The loss of local newsrooms in communities across the country now “represents a crisis for American democracy,” according to a new report released by writers’ advocacy organization PEN America.
The PEN America report paints a dire picture of America’s local media ecosystem. A shift to digital media has resulted in a collapse of the for-profit local journalism model, as platforms like Google and Facebook have siphoned much of the ad revenue away from the news outlets that actually produce the content these platforms rely on.
|Download PEN America’s “Losing the News” report.|
A historic recent consolidation of newsrooms has only exacerbated this crisis. As ad revenues dry up, newspapers, TV stations and radio stations are bought by hedge funds and media conglomerates and often subjected to extreme cost-cutting measures, resulting in coverage that’s more national in scope, less diverse and, in many cases, more politically polarized.
Newspapers have been hit the hardest, losing more than $35 billion in ad revenue and 47 percent of newsroom staff over the last 15 years, according to the report. More than 1,800 newspapers have closed in that time, leaving more than three million Americans with no newspaper at all and rendering at least 1,000 other papers “ghost newspapers” with little original reporting.
The local news outlets that remain are typically in communities where residents are most valuable to advertisers, which is to say, the local news crisis has had a noted impact on rural as well as minority communities, many of whom are no longer represented with news relevant to their needs.
The report concludes that the loss of local newsrooms has eviscerated an industry that serves as a cornerstone of American democracy, according to the report. Original local reporting provides a critical service in society, informing communities on pressing local issues, holding local government officials and corporations accountable and keeping citizens politically informed, which makes them more likely to vote or run for office.
“A vibrant, responsive democracy requires enlightened citizens, and without forceful local reporting they are kept in the dark,” the report reads. “At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is both more essential and more elusive than ever. Without reliable information on how tax dollars are spent, how federal policy affects local communities, and whether local elected officials are meeting constituent needs, how can we expect citizens to make informed choices about who should govern?”
To make matters worse, the report also noted that only a small minority of Americans currently pay for the local news, and most don’t yet realize just how much their local news outlets are struggling — or even if they’re on the brink of collapse.
Indeed, a recent Knight Foundation/Gallup report found that while more than three-quarters (76 percent) of Americans consider local and state news organizations vital for keeping them informed, only about one-in-five (19 percent) said they subscribed or donated to a local news organization in the past year, and a majority (56 percent) erroneously believe that local news companies are doing well financially.
The report concludes by proposing solutions for revitalizing struggling local media ecosystems. Referring to the local news as a “public good,” PEN advocates an investment of billions through philanthropic support, as well as private (corporate sponsorship) and public funding, which includes calling on Congress to develop recommendations for how the government can support a free and independent local press.
The report also proposes a two percent ad revenue tax on digital platforms like Facebook and Google, which “would raise an estimated $2 billion a year: not enough to solve the local news crisis, but enough to make a dent.”
PEN America’s report, “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions,” was based on interviews with experts spanning the journalism and media fields, including journalists, editors, scholars, elected officials, technology industry representatives and civil society advocates.