- In this op-ed, Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, writes about why local news is vital to maintaining a healthy democracy.
- He points out that many markets that used to be served by local newspapers have become “news deserts.”
- He outlines how he is putting his money where his mouth is by funding local news initiatives, particularly in New York City, which he thinks can serve as a model across the country.
We are in the middle of an online information war. The stakes for the US? A free press, an informed public, and strong democratic institutions. Fake news and misinformation flow through social and news media, conceived and distributed by bad actors and amplified by unaware consumers. And there are many news sites that attempt to drive traffic by playing to one side of the political spectrum or the other.
With the midterms approaching, it’s important that Americans can trust the press to deliver news on crucial civic topics. Many organisations, including Big Tech, are working on initiatives to avoid a repeat of the 2016 US presidential election, where misinformation was rampant. But one thing missing from this conversation is the importance of local news. Our communities need trustworthy, local coverage so that we can have a good, working knowledge of our government, our communities, and more. This helps to ensure the public is informed, and that’s critical to a healthy democracy. It produces thoughtful voters, citizens, and neighbours.
But at a time when we urgently need and deserve reliable sources of comprehensive local coverage, grassroots news organisations are closing their shutters at alarming rates. Since 2004, the US has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers, according to the recent study of UNC Chapel Hill’s Penelope Muse Abernathy. Up to 1,400 communities that had their own papers in 2004 are now entirely without news coverage, and there are almost 200 counties (of 3,143) that don’t have even one paper. These communities – either where there are no sources of local coverage or where it’s hard to access daily, local information – are news deserts, and as you can see by Abernathy’s research, they’re becoming more and more common.
New York City provides a poignant example. For the last several years now, the media capital of the world has been on a painful journey toward becoming a local news desert. That’s pretty ironic, but not in the good or funny sort of way. With the Village Voice and countless other New York City news institutions closing down, coverage of critical beats, from immigration to criminal justice to transportation, have been, by necessity, reduced. Without the ability to fully and meaningfully cover local occurrences on a daily basis, important stories go untold, corruption persists, and our lives are impacted.
Despite the severity of these times, I’m hopeful because, in this city alone, there are several solid examples – existing and new – of trustworthy, rigorously fact-checked local reporting. And these have the potential to influence others and spread across the country. That’s why I’ve been putting my money where my mouth is by supporting local New York City journalism. I figure those who create honest journalism in this city of 8.5 million people can show the rest of the country, “Hey, this is how you do good work well.”
One of those exemplars is New York Public Radio (NYPR). A real, local institution, NYPR is about providing New Yorkers with trustworthy local journalism in any medium, meeting people where they are – in a cab, on social media. It’s currently in the process of integrating and expanding WNYC and Gothamist, the digital-native local news outlet NYPR acquired in February 2018. During this process, it will expand the data news capabilities of the two and build out their digital production capacities. I’m also hopeful for THE CITY, a nonprofit online news organisation launching later this year that will further build the local media ecosystem by providing breaking news and in-depth, nonpartisan coverage of New York City.
This push toward digital-first newsrooms is what can help an outlet 1) understand and adapt to audience needs, 2) diversify its business models, and 3) reach people with important news – big and small – as it breaks. It’s what will help local news organisations stay afloat while maintaining a high standard of ethical reporting, and that’s what our country needs right now. Producing and monetizing local news in this Digital Age is a complex problem to solve, but it’s mission-critical to protecting our democracy.
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