Why local newspapers make us all better

Columbia Journalism Review, a respected trade magazine in my industry, has been attempting to track the increasing number of “news deserts” in our nation — that is, communities that have no local newspaper to report daily news.

We are lucky in Ohio because the report indicates our state has no county with less than one daily newspaper to report on local events and activities, to tell the stories of its residents, challenge its local government leaders, commemorate the successes (and, unfortunately, failures) of its local athletes and more.

A report titled “The Expanding News Deserts,” published this fall by journalism professor Penny Muse Abernathy, indicates, in fact, that 171 U.S. counties have no local newspaper at all, and nearly half of all counties in the U.S. have only one newspaper — and that’s usually a weekly. Research identified a net loss of almost 1,800 LOCAL newspapers since 2004.

In those communities, there is no longer a newspaper like your Tribune Chronicle to ask questions and demand answers of local elected council members, board of education members, county commissioners and others. There is no one to attend municipal court hearings and police briefings because most people cannot do so.

There is no one to capture and memorialize stories of local military veterans, to listen, to care and to report accurately and honestly what is found.

In an article on this topic that moved recently on the Associated Press wire, Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon said, “Moving forward, I believe that local journalism … can play an important role in turning the tide and tackling this media malaise.”

An Ipsos poll from this summer found that nearly a third of Americans agreed that the news media is the “enemy of the people.”

I am hopeful this opinion does not hold true when it comes to local media. Certainly, there is a vast difference, for instance, between 24-hour-per-day on-air national news stations that intertwine all-day commentary and opinion with actual, unbiased news reporting in such a way that it is undefinable.

Poynter’s 2018 Media Trust Survey did identify that trust in local media is considerably higher than for national media. By blending watchdog reporting with community engagement, newsrooms like mine, hopefully, build on this foundation.

As I see it, most of our national media, just like our politics, has become highly partisan.

Unfortunately, it appears these trends are leading consumers of news to expect such actions in their news reporting. I know this because I hear it sometimes when readers call to complain. The odd thing is, I get an equal number of complaints from readers who think our news coverage leans too far left as I do from readers who think our news coverage leans too far right.

But the fact is, local news coverage written by local staff reporters should never reflect an opinion nor the reporters’ thoughts. It should always be balanced. And I challenge my readers to show me a local news story that indicates the writer’s opinion or bias.

Of course, we do have an opinion page that is, well — opinionated. It’s intended to be opinionated, and that’s why the page is clearly labeled as such.

Local newspapers, and local news reporting, is crucial.

At the end of the day, researchers at the University of North Carolina wrote in a recent report that the sense of community and trust in democracy dips when journalism is diminished.

“The fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism,” they wrote.

And here is one more reason why reading your local newspaper is important.

Data suggests a correlation between consumption of local news and civic engagement. That is, if you consume local news, you’re more likely to vote, contact local officials and participate in other forms of civic and democratic engagement.

And that makes us all better.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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