Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Save small-town papers for community identity, not just for democracy, Report for America's Steven Waldman says

The "general national crisis" in local journalism "is as severe if not more severe in small-town America," Report for America President Steven Waldman, a longtime student of local journalism, said at last weekend's convention of the Society of Professional Journalists in Washington, D.C.

Speaking at a session on preserving local journalism, Waldman said 90 percent of "news deserts" are in counties with populations of less than 50,000, with 85 to 90% of those having only one newspaper. What he didn't say, but knows, is that many of those newspapers are struggling to fulfill their role as servants of local democracy. He said local papers are important not just for accountability reporting, but for "the nature of community itself," creating community identity and helping community members know each other.

Steven Waldman
Waldman told the audience of student and professional journalists that there has "long been a sense that community journalism is where you cut your teeth" and qualify to move up, but "I've kind of flipped on that . . . Community journalism, given what's going on in our country right now, is almost as important as accountability journalism."

Waldman said about a quarter of the last class of Report for America reporters were in rural areas. He said "small-town media is facing particular challenges right now" because it can't get the extraterritorial audience that national and large regional papers can, and "There has to be a role for the nonprofit sector and philanthropy" in rural news media -- and a role for government.

Waldman heads the Rebuild Local News Coalition, which favors a refundable tax credit for newsroom payrolls, which would probably be "the largest government support for local news in our history," rivaling the postal subsidy that has helped newspapers since the founding of the republic. He said the idea came very close to passing Congress this year.

Highlighted at the same session was the Rappahannock News, a weekly in rural Northern Virginia that has benefited from the proximity of Washington and Foothills Forum, a local foundation that has funded in-depth reporting by raising up to $200,000 a year. Andy Alexander, a Cox Newspapers retiree who heads the foundation, said many people don't realize what narrow margins rural papers have: "You're being published, so you must be all right; it's very close to the line."

Alexander said the paper and the foundation have more stories than people to do them, so they are training citizens to be reporters. "There are a lot of people out there who can cover news on the margins," he said.

Waldman said the future of local news rests on a three-legged stool: changes in public policy, increases in philanthropic support, and improvement of the local news product. As we have said since the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, "People aren't going to pay good money for bad journalism." --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

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