Now is the time to revive local news (before it's too late)

October 1, 2020

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Over the last 20 years we have been slowly chipping away at everything local. Now is the time to stand up and defend what we have left and rebuild what we’ve lost.

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of the vulnerabilities that we have exposed ourselves to in the pursuit of globalization. In making our world a more globally connected place, we have paid a price at the local level that we have either been unaware of or not impacted enough to care.

That means that local jobs selling and repairing electronic appliances were sacrificed as long as the price for TV’s made somewhere else were so cheap that I could afford not only a much better one, but I could throw it away and get a new one as soon as something went wrong with it.

It also means that more and more products that don’t require any special knowledge to produce (think face masks and other personal protective equipment) were gradually manufactured further and further away in the pursuit of finding the cheapest cost.

Maybe not as obvious, but the same process has happened with information. At the expense of local newspapers, we have given our attention over to global platforms with the promise that they will keep us better connected with the world. But as a trade-off we oftentimes end up less connected to the person next door.

The tragic and ruthless events of the Coronavirus pandemic have put these changes sharply in focus. As we ask questions like: why can’t we make more protective equipment closer to home? We should also be asking, why do we need global platforms to connect us to the people who live just down the street from us?

The hard truth exposed by the virus is that we need more local in our lives. Yet over the last 20 years we have been slowly chipping away at our local institutions, especially our local newspapers.

The decline of local news

One year ago, before anyone had ever heard of Covid or social distancing, the Atlantic had published a stark warning on the state of local news in the article Local News is Dying, and Americans Have No Idea.

In this article, they cite a study from Pew Research and neatly summarize the decline of local newspapers that it shows:

The newspaper industry has been in a tailspin since internet companies ate the $5 billion in classified advertising they’d been raking in, and social media became an alternative entry point to the day’s news. Worse, the solution that saved the The New York Times—high-margin digital subscriptions—has not yet proved itself for smaller papers. Just 14 percent of Pew’s survey respondents said they had paid for local news in some way in the past year. Forty-nine percent of the people who didn’t pay cited the “widespread availability of free content” as their reason why, according to Pew.

In other words, we have given away all of our attention to big platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Since they are able to make their money from our eyeballs and our personal data rather than through subscriptions, we have been trained to think that news and information just comes for free. Without subscription fees and with ad revenues declining from local businesses (who are also struggling), it is nearly impossible for the small, local newspapers to survive.

As a result, since 2004 we have seen 1,800 local or metro newspapers close altogether with 1,300 of those communities losing their only source of local news. At a time where we feel like we are drowning in national and global news, many communities are left without a single drop of information about what is going on in their own backyard.

What do we lose when we lose our local news?

As the Atlantic put it in another article after the coronavirus hit:

Trustworthy, accurate, and local information is now a matter of life and death.

Some of the most important guidance right now is highly localized: Where can I go to get tested? Can my kids still get free or reduced-price meals while schools are closed? Which grocery stores deliver? Which public institutions are closed? Which local organizations need donations, and how do I donate? Which advice on the local Facebook group is accurate and which isn’t?

These questions can’t be answered by a national newspaper. Even a metro newspaper will have limited coverage at the neighborhood level. This gap can be filled through social media, but as the article points out, how can one know that information is validated and trustworthy? Local news is more important than ever to fill that gap and provide critical, trustworthy information.

Even if we didn’t have the urgency of a pandemic to show us how important local news is, there are numerous studies that point to the fact that when local newspapers shut down, local government waste and corruption goes up while participation and knowledge of local elections goes down. Not even the most informed citizen has the time to go to every town council meeting or local debate. Without the local news, these events simply go unrecorded.

Bring back local

Clearly now more than ever, we need a source of information in our communities that we can trust. So how do we go about preserving what we have and rebuilding what we’ve lost?

First and most importantly, if you still have a local newspaper in your region, don’t assume that it is doing fine. Even if it is still publishing, it has probably seen its fair share of cut-backs. Subscribe. Give more of your eyeball time to them. Maybe even donate from time to time.

If you want to go further and are interested in creating a new local news publication in your area, check out my work over at Epilocal, where I am creating digital tools to help local newspapers compete with the big boys. Currently there isn’t much there yet, as we are still in pre-launch mode, but I have a lot of great content planned soon to help people get started - so be sure to sign up for updates.

Also, be sure to keep up with this publication, On the Local, where I will be rounding up the best and most interesting local news voices I can find. I hope that in doing this, I can get more people interested in local news and help us all see how much it can add to our understanding of big events that are happening around us.

Maybe we can even bring back some good old-fashioned community understanding together.

Greg Dickens grew up in a small town of less than 2,000 people in rural New York State. After a decade working in finance and technology, he's now taking everything he has learned to create new opportunities for the people he grew up with by building digital tools that help local communities. You can check out his work here.