Local news is dying, and it's taking small town America with it

Copies of the New York Daily News on sale outside a convenience store in New York, on Sept 5, 2017.
Copies of the New York Daily News on sale outside a convenience store in New York, on Sept 5, 2017.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - America is overrun with "news deserts", cities and towns where local coverage is lacking or altogether absent. As newspaper circulation continues to decline along with ad revenue and newsroom employment, a common casualty is the expensive, time-consuming practice of original reporting.

Without journalists digging through property records or attending city council meetings, looking for official wrongdoing and revealing secret deals, local politicians will operate unchecked - with predictable consequences.

But the fallout is much bigger than just keeping municipal government honest.

Studies have shown that communities without quality local news coverage see lower rates of voter turnout. Cities where newspapers shut down have even seen their municipal bond prices rise, suggesting an increase in government costs due to a lack of transparency.

More broadly, towns without serious local news coverage demonstrate less social cohesion, corroding any actual sense of community. 

A Duke University study published last month found that the quantity and quality of local news stories is lacking across the country. Only 17 per cent of stories produced by local outlets are based on events that actually occurred nearby. And more than half of their news reports originated somewhere else, such as a wire service.

With television, segments often come from a network or parent, easily repurposed by affiliates anywhere in the country. Moreover, only 56 per cent of all local reports addressed a critical informational need - such as crime or infrastructure - rather than celebrity gossip or sports.

The study used US Census data to identify almost 500 communities with 20,000 to 300,000 residents, and randomly selected 100 of them. The analysis surveyed 16,000 stories produced by print, radio, television and digital media from both English and non-English outlets, found through media databases and manual searches.

"It's the job of these outlets to focus on the civic, political and economic issues that are uniquely relevant to these geographic communities, because they will not be covered by out-of-market media outlets," said Professor Philip Napoli of Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy and the lead author of the study. 

"Local government is exactly the kind of place where journalistic resources are being cut." 

But Prof Napoli doesn't blame the media for the lack of quality local journalism. Rather, he empathises with their financial struggles. To keep pace with a changing and consolidating media ecosystem, local news outlets have dedicated their limited resources to covering and aggregating national stories reported by national news organisations.

As a result, only 11 per cent of the surveyed news stories were local, original and addressed hard news, the report shows. And some outlets stopped producing stories about their local communities altogether. 

Ms Stephanie Murray, the director of the Centre for Cooperative Media at Monclair State University, works with so-called hyperlocal media outlets in New Jersey that focus exclusively on providing news to small communities. But Ms Murray said these bootstrap organisations are a long way away from filling the overarching local news gap that plagues the US

Of course, the current economic reality facing local news operations makes it difficult to stay afloat, explained Mr Joe Lanane, the executive editor of Community Impact Newspaper, which produces free hyperlocal papers for 45 communities in Texas.

He said he understands the temptation to package news made elsewhere to cut costs, "but if we try to follow the rest of the news industry with national and state coverage, we'll lose that battle", he said.

And it's not just rural America that's seen a decline in local news. Communities closest to large media markets - such as New York, Washington or Los Angeles - have the least robust local journalism, the study found.

"Content tends to flow from large markets to smaller markets, which can discourage consumption of local journalism," Prof Napoli said.

New Jersey, for example, lives in the shadow of both New York and Philadelphia. Sandwiched between large media markets, the state has struggled to lure journalists to cover local news for smaller outlets.

Even inside the nation's biggest media hub, outlets that cover local events are suffering. The New York Daily News halved its staff in July, and the Village Voice, a legendary investigator of malfeasance in New York City and Albany, officially died last weekend. In Washington, a slew of newspapers have shuttered, too.

Within urban, suburban and rural areas, minority communities remain the most underserved by local news coverage. The Duke study found that regions with large Hispanic populations, in particular, received less robust local journalism. 

"Local news outlets play a vital role in the daily lives of communities who are often ignored by mega-media companies that are disconnected geographically and culturally," said Mr Hugo Balta, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, in an e-mail.

 "The regionalisation of content production, a failed one-size-fits-all practice, is irrelevant to already underserved communities like Hispanics, especially in small markets where information about local government, education, health and other important issues is indispensable."

"The public is suffering," Mr Balta said. 

There is some good news, though - local news media still garners more public trust than its national counterparts. More than seven in 10 Americans report that they trust their local newspapers and television stations, while barely half say the same about national outlets, according to the Poynter Institute. But this could change, warned Ms Murray.

"Building trust is a human-to-human endeavour," Ms Murray said. "I'm worried we're going to see an erosion of trust in local media as the number of journalists on the ground in local communities declines."

In New Jersey, the crisis has spurred government leaders to allocate US$5 million (S$6.9 million) to revive and strengthen local media.

"Long term, this is a drop in the bucket," Ms Murray said. "But short term, this could spur some amazing projects."

Community Impact

Newspaper has also attempted to fill the gaps in small communities surrounding media-rich cities including Houston, Austin and Dallas.

Report for America, a journalism nonprofit modelled after AmeriCorps and Teach for America, has sought to bolster understaffed regional outlets by deploying 1,000 journalists to their newsrooms by 2022.

But news media experts said this only scratches the surface of what's needed to rehabilitate local media. 

"We've seen foundations and universities jump into this space, but we need more at the policy level," said Prof Napoli, who believes public funding could alleviate the local news crisis.

There may be little chance of that in the current political environment. The US already spends very little government money on the media compared with other countries. Norway spends about US$140 per capita each year on its public broadcasters, according to media consulting firm Nordicity.  The United Kingdom spends US$88, and Canada spends US$22. The US spends under US$3.

Executive editors at local news outlets across the country agree that there needs to be more economic incentives to cover their communities.

"At the local level, news doesn't stop when the news coverage goes away," Mr Lanane said. "Somebody has to do this work."