Thursday, April 12, 2018

Decline in local reporters hurts journalism, democracy and communities, say founders of nonprofit reporting project

The United States has a lot fewer local news reporters these days, and it's hurting not only the news media, but Americans and democracy, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott write in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. The two co-founded Report for America, a nonprofit project announced last September aimed at putting 1,000 new reporters at local papers in the next five years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. newspapers employed 183,000 people in 2016, 60 percent fewer than 456,300 recorded in 1990. About 100 newspapers have shuttered, and many more have reduced their coverage areas or forced fewer journalists to try to cover the same area. Some newspapers have attempted to compensate for the thinning coverage with snazzier websites and better tech, write Waldman and Sennott, but "the key solution is not technology. It’s having more reporters — a lot of them — on the scene."

Fewer reporters means citizens don't have the information they need to make decisions as citizens and hold institutions accountable. They have less information about local candidates, and less reporting has been correlated with lower voter turnout. News outlets have less horsepower to challenge elected officials, and increasingly print stories based on press releases — giving politicians more power to spin the narrative, Waldman and Sennott say.

Here's an angle you may not have considered: Fewer local reporters makes people less likely to trust journalists, Waldman and Sennott write: "Residents would be less likely to view 'the media' as arrogant, ideologically driven miscreants if they see real reporters at school board meetings until midnight, covering nitty-gritty stories of importance to them."

National news outlets can be biased and lack the nuance and background of local reporting, they say: "In 2014, almost 1 out of 5 U.S. reporters worked in New York, Washington or Los Angeles, compared with 1 in 8 in 2004," Waldman and Sennott write. "Isn’t it likely that this contributed to the media missing the two biggest stories of the past few years – the rise of the opioid epidemic in middle America and the political strength of Donald Trump?"

Waldman and Sennott argue that a nonprofit model that focuses on public service could help local reporting, but that will require nonprofits and philanthropy will need to play a bigger role in journalism: "Whether it’s Report for America or some other model, a sea change is required: Local donors — and the community as a whole — need to view journalism as essential as local libraries, museums and hospitals. It’s not complicated. We need more reporters — not for the sake of journalism but for the health of America’s democracy."

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