Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
People expect local journalists to be deeply engaged with their communities. A new report suggests San Antonio and the Twin Cities are on to something.
The gutting of America’s local news organizations has been aggressive and indiscriminate. Big-city papers like the New York Daily News, local operations of media conglomerates like Gannett, and alt-weeklies like the East Bay Express, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice have all faced huge layoffs in the past two years, as have 36 percent of all large U.S. papers since 2017.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the outlets that remain have been stretched to cover ever-wider areas. Almost half of Americans say the local news media outlets they rely on mostly cover a city or region other than their own, according to a new Pew study of almost 35,000 respondents. That disconnect may be a problem. Only a quarter of the Americans whose news outlets had a broad scope expressed confidence in that coverage, compared to more than a third of those whose local media was covering truly local news.
This matters because as trust in the media has eroded, so has people’s grasp on what, exactly, is at stake in losing it. More than 70 percent of the study’s respondents think local news media is doing well financially—it’s not!—and only 14 percent said they had paid for local news in the past year, many citing the wide variety of free alternatives.
Part of the solution could be rebuilding trust with readers and viewers—and, maybe eventually, to convince them to start paying for news. To do that, the study found that engagement between journalists and their communities is key. Eight in 10 respondents said a journalist’s understanding local history and being “personally engaged” with a given area is at least somewhat important. Those who thought journalists were in touch with their communities were much more likely to say local media delivered balanced coverage.
On these fronts, there’s more work to do. A third of respondents called journalists “out of touch,” and only about 20 percent had ever spoken to a journalist themselves. Of course, if your paper only has one journalist to flit between city council meetings and parades, you can’t blame them for not brushing shoulders with every reader. But brushing shoulders used to be part of the job.
The Pew study includes an interactive map laying out the local news landscape of 99 large CBSAs (core-based statistical regions, which include at least one urban center). Demographics matter a lot when it comes to how and with what attitude people consume news. Residents of areas with a higher share of Hispanic residents are more likely to view local media as influential, for example. But in areas with higher black and Hispanic populations, residents are less likely to say local journalists are in touch with their community.
Look around the U.S., and there are some bright spots. Take the San Antonio-New Braunfels region of Texas, which has a population of 2.3 million. Residents there mostly engage with news through the local ABC affiliate, and feel the news they consume impacts their community strongly. They’re more confident in their news overall compared to the rest of the U.S., and also in their local journalists’ commitment to transparency, consistency, and ability to “represent people like them.” Why is the connection so strong? It could have something to do with the fact that a full 69 percent of residents felt the local news covered their area specifically.
Residents in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington triangle of Minnesota and Wisconsin, with a population of 3.5 million, also feel remarkably connected to the journalists covering their region, especially when compared with the rest of the U.S. Home to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and American Public Media, Minneapolis and St. Paul residents are more likely than the rest of the U.S. to access news through non-digital platforms, preferring print when they read the news; and getting local radio through actual radios.
And in other regions, it’s clear that local media’s collapse has already spurred a vicious cycle. A strikingly low 35 percent of Cincinnati-area residents think their local news media mostly covers their area, and they give their journalists lower scores for transparency, accuracy, and thoroughness than other respondents throughout the country.
Seven in 10 residents from the Chicago area—where a local DNAinfo chapter closed down in 2017 after a billionaire shuttered the operation, taking the article archives down with him—said the local news media did not have much influence on their community; and eight in 10 had never spoken to a journalist. Residents of the Denver area were not much more impressed, saying almost 40 percent of local journalists are out of touch, which is perhaps related to the fact that the Denver Post has become what Poynter describes as one of the “ghosts”: “pared-down-to-nothing papers (or even single-page inserts) that are the remnants of once-robust local publications.”
The demise of local news isn’t just depressing—the consequences run deep. Another report found that, when local papers close, there are financial consequences: Bond costs can rise, and corrupt officials can push through bad deals without oversight. But as alt-weeklies and local accountability outlets shutter, other non-profit outlets are poking their heads out of the ashes. Where DNAinfo once covered Chicago, BlockClub is stepping in; Baltimore Beat is replacing the now-shuttered City Paper; The Michigan Advance just launched to supplement what its founders call “corporate media” in the state. To flourish, they’ll need readers to trust them, too.