Newspapers are in crisis. Advertising revenue is down (and therefore so are the funds available to put out printed pages and maintain up-to-the-minute websites). Print circulation has been declining for the past 25 years and even digital circulation for all but the biggest, national brands has fallen. Alt-weeklies and smaller regional papers began shutting down. at record rates in the early 2000s. What’s been the impact of this loss? Now that we’re a decade plus into this post-journalism age, we’re starting to find out.
Recent studies have examined areas as diverse as civic engagement, government spending, and even epidemiology to analyze the result of losing local press coverage and the insights are profound. While it’s easy to minimize the relevance of local papers to social news and events, it turns out that they play a big role in keeping our communities, and in turn our country, in good health, financially, democratically, and even physically.
According to the economist authors of Financing Dies in Darkness it costs governments more to borrow money for civic projects like road and school construction in towns lacking local news coverage. They also spend more on wages and service contracts without the pressure of press oversight.
Researchers at the George Washington and American Universities uncovered a connection between local press coverage and voting rates in House elections, saying in As Local New Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement, “Citizens exposed to a lower volume of coverage are less able to evaluate their member of Congress, less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote. This is true for people regardless of levels of political awareness.”
Finally, companies like HealthMap, a disease-detection project run from Boston’s Children’s Hospital that relies on local news and social media (among other sources) to proactively track infectious disease events in real time, are sounding the alarm about losing local news outlets. “We rely very heavily on local news. And I think what this will probably mean is that there are going to be pockets of the U.S. where we’re just not going to have a particularly good signal anymore…. Local media is the bedrock of internet surveillance—the kind of work that we do in terms of scouring the web looking for early signs of something taking place in a community.”
What steps can we take to preserve local press and reinvigorate engagement? Declines in the number and length of visits to even online news sources potentially indicate a notable shift in how people want to interact with their media. Rather than going to news sources, either print or digital, the modern news consumer wants information to find them. This contention is borne out by upward trends–especially among a key demographic of older Americans–in the numbers of people reporting their use of social media as their news sources.
This puts a great responsibility on social media companies to pay attention to their roles in the journalism landscape. Are they providing a platform that allows both big AND small news outlets to reach their audiences, for example, the way Go2s partners with its hometown paper, The Brunswick Citizen, to support its circulation and encourage engagement? Are they forging responsible partnerships with content providers? Are they seeking out technological solutions, like Go2s’ use of text and email alerts for urgent notifications, to send important news beyond the borders of their websites and apps? The drumbeat of consequences is getting louder. We lose too much when we lose local press.