We are in the midst of a journalism revival. Startups like Business Insider, Vox, Vice and FiveThirtyEight are reimagining not just newsgathering, but how to tell stories. “Old Media,” that at first struggled to adapt to the Internet age, now are boldly launching projects that seek both to satisfy their existing audiences and find new ones.
We are, at the same time, in the midst of an equally important, but less noticed, journalism disaster – the hemorrhaging of jobs at local newspapers. That trend is threatening the extinction of local journalism, which is essential to American democracy. Good local journalism not only helps voters understand issues and hold elected officials accountable, it also gives policymakers a window into whether their ideas are working.
But the important stories that local journalists cover might not appeal to a New York Times reporter, who is writing for a national or international audience. And the deep-pocketed individuals and companies who pay to advertise and fund some media outlets today may not care, for example, about stories that only impact a small audience. When local journalists leave – they disconnect residents in small towns and cities from news that’s critical to their lives.
How did we get here? The short answer is that the increasing availability of free, digital journalism has propelled journalism organizations towards two new business models, and endangered local policy journalism in the process. One model involves trying to build a huge audience of readers both in the United States and internationally who consume news for free, with advertisers essentially funding the journalism so they can reach the millions of people who these mega-sites. This is the model of Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. The other emerging model aims to build a niche readership that pays for the content itself because it values that information. Bloomberg News has pioneered this approach in financial journalism tailored to people who work in the financial sector. Politico has followed, developing a set of products targeted at lobbyists and other people who are dependent on their news about Washington policy-making.
The irony is that while the army of journalists in Washington is on the rise, law-making there has essentially ground to a halt.
These models don’t work, though, for local journalism – where it can be tough to build a large audience around a story that affects only a few thousand residents. Local journalists are being replaced by a handful of reporters covering a select few stories, emanating from Washington, New York or a foreign hot zone.
The irony is that while the army of journalists is in Washington is on the rise, law-making there has essentially ground to a halt. States and localities are where much of the actual governing is happening, but that news is covered by overwhelmed reporters at increasingly short-staffed local papers.
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act has provided an excellent illustration of this phenomenon. The ACA is really 50 stories. The law essentially creates a separate health care market in each state. Prices for insurance are set at the county level, and many key ACA policies (like Medicaid eligibility rules) are determined by state governments. State decisions about whether to expand Medicaid add further complexity.
State legislators, governors, voters and even insurers can only understand these choices if there is effective local coverage. In many states, there has been almost no coverage that assessed ACA implementation at a local level, instead relying on wire stories that repeated familiar themes like President Obama praising the law or Republicans criticizing it. Much of the local coverage was focused on the political impact of the law, which is both easier to cover and generates more controversy.
Get the Weekly Wonk sent straight to your inbox.
The ACA coverage is simply one anecdote in a much deeper, dangerous trend: the lack of deep, policy-oriented journalism at the local level. (There was another example this week of what can happen with insufficient local reporting – new laws in several states that allow lenders to jack up the interest rates on personal loans for borrowers with bad credit). I don’t mean to glorify the old days of pre-Internet journalism. The media of the past often suffered from insularity and a lack of diversity in both its subjects and its creators. And I don’t mean to suggest local newspapers are not doing their job. Many of them are doing tremendous work. Newspaper journalists in New Jersey, including the aforementioned Star-Ledger, led the coverage of the controversial bridge closing that has been connected to Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.
But local papers are being cut to the bone, and the vast majority of digital outlets, outside of national publications like Buzzfeed, employ fewer than a dozen staffers.
The venture capitalists funding new media and hoping for profits aren’t going to fix this problem. It’s not an accident most of the new web outlets are more interesting in opening bureaus in London than in Charlotte or Chicago, never mind Raleigh or Springfield.
But the news happening in state capitols or city halls hasn’t gotten less important or less interesting. That’s why I’m calling on people to invest in local reporting in a deep and fundamental way. The model must be more like NPR, which isn’t expected to make a large profit and is reliant on donations from individuals and foundations. Every state in the country should have a journalism entity that is fully staffed to cover not just big news like earthquakes or elections, but the institutions, businesses, churches and schools that are the major influencers in its smaller communities.
Effective media isn’t just part of the solution to solving some of our public policy challenges; it is often the first step to addressing any problem.
Ideally, there would be a New York Times for every state. Not literally, of course– there’s no reason to start delivering a paper to people’s homes in 2014 in an increasingly wired world. Think about it more in an institutional sense. States need outlets that are staffed up enough to both uncover new stories, and that have the credibility to determine which of the millions of news items that pop up through social media are truly stories the rest of us should care about. They need outlets that can serve not only as sources for breaking news, but also as platforms for local conversations and debates.
This will not be a profit-making enterprise in most states. There simply may not be the subscriber base for an in-depth paper in every state. And creating a Bloomberg-style operation, while though it would likely be profitable, in most states would might skew to news covering major corporations and wealthy individuals.
But the journalism need still exists. And this is not a pipe dream. An innovative project called the Texas Tribune already created this kind of public policy news institution in Austin – and could provide a model for other states. As an outlet that gets its revenue from foundations, individuals and from events it hosts, the Texas Tribune not a traditional newspaper. It has no sports or weather sections, or even a print product. But it is a reliable and award-winning guide to policy and political debates in Texas respected by members of both parties.
Creating these new institutions should be an important goal for foundations, individuals and perhaps even governments. Effective media isn’t just part of the solution to solving some of our public policy challenges; it is often the first step to addressing any problem. People aren’t eager to spend their time or money on a problem that they don’t know exists. They rely on journalists to provide that information, to help illuminate what’s important now. The growth of new media that allows you to choose your own news is exciting. But it’s not an accident that your Twitter or Facebook feed is often full of stories from reliable news organizations like NPR or the Times. People crave news from credible institutions. We need to find a way to build more of them – everywhere.