The decline of local news is hardly breaking news. But the slowness of this decline can obscure the impacts. As newspapers get thinner—and articles posted on their corresponding websites dwindle in content or quantity—information influencing key community decisions becomes harder to find and organize around.
Reliable, accessible and equitable local news is an important component of community-driven economic development. Last year, ESI Senior Adviser Rysheema Dixon quoted economic geographer Michael Storper in her article about the intersection of community and economic development:
“The recent empirical literature on economic development places intergroup relations, and especially political coalition formation, at center stage. The principal explanations supplied for why coalitions are essential to development are that they provide a context in which good ideas and policies can be implemented; and they allow problem-solving and conflict resolution.”
In short, coalitions are important for vetting and shaping economic development policies. But this requires a common understanding of relevant conditions. Ideally, this information is easily accessible. Local news, though flawed, has often addressed this need.
My perspective on this is personal. From 2015 to 2020, I worked as a local news reporter in several communities in Ohio and Massachusetts. It was fast-paced, exciting and also heart-breaking. Even as the newsroom around me shrank, I believed in the potential power of local news as a tool and catalyst for equitable decision-making about the future of communities, especially for economic development.
I am not alone. Research indicates connections between local news and community decision-making. A study of 11 California municipalities found cities with news sources that saw a sharp decline in staffing had “significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races.” Another study found municipal borrowing costs increase following a newspaper closure. These researchers also found closures are associated with higher government wages and deficits.
Most discussions of the future of local news focus on money. What business models can support local news outlets and carve a brighter future for this important coverage? There is hope—non-profit newsrooms are a promising trend—but these revenue-focused conversations can obscure some of the deeper challenges of this media sphere.
Years of cuts and exclusion have undermined reader trust, and not without reason. Between 2008 and 2020, newsroom employment declined by 26%, with remaining employees often trying to do the work of several. People of color are underrepresented in the newsroom. According to 2012-2016 data, 23% percent of newsroom employees are people of color compared to 40% of the nationwide population. This is just one marker of employee diversity, which influences what gets covered and how, especially in a field as driven by quick judgement calls as journalism.
Newsroom diversity and newsroom economics are two sides of the same coin. Some cash-strapped newspapers are finding lucrative subscriber bases in mostly white suburban communities. In a Neiman Lab article in 2021, Associate Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Media Nikki Usher slipped in this “bombshell,” as I would say in the newsroom, quote from a Midwestern news executive: “We don’t write for white subscribers, but it ends up being white people who read us.”1
This quote points to a truth: reform in the newsroom toward news that is more reflective of, and useful for, community decision-making won’t just happen. It requires acknowledgement of shortcomings and commitment to solutions.
Change can happen inside the newsroom. This means hiring a diverse staff, at all levels of the outlet and with a broad definition of diversity; providing wages, work schedules and environments that are supportive of varied employee needs; and assessing the organization’s implicit beliefs about news and what is newsworthy. It also means listening to individuals as well as the many organizations that have long been undertaking this work, like the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Native American Journalists Association.
News sources can also seek to rebuild trust and relevancy through active outreach. Public Source, an online news outlet based in Pittsburgh, hosts events and provides media literacy and civic research resources to area residents.
Local news is in flux. This is a challenge, but also an opportunity to rethink models at a grand scale and better serve communities. Equitable economic development requires public conversation, coalition building and consensus. Local news that is responsive and reflective of the people it covers can support this process—but there is still a long way to go.
Elizabeth Dobbins | firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Dobbins is an intern at ESI. She is graduating with a Master of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2022. Prior to attending Penn, Elizabeth worked for five years as a reporter for local newspapers in Ohio and Massachusetts.