Local journalism is not optional, but essential, for healthy communities and democracy, asserted speakers in the online forum “Trust 2022: Why Local Journalism is Important to a Strong Democracy,” on March 17.
Nationally respected journalists Margaret Sullivan and Hedrick Smith and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson addressed the importance of local news coverage, rebuilding trust in democratic institutions and how independent local newsrooms can serve as viable, innovative community resources.
The forum was presented by nonprofit newsroom Salish Current in partnership with Village Books, to examine the crisis upon local journalism and its detrimental role in sustaining democracy. A recording of the 90-minute forum is posted online.
The discussion comes at a time when the number of daily and weekly newspapers in Washington has declined 11% from 2004 to 2019, and the number of daily and weekly news readers has declined 37%. In that period of time, a study by the University of North Carolina found a quarter of all newspapers in the country have disappeared.
Ferguson told of reading a story run by an independent newsroom in Arizona on a Motel 6 that had been turning over customer information to federal agencies that would use that information to deport undocumented customers, without warrants.
Reading that story led Ferguson to ask his civil rights team to look into practices by Motel 6s in Washington. He said that that reporting had helped his office uncover the same activities here and acquire a $12 million restitution for the people impacted by what was happening between Motel 6 and federal immigration agencies.
“We never would’ve known about that, we never could’ve brought that case without that information,” Ferguson said. “That’s independent journalism, folks who have the time and the resources to go and cover all of that. Short investigations done by independent news are critical for the work that we do on behalf of all Washingtonians.”
Ferguson said that, in his time in office touring newsrooms, he’s witnessed the gradual decrease in employment and the empty desks in newsrooms all over the state. Losing those voices and positions, he said, has become “a huge challenge for our democracy.”
Evoking Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, Ferguson described the importance of independent media and news coverage as “an essential aspect for a functioning democracy.”
“The fact that many individuals in our country live in a fact-free environment is not helping,” Ferguson said. “I think you can draw a straight line from the dramatic decrease in the number of newspapers and employees in newspapers, to the challenges [related to polarization] we are having.”
He said this was the reason he led 15 attorney generals in October to voice support for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, sponsored by the U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Dan Newhouse, aiming to accord tax credits and incentives to support independent local newsrooms.
‘Ghosts of their former selves’
In a recorded interview with Salish Current board member and former Seattle Times reporter William Dietrich, Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist and former public editor for the New York Times, author of “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” said she found this bill encouraging. Unfortunately, she said, it hasn’t really gained traction in the Senate since its introduction.
“All of these things are moving slowly and the decline is moving fast,” Sullivan said.
In her book, Sullivan discussed not only the rapid decline of newsrooms but also the rising trend of “ghost newspapers” which are local newspapers which have been so diminished financially and staff-wise “they have become ghosts of their former selves.”
“There are far fewer local newspapers than there were a decade or two decades ago,” Sullivan said. “So these cities and towns and regions that once were served by a newspaper or some other kind of news source are now kind of ghost towns for local news.”
She referred to the term coined by researcher Penny Abernathy that characterizes these places as “news deserts,” places that no longer have sources of local news and are left without coverage of their city councils or school boards and without vibrant local news environments.
“When we’re talking about holding local officials accountable, holding powerful institutions including business accountable, that has fallen traditionally to local newspapers which had the staff to do it,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan emphasized the fact that local papers and news sources no longer have the resources or staff to do this work.
“Organizations like Salish Current are extremely important in this new environment,” Sullivan said. “The rise of digital-first, often nonprofit, startups is the most encouraging development that’s happening in local news.”
Sullivan said she worries that these independent nonprofits are not enough to fill the gap but that “the rise of those news organizations is very important and they deserve our support.”
“I urge people to support things like the Current. At this point, it does rely on membership, philanthropy and events rather than the traditional source of revenue which was advertising,” Sullivan said. “So now we’re actually asking our communities to step up and support these organizations and it’s really important that they do.”
‘Time of plagues’
Hedrick Smith, multiple Pulitzer Prize recipient and Emmy-award-winning documentarist, echoed those sentiments.
“I can’t think of a time in American history and certainly in my half century as a journalist when the need for local journalism was more acute,” Smith said. “This is the time when local channels are needed terribly, for the reasons cited by both Bob Ferguson and Margaret Sullivan and many more.”
“We are in a time of plagues,” he said: Between the COVID-19 pandemic that has had to be dealt with on a community basis, the political polarization, tribal loyalties across the country and social media platforms and misinformation, it’s important to remind ourselves why we need local journalism, why it matters.
“We take it for granted that information is valuable. In any walk of life it’s second nature to us and yet we question whether or not we need information about public life and around community,” Smith said.
Essential as oxygen
Whether it’s about school boards, city councils, real estate, water use in the local river system, Canadian transporting crude oil through waters, all the things essential to the health and safety of our water systems, Smith said “local journalism is the oxygen of democratic system.”
“If you go back to Jefferson, he was asked at one point whether or not he thought it was more important to have government without newspapers, or newspapers and the media without a government Without hesitation, Jefferson said he would pick newspapers without government because information is critical to the functioning of society and informed citizenry is not optional, it’s essential,” Smith said.
But, as traditional journalism and its business model is failing, Smith said communities are having to come up with new models to support democratic institutions as well as an informed citizenry, one of which is this nonprofit public service journalism.
“This goes on across the country, all over the place The new model, the new movement is represented in many ways by the Salish Current [and] the whole idea that maybe news is like a public utility, like hospitals, public universities, like libraries,” Smith said. “This is something that needs donations in support of the people in the community.”
The forum was dedicated to the memory of Floyd McKay, a practitioner and strong supporter of local journalism, who died March 4. McKay, noted Smith, “as a broadcaster, print journalist and teacher, personified values we really hold dearest: curiosity, integrity, compassion and commitment” to the community and public service.
— Reported by Clifford Heberden
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