Your local newspaper, particularly those published weekly, is under siege. And in the process, so is our democracy.
Newspapers are finding it harder to keep publishing every week. Since 2004, more than 1,800 local newspapers have gone dark, including several in South Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic. And since 2004, local newspapers have lost almost half of their newsroom staff, according to a detailed Pen America report, Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions.
The loss of local news outlets hurts our communities in several ways. First, not having a local news outlet frays the fabric that keeps communities together. Communities without newspapers have less information about what’s going on in their towns because there are fewer stories and connections about local sports teams, school achievements, business developments and local opportunities. In fact, the lack of a locally focused news outlet erodes forces that keep a community cohesive and give residents the sense of being connected and belonging.
“Local news also drives civic engagement,” the PEN America report says. “With its loss, studies show citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed and less likely to run for office.” There are also fewer watchdogs looking at what local government does, which leads to less accountability, integrity, efficiency and effectiveness. Furthermore, other studies show the lack of local news leads to the likelihood of more corruption, which can lead to increased government costs for taxpayers.
“We now live in a country in which at least 200 counties have no local newspapers at all,” said Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline in a November news release. “This crisis in American journalism has led to the crises we are seeing today in our democracy and civic life. We cannot let this trend continue because if it does, we risk permanently compromising the news organizations that are essential to our communities, holding the government and powerful corporations accountable, and sustaining our democracy.”
Cicilline recently joined other Democrats in introducing legislation to support and protect local journalism by making it “easier for newspapers to become non-profits, allowing them the flexibility to focus less on maximizing profits and more on producing quality content.” A different bipartisan proposal, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, would provide local newspapers with a series of tax credits to offset financial hardships that worsened during the pandemic. This measure has been included in the Build Back Better Act that passed the U.S. House in November. Newspaper associations roundly agree that if the Senate passes the $2 trillion infrastructure measure, it would help smaller newspapers survive.
As publisher of a small weekly, it’s crystal clear that a federal tax credit to bolster local news would be a temporary lifeline in a financial environment in which many local businesses have cut local advertising budgets, often struggling on their own to spread the word via social media. The rise of the internet sends ad dollars that used to go to local outlets to Facebook, Google and other big digital companies as they rip off locally produced news links to feed their algorithms.
So what can you do to ensure local news is able to thrive in the double whammy of a pandemic and digital revolution?
First, you can contact South Carolina’s two U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and urge them to put aside politics to help America by passing the infrastructure bill that would send billions to communities to harden infrastructure and bolster local news outlets around the country.
Second, you can consider a year-end donation to your local newspaper to help it stay solvent. Our paper, for example, recently created a nonprofit to collect donations to provide grants to help weekly newspapers around the state. Other outlets use nonprofit or other donated dollars to fuel news investigations or news payrolls.
Communities are stronger when they have local news voices that serve as cheerleaders and watchdogs. Helping your local news outlet today is a concrete way to protect democracy and ensure America’s experiment in democracy and freedom flourishes from sea to shining sea.
Andy Brack, publisher of the Charleston City Paper, is also editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org.