A report from Northwestern University’s Medill School puts it bluntly: The loss of local journalism that we’re seeing in the United States is “a crisis for our democracy and our society.” I couldn’t agree more.
We rely on free and vigorous news media for the effective functioning of our democracy, at all levels of government. An informed citizenry is an empowered citizenry.
When we lose news coverage, we lose oversight of our public officials. We need the press to be constantly looking in every nook and cranny where our politicians are working. America’s founders recognized this, enshrining freedom of the press in the First Amendment.
Early American newspapers, of course, were often partisan and aligned with political factions, but they played a crucial role in creating an identity for the new nation. The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a keen observer of the young American republic, wrote that its newspapers were “the power which impels the circulation of political life.”
We still rely on news media to understand the workings of government. Newspapers, especially, play a key role in civic education and community engagement, which are essential to good governance. While serving in Congress, I learned that visiting a local newspaper office was a great way to learn what constituents were thinking.
But trends in business and technology have devastated local news. With the rise of the internet, Americans increasingly got their news online; many concluded they didn’t need to read the local paper. Newspapers relied primarily on advertisers to make money, but businesses found they could better target their ad dollars online. Newspaper revenue declined precipitously.
Closings and mergers followed. The United States has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers since 2005, according to the Medill School. Most of the newspapers that have shut down were weeklies serving small towns and rural communities. That’s been the trend here in Indiana, where a third of all weeklies disappeared in a recent 15-year period. Readership of the state’s newspapers shrank by half.
More than one in five Americans now live in what scholars refer to as news deserts, communities that lack or are at risk of losing local news sources. Seventy million people live in counties without a newspaper or served by only one paper. The newspapers that remain employ fewer journalists.
Studies have shown that, without strong local news, there’s more corruption in government, and taxes and municipal bond costs are higher. Not surprisingly, voting rates are lower when no one is covering elections. As Americans increasingly get their information online or from partisan cable TV, political polarization grows more extreme. Fake news and conspiracy theories proliferate. This is an important cause of the dysfunction we’re currently seeing in Congress.
It’s true that news media have evolved throughout our nation’s history. Radio and TV disrupted the news business before the internet; and, if print newspapers go extinct, people will still seek out news. We are seeing some encouraging signs with the growth of high-quality, reliable online news organizations, some of them following a nonprofit model. But digital news outlets employ relatively few journalists compared to the newspapers of the past, and they tend to be concentrated in affluent urban areas and state capitals. Rural communities and small towns are increasingly left without local news.
On a positive note, the situation is widely recognized as the crisis that it is. Universities, nonprofits and advocacy groups are working to find solutions. Major philanthropies such as the MacArthur and Knight foundations are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize local news. Civic-minded individuals and organizations are stepping up to buy local newspapers or start new ones.
It’s essential that these efforts succeed. The future of our democracy and our society depends on it.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.