A new analysis on the state of local news hasn’t assuaged my guilt. Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications—yeesh, must be tough to fit all that on a diploma—recently conducted its first-ever industry survey, and the results aren’t good. Nearly 99% of people working in U.S. news media said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the future of local news. Those most worried work for print newspapers and digital-only outlets.
The decline in the U.S. news industry is hardly new. Paid newspaper subscriptions have been falling since the 1950s; 65 million Americans live in counties with one or no local newspaper, creating so-called “news deserts.” Advertising revenues have plummeted since 2000, making it tougher to hold onto staff. As a result, newsrooms have shrunk by a quarter since 2008. Broadcast news staff has been more stable, even growing slightly in some years. But the overall trend remains down.
The decline means fewer news sources and less coverage (and less oversight) of American institutions, especially government. Reporters are held to a standard of quantity—both in number of stories and in number of clicks—rather than the often slow, methodical work of quality journalism. Some influencers take advantage of this, boldly declaring news media “fake” and even, disturbingly, “enemies of the people.” It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that public trust in journalism suffers; a recent Gallup poll showed 60% of Americans trust news media little or not at all.
The Medill survey analysis outlines the risks of this spiral in journalism. “When there are fewer watchdogs holding local government accountable, you can see what grows in that vacuum,” said Stephanie Edgerly, an associate professor who led the study.
She went on to point out that advertising dollars will not turn the tide. A different model is needed. Becoming a nonprofit is one approach some media outlets have tried, but the jury is still out on whether that’s the answer. Edgerly and others suggest it will require several strategies—including helping the public understand that investing in local news means better news coverage.
And here we come back to my guilty conscience.
While I’ve worked for well over three decades in public relations, I still consider myself a journalist at heart. I work alongside local reporters daily, and I appreciate that most of them strive to do the news right—understanding what’s important and relevant, reporting events, analyzing impact, holding institutions and influencers accountable regardless of who they are or what they proclaim.
Local journalism isn’t perfect, but it’s essential. Without it, we’re left with propaganda or lean-to-the-extreme sources of information. Worse, we face communities without adequate oversight and citizens without the knowledge they need to fully participate in their communities.
So I’m rethinking my subscription. It may be a small investment, but it’s one more barrier to the asphalt that threatens paradise.