as you might be thinking now – that not much would go on in the way of traffic in Wichita, but I was wrong. I wasn’t a skilled investigative reporter, but while sitting bored at a meeting one night, I made desultory notes about a new development the commission was discussing. New development. Yawn.
Fortunately, a savvy editor with institutional memory grabbed the story and made me add context, at which point I saw that this actually was a big deal, a situation rife with potential conflicts of interest, intrigue, and all other juicy bits that needed people’s attention. It was a powerful lesson to a new reporter on the importance of a free and unfettered press.
At this point, two of the newspapers I worked for are dead, and the rest have had their strength sapped by corporate overlords. Does anyone still cover traffic commissions? It’s an important question, because we know that bad things happen when a trained observer isn’t sitting at those meetings taking notes.
Here’s what research tells us:
- When a local news source shutters its doors, we give up on voting.
- Without the watchdogs of the press resolutely attending even the most innocuous of meetings, local corruption increases.
- General civic engagement drops.
- In fact, democracy in general suffers.
What else? We (ahem) start relying on opinion pieces for our news (never a good idea, says the opinion columnist of 33 years and counting). When a local news source ceases to be, the hardest hit are vulnerable communities – the well-off will always have the means to get their news, and while you may congratulate yourself on your ability to find news sources, democracy only works if we’re all informed.
Do you know what else happens when local news sources dry up? We get stupider. People storm school board meetings to rail against proven, scientific protocol around the spread of viruses because Facebook told them to. They join racist, misogynistic, homophobic groups because Twitter says that’s OK.
In short, when a local news source goes away, so do the ties that bind us. A local news source can inform you about an election, a play in town, your kid’s school lunches. It can help you make sense of local politics, and give you ideas of what to do on the weekend. A local news source also helps you in the rites of citizenship. (A recent Knight Foundation study said 84% of voters who get their news from websites such as CT News Junkie feel they are sufficiently informed when they go vote – as opposed to 69% of voters whose primary news source is social media.)
More than 360 newspapers stopped publishing between late 2019 and May 2022, according to a Northwestern University report. That leaves a fifth of the country’s population – 70 million people – without a local news source, and that isn’t even the sound of us hitting the bottom yet. Industry watchers say the country will lose a third of its newspapers by 2025.
And none of this addresses what happens when a local news source still exists, but only as a shadow of its former self, a watchdog without its teeth.
What else? Some research says that with the loss of local news sources, the cost of doing government goes up. If there’s not the local hack in the sweat-stained shirt taking notes and writing prose about local community meetings, officials aren’t necessarily as careful about the bonds they buy. In fact, one study says the costs for bonds can rise precipitously after a local newspaper shuts down because who, after all, will even know the difference?
You may love to hate us, but we can save you money.
There are a few signs of hope. The Medill Local News Initiative reported in November that during the worst of the pandemic, people hungry for reliable information began subscribing to local news sources. In fact, Matt Lindsay, of the media consulting firm Mather Economics, told Medill that digital news users went up by 30% during the pandemic.
That’s good news, though anyone who’s been in the news business for more than a week knows that can all change.
But it doesn’t have to, and here’s where you come in. You can support your local news sources – like this one. Give until it feels good. Giving can be your way of saying democracy, civic engagement, voting, and intelligence matter, and they matter very much.