We need a renewed focus on local news

First published on The Conversation and PennLive.

(Editor’s Note: During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump wasn’t shy about his hostility toward journalists. His unexpected victory proved his doubters — which included many in the media — wrong.

The Conversation, a politics and public affairs website, gathered a group of media experts to explore the challenges facing journalists and the public under a Trump administration: restoring trust, sifting through propaganda, resisting being manipulated, reviving local news outlets and parsing fake news.)

The good news is there are signs of reinvention and reinvigoration in local journalism.

According to the Pew Research Center, 20,000 jobs have disappeared in newsrooms over the past 20 years, many at the local level.

The loss of local newspapers created media deserts: communities starved of original reporting and journalism.

Although the industry economics remain challenging, the need for local journalism is more important than ever. Local outlets play a vital role in defining and informing communities. They can be the first port of call for stories of national significance.

They also help communities understand how national developments, whether they’re changes in economic or environmental policy, apply to them.

Fewer boots on the ground has created information voids that have been replaced by cable news, talk radio, social networks and news websites with questionable values or goals.

This creates a disconnect that needs to be addressed. A strong local media needs to be representative — demographically and culturally — of the communities being covered. Yet a 2013 study found that over 90 percent of full-time journalists are college graduates. Just 7 percent identify as Republicans, around one-third are women, and minorities account for only 8.5 percent of the journalistic workforce (while making up 36.6 percent of the population).

The good news is there are signs of reinvention and reinvigoration in local journalism.

The Solutions Journalism Network, the “audience-first” news start-up Hearken and University of Texas’ Engaging News Project are encouraging community engagement. They’ve made practical recommendations, from shifts in what is being reported to the way reporters present stories.

Meanwhile, the ease of online publishing has helped engender an emerging hyperlocal scene. In a 2011 study on the information needs of communities, the FCC acknowledged that “even in the fattest-and-happiest days of traditional media, they could not regularly provide news on such a granular level.”

Still, these efforts are patchy and inconsistent. In an era of divisive post-truth politics, we need bold (well-funded) local journalism to speak truth to power, build social capital and, in the process, instill a sense of pride in place.

Damian Radcliffe is a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon.


Originally published at www.pennlive.com.

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