Local Journalism Is Dying. That’s Bad for Communities — And for Free Speech.
By Maya Gandhi
The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, closed its doors Aug. 30, after 150 years of publishing. The Chicago Defender, an influential historically Black newspaper, shuttered its print edition in July, after a century in circulation. Nearly 200 years after its establishment, The Times-Picayune merged with its competitor The New Orleans Advocate after being sold to The Advocate’s owner in June — leading to the layoffs of roughly two-thirds of its staffers. And, in my own hometown, the 123-year-old Tampa Tribune folded into its rival Tampa Bay Times in May 2016.
The demise of local media is, as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan puts it, “journalism’s worst crisis.” The numbers prove not only that Sullivan is right, but also that the crisis is surging: Over the past 15 years, nearly 2,000 local newspapers have closed or merged, as NPR reports. In that same period, local newspaper circulation has dropped by almost a third, and the number of reporters covering state legislatures has decreased by 35 percent, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
The closure and consolidation of local media outlets deprive thousands of communities of important watchdog coverage — an outcome that is empirically worse for the well-being of these localities.
Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, the co-founders of the journalism nonprofit Report for America, summarized how the demise of local journalism can afflict the surrounding community in The New York Times’ August reflection on “A Future Without the Front Page.”
“Studies have now validated what we all know intuitively,” Waldman and Sennott write. “The disintegration of community journalism leads to greater polarization, lower voter turnout, more pollution, less government accountability and less trust.”
That communities without local journalism are worse off is without question — but the shuttering of local newsrooms also represents a stark danger for Free Speech.
Speakers are shouted down on college campuses. Journalists are penalized for watchdog reporting. Government leakers are prosecuted. Free Speech is, undoubtedly, under attack in myriad headline-grabbing ways.
Under the surface, however, this quieter, insidious threat to Free Speech looms. The slow-march demise of local news and subsequent media consolidation present a dangerous path forward for the free press. When local newsrooms are swallowed by big media conglomerates — or worse, when they disappear altogether — the media are fundamentally undermined, dealing a series of blows to the institution most vital to upholding Free Speech.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the corporatization of local media. The most prominent — and sinister — case in this trend is the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a sharply right-leaning media company that owns nearly 200 local television stations across the country. Sinclair’s massive media conglomeration sparked backlash in 2018 for its chilling, propagandistic denunciation of the media as “irresponsible” and “one-sided,” which it forced its local anchors to read word-for-word.
Such top-down, corporate enforcement hardly represents the bastion of a free and healthy press — a basic, vital keystone of democracy. But it does represent the reality for the more than 100 media markets in which Sinclair operates.
Yet Sinclair, though it may be the most reminiscent of the Orwellian Ministry of Truth, is far from the only massive corporation on the journalism scene.
In August, GateHouse Media — a New York-based hedge fund that previously touted itself as the largest newspaper owner in the country — acquired Gannett, the owner of USA Today and more than 100 local papers and digital services. The $1.38 billion deal is slated to create a massive network of 260 daily publications and 300 weekly papers and would result in what is believed to be the largest online audience of any media operation in the country.
Proponents see the corporatization of local news as an economic lifeline in otherwise dire straits. But journalists themselves often realize that such mass media conglomerates have another, more salient priority than community journalism: profit.
“They see the newspaper not as journalism but as dollar signs,” John Darkow said in a May 2018 interview with NPR. Darkow served for 20 years as the cartoonist for The Daily Tribune, a local, family-owned paper in Columbia, Missouri, that GateHouse acquired in 2016. A year later, “most of the news staff was gone,” NPR reported.
The GateHouse-Gannett merger will put watchdog journalism for hundreds of communities under the purview of a single company. And it will almost certainly further eviscerate local newsrooms across the country, as it moves papers’ operations and even editors away from the physical communities they theoretically serve, according to Penny Abernathy, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina who has studied the decline of newspapers.
“There’s no way, when you’re removed from that community, that you understand what’s happening on the ground in the same way that you would understand it if you lived in that community,” Abernathy said in an August interview with The New York Times.
The demise of local newspapers is bad for their communities, especially because local news is by far the most trusted: In a hostile media environment full of pejorative shots at the “fake news,” “lamestream media,” 76 percent of Americans said they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in their local television news, and 73 percent said they have confidence in local newspapers, according to an August 2018 survey by the Poynter Institute. That’s more than 20 points higher than for national networks and newspapers.
As is so often true when looking at the future of journalism, the state of affairs seems bleak. But there is hope: Myriad efforts have cropped up aimed at saving local media and, with them, American democracy — a lofty, but admirable, goal.
The nonprofit Report for America program, for example, places “corps members” in local newsrooms across the country for a year (or more), emulating programs like the Peace Corps and Teach for America to reframe journalism as the public service it should be. And philanthropic organizations like the Knight Foundation (a benefactor of the Free Speech Project) and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism are understanding the urgency of the issue and investing their resources in innovative ways to try to resuscitate local news.
Local journalism requires and merits our attention, our innovation, and most importantly, our support. The alternative may be too Orwellian to imagine.
Maya Gandhi ’20 was the principal research assistant for the Free Speech Project for the summer of 2019. She is a senior in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service studying international history. Originally from Tampa, Florida, she currently serves as the editor-in-chief of The Hoya and has also worked as an editorial intern for Foreign Policy magazine.