Local journalism and a healthy democracy

In an age when global news is broadcast as it happens, and information on just about anything is available in the blink of an eye, has local journalism lost its relevance?

That question was discussed in a recent online presentation “Trust 2022: Why Independent Local Journalism is Important to a Strong Democracy.” Hosted by the independent online news source The Salish Current, and featuring Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, author Margaret Sullivan, and award-winning veteran journalist Hedrick Smith, the 90-minute discussion explored the importance of local, independent journalism to building community and as the cornerstone of a healthy and active democracy.

Ferguson made the case that it’s often local journalism that shines the light on “corporations or individuals who aren’t playing by the rules,” and related a story he read several years ago published by a small-town news source in Arizona.

“The story explained how a local Motel 6 had been sharing its guest registry with federal immigration officials, ICE, who scanned the list for Spanish-sounding names and targeted those guests with early morning visits to check their immigration status.

“ICE then deported the undocumented.”

Since the motel was part of a national chain, Ferguson wondered if the practice was being used in Washington state. He tasked his team with an investigation and found that, in fact, Motel 6 was sharing its guest lists with immigration officials. Consequently, Ferguson and his team were instrumental in filing a lawsuit that resulted in a $12 million settlement against the chain.

“If it hadn’t been for that small-town paper’s story-telling we would not have known about the motel’s practices. Stories like that underscore the vital role local journalism plays in holding people accountable,” he said.

Margaret Sullivan, the author of Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, addressed the challenges facing local news organizations by noting the changing landscape of the country’s newspapers.

“From 2004-2018, more than 2,000 newspapers – weeklies and dailies – folded or went out of business around the country,” she shared. “In the last three years, I suspect the rate has gotten worse. Plus, whatever advertising there was diminished when the pandemic hit. That meant less revenue, more layoffs, and more chain ownerships.” All of which, she stressed, contribute to smaller staffs, decreased newsgathering ability, and less community oversight.

Local news matters because national papers can’t cover local news.

“They can’t go to the school board or council meetings and they don’t have local sources; they simply don’t have the staff for it.

“Holding powerful institutions and people accountable has traditionally fallen to local newspapers,” she said.

She explained that the title of her book, Ghosting the News, was a blatant appeal to millennials.

“They talk about dating someone who then just disappears – doesn’t return calls or texts; they just stop communicating.

“Obviously, in the context of local journalism, it has other meanings.”

She described what’s been called ghost newspapers, local papers so diminished that, while they still exist, they have become ghosts of their former selves. She also noted that, with far fewer newspapers than a decade or two ago, cities and towns and regions across America previously served by a news source are now ghost towns for local news.

“News deserts are places that once had a local news source and currently have no local sources of news.”

Why is that a concern?

“Studies have shown a correlation between news deserts and bad things,” Sullivan said. “Politics are more polarized, there is less information about those seeking and holding office; there’s not much study of candidates. People are less informed about bond issues, votes that affect hospitals, schools, roads, etc. that depend on support. When that information isn’t available, people don’t vote.

The Washington Post media columnist and former public editor of the New York Times, adds that some of the reasons for the lack of local newspapers may rest with the newspapers themselves.

“Only one out of every five or six Americans actually subscribe to newspapers,” she noted. “Family habits have changed. Often, both parents work and there doesn’t appear to be time to sit and read. Some readers may feel their local paper isn’t serving them well, that it’s smaller than it used to be; or maybe they had a bad experience and may have been turned off.”

She sees the trend toward local non-profit entrepreneurial news organizations (like the Salish Current) as a promising shift.

“I’m not sure, however, if it’s enough and I worry they may not have the necessary staff to do the work that needs to be done. Plus, they tend to rely on alternative sources of funding – memberships, philanthropy, and events – rather than traditional revenue streams like subscriptions and advertising.”

Still, the panelists agreed that local journalism must remain a priority.

“I can’t think of a time in American history or in my half-century as a journalist when the need for local journalism has been more acute,” offered Hedrick Smith. “This is THE time when local reporting is absolutely necessary.”

Smith, formerly with the New York Times and a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, explained why local journalism is so important.

“We’re in a time of plagues,” he said. “First, COVID when everyone needed to know what was going on. Though much of the news came from federal and state entities, we depended on our local news source for information on protocols, what businesses were open or closed, the latest stats, school schedules, where to get vaccines, etc. They were critical.”

Smith continued. “We’re plagued with absolutely terrible polarization, a sort of tribal mentality. We’re plagued with a Niagara of misinformation, and a plague of internet algorithms that funnel us into silos.

“Local journalism isn’t the only answer to these plagues,” the veteran journalist added. “But solutions do start at the grassroots.”

However, before solutions are decided upon, Smith said it was important to understand why local journalism is so important.

“Imagine, he said, “buying a cell phone, a car, or a house without first gathering as much information as possible. Information is expected, it’s second nature and yet we question whether we need information about public life and our own communities.

“An informed citizenry is not an option in a democracy, it’s essential! You can’t get that without an active, independent probing, a questioning public media.

According to Smith, Thomas Jefferson was allegedly asked whether he thought it was more important to have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government.

“Without hesitation, Jefferson replied ‘newspapers without government because information is critical to a functioning society.’”

One way to provide support for local journalism can be found in Senate Bill 2434, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act introduced in July 2021 by Washington U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D). The bill, co-sponsored by Cantwell and U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse (R) allows individual taxpayers a tax credit of up to $250 in any taxable year for subscriptions to one or more local newspapers for the taxpayer’s personal use and provides a local employer with a payroll credit for wages paid to local news journalists.

Additionally, the bill would allow certain small businesses a tax credit for amounts paid for advertising in a local newspaper or in broadcast media – radio or television stations serving local communities.

Currently, the bill is still in committee. Voters were encouraged to write their elected officials to support the bill’s passage and provide much-needed support for an industry that is vital to an informed citizenry.

“Local journalism is the oxygen of democracy,” Smith added. “It’s essential for the body politic to survive.”

Support for SB 2434 – The Local Journalism Sustainability Act may be addressed to the following elected officials for San Juan County:

Sen. Maria Cantwell, (202) 224-2441; visit www.cantwell.senate.gov for contact information

Sen. Patty Murray, (202) 224-2621; visit www.murray.senate.gov for contact information

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, (202) 225-2605; visit https://larsen.house.gov for contact information