Americans seek out and highly regard local news. Despite this demand, most folks don’t fully comprehend the dire state of the industry. Though newsrooms are rapidly emptying, more than 70 percent of Americans believe that local media are doing well financially. Somewhat strikingly, this belief is held at a time in which fewer than 15 percent of Americans report having actually paid for local news in the last year.
Absent some sort of intervention, these highly demanded but under-supported local institutions may go under…and bring our democracy down at the same time. As the attack against anything “big” (big tech, big mattress, big etc.) is pursued by politicians on the left and right, those politicians can forget to actively think about how they’re going to support the little guys now and well into the future. Looking out for the “little” guy that is our local news institution is a cause that’d serve either party well—so who will pick up the mantle as the defender of the front page, rather than just the crusader against the Facebook feed?
Whoever emerges as the defenders we need and deserve will long be celebrated for lifting up small businesses, while also bolstering entire communities. Local news institutions serve as “anchors” in their community, according to Ron Heifetz, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, because they remind residents “every day of [the community’s] collective identity, the stake we have in one another and the lessons of our history.” Holding Heifetz to his word means thousands of American communities are adrift. Thousands of community newspapers have dropped out of circulation. The number of increasingly anchorless communities is staggering: Half of the nation’s counties only have one newspaper.
Defending local news won’t be easy—it’s facing big threats from a number of angles. Local news in all of its forms needs lots of assistance. The decline in the quantity of local news organizations is not confined to print publications. Pew Research Center documented that local TV news saw a decline across all time slots in 2018. Online options have failed to meet local news needs as well. Many Americans do not have access to a news website or app that explicitly covers their area. Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew, lamented, “Almost half the public says the local media mostly covers other areas, not the one they live in.” This descriptive reality rubs against the normative hope held by Americans, who tend to “overwhelmingly believe local journalists should have a strong connection to the communities they report on.” The decline in local news is also related to an increasingly competitive media environment—another tough problem for defenders of local news institutions to address.
Though Americans demand local news, they demand other content and to a much higher degree. According to the 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report, approximately half of American adults spent “over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media,” which amounted to an increase of 36 minutes compared to just six months earlier. In terms of the type of content consumed, Americans have increased their consumption of news in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. That consumption has largely occurred on social media websites, which serve as the primary political news source for 18 percent of U.S. adults. Comparatively, only 9 percent of Americans identified their local online news or newspaper as their preferred source of news. These sources lead to different effects on readers and society. The former fail to produce many of the positive externalities associated with the latter, and the former may actually produce some negative externalities.
Part of the problem is that local news isn’t always available where Americans hope to find it. In terms of accessing content, adults prefer online options. Adults consume a large amount of content on an app or on the web via a smartphone (2 hours and 22 minutes) or tablet (47 minutes) and through internet on a computer (39 minutes a day) and internet-connected devices (26 minutes). These statistics align with news consumption habits identified a decade ago when Pew recorded that between 2000 and 2010 the percentage of people that got some news by reading a newspaper declined from 47 percent to 31 percent, while the percent getting some news online jumped from 24 percent in 2002 to 34 percent in 2010.
The increased consumption of news and transition to online means of access has not benefited local news institutions. According to a report conducted by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina, “At [the] end of 2019, the United States had 6,700 newspapers, down from almost 9,000 in 2004.” As local papers have declined, consolidation of local news has increased—creating new “big” institutions out of several little guys.
David-type efforts by the little guys to battle the big forces have generally fallen short. Local online news sites have failed to gain traction. More than 80 local online sites launched in 2019 but an equal number disappeared. The FCC admitted that “too few” of these sorts of digital operations have “gained sufficient traction financially to make enough of an impact [on local communities].” The dire economic conditions imposed by COVID-19 have caused further closures and mergers among local news organizations, despite nearly half of Americans identifying local news outlets as a major source of news about the pandemic.
It’s easy to attack “big” things, it’s much harder to support and shore up the little guys. Local news is in need of some political heroes. Republicans would be wise to step in—local news institutions are the heart of their communities, their saviors will not go unrewarded. The threats facing local news are so numerous and substantial that any targeted effort to support these budding institutions can have a substantial impact. Whichever party starts making it even slightly easier for these institutions to get and stay off the ground will have a lasting impact on small communities and, as a result, our democracy.
Kevin Frazier is the editor of the Oregon Way, a nonpartisan online publication. He currently is pursuing a J.D. at the UC Berkeley School of Law and a MPP at the Harvard Kennedy School.