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Filling the Void Left by the Collapse of Local News

The proposed Future of Local News Act has potential to restore local journalism in the United States, say Pen America’s Nora Benavidez and Dokhi Fassihian.

As rancor on Capitol Hill reached a crescendo last week with one of the major political parties buckling under the weight of misinformation, you could be forgiven for missing a rare flash of bipartisanship aimed at bolstering the United States’s civic infrastructure. 

This past week, Senator Brian Schatz, D-H, Representative Marc Veasey, D-TX33, and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick R-PA1 introduced the Future of Local News Act. While the Act sets out to revitalize the ailing local news industry, its intent is clear: to provide a much-needed corrective to the decline of local journalism and the harms it poses to our democracy.

In the past 15 years, 2,100 U.S. newspapers have closed and more than $35 billion in ad revenue has been lost since 2004, while nearly half of all newsroom staff has been let go. The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated this trend, with dozens more newspapers closing down over the past year and tens of thousands of additional journalism jobs lost. The erosion of local news has led to an information vacuum at the local level, which in turn allows disinformation to flourish.

But the legislation isn’t just about making sure there’s a local newspaper in every town. It’s about filling the void in public knowledge that the loss of those newspapers represents. Today, there are fewer journalists covering school board meetings, local political debates, and town councils. That makes it harder for communities to hold local officials to account, and it means that increasingly, representatives in Washington are divorced from what’s happening in their communities, and their constituents from what’s happening in Washington.  

While the data may feel abstract, the real-life consequences have deep implications for communities. Studies show that with the absence of strong, independent local journalism, government corruption and corporate malfeasance rise while community engagement declines. The absence of local journalism means people are less likely to know when elections are, less likely to vote, and less aware of the critical local issues affecting their livelihoods. 

An example: The decline of local reporting in rural eastern North Carolina coincided with an unchecked expansion of polluting agricultural facilities. In Detroit, Black communities have expressed frustration that pressing local issues like water shutoffs have not been covered critically. On the other hand, local Black-owned newspapers in the Twin Cities helped elevate the murder of George Floyd—along with the powerful cell phone video shot by Darnella Frazier, that coverage sparked a movement.

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What’s more, quality local news acts as a bulwark against misinformation and offers common ground that can help bridge partisan divides. Recent research suggests that local newspapers might be able to moderate polarization by, for instance, focusing their opinion page on local issues rather than running nationally-syndicated partisan screeds. Key to this unique role of local journalism is the connection between local journalists and their communities, which helps explain why Americans consistently value and trust local news sources above national ones. Seventy-six percent of Americans report trusting their local TV news, and 73 percent report trusting their local newspapers. 

That brings us back to the Schatz/Veasey bill. While not a cure-all, it would establish a Congressional committee to “propose policies and mechanisms that could reinvigorate local news to meet the critical information needs of the people of the United States in the 21st century.” If passed, the bill would launch the long overdue process of requiring the federal government to play a more substantial role in finding solutions to address the collapse of the traditional revenue model for newsgathering.

As free speech advocates, we know the idea of government involvement in news sounds suspect. But public broadcasting, a model kickstarted by an independent commission and now largely funded through public and private dollars, continues to be one of the most trusted sources of news in the country. And public support doesn’t mean bureaucrats sitting in a newsroom. Instead, options the committee could consider include tax credit incentives, regulations around industry consolidation, reining in the tech giants, and yes, potentially providing funding for local news—with protections for newsroom independence.

The proposed committee would serve as a much-needed booster to build consensus on a diverse set of solutions that will ultimately benefit us all. 

We need serious, across-the-aisle will at the federal level. Establishing a bipartisan committee to identify viable solutions to rebuild the local news ecosystem would be a significant step towards revitalizing an industry that is essential to preserving democracy. We will not be able to end misinformation altogether. But energizing local news will help us re-establish a shared set of facts about the communities we live in, which is the first step to identifying solutions to the problems facing them.

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