Opinion I want the reinvestment in local media to come to my city

(Washington Post staff illustration; images by iStock)

We are in the middle of a sustained, aggressive response to the huge decline in local news in America. This newfound support for local news just needs to reach more communities, such as mine — and much faster.

Thousands of local newspapers have closed in the past two decades, and basically every still-existing outlet has significantly fewer staffers. Largely because of the collapse of local journalism, there are 25 percent fewer journalists employed in print, television, radio and other kinds of newsrooms compared with 2008, a drop from about 114,000 to 85,000.

But over the past decade and particularly the past five years, there have been a number of major investments in local journalism. In some areas, existing outlets are getting more funding, while others are seeing brand-new organizations. Much of the money is coming from donations from rich individuals, foundations and small-dollar donors. The journalism is generally free and not published in a print product.

For example, a wealthy philanthropist named Stewart Bainum Jr. has promised to either donate or raise $50 million over the next four years to back the Baltimore Banner, an online news site that started in June with more than 40 staffers. Mississippi Today, a nonprofit founded in 2016 that focuses on state politics and is funded by advertising, foundations and donors, has unearthed many of the details of ex-National Football League star Brett Favre and then-Gov. Phil Bryant’s reported steering of welfare funds to projects that would benefit them personally, most notably a volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi when Favre’s daughter was playing the sport there. (Both men have denied wrongdoing.)

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But this new model of local journalism typically depends on a rich person, a foundation or some other entity with lots of money and interest in local journalism to either be based in the area where you live or to have a mission-based reason to invest in it. So we aren’t seeing these new or revitalized outlets in many rural areas or small towns. Or even many midsize cities.

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Like Louisville, where I live. The birthplace of Muhammad Ali and the home of the Kentucky Derby and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is the 45th-largest metro area in the country, with around 1.3 million people. Louisville’s media story is similar to those of other cities across the country. We have a paper, the Courier Journal, that was once one of the most powerful institutions in the city, constantly breaking stories that affected city government, business and everything else in Louisville. It was the definitive news source and really the only source of original reporting.

I grew up here in the 1990s reading a paper with big business and opinion departments, reporters covering stories across Kentucky, extensive coverage of neighborhoods within Louisville and staff columnists it seemed like everyone read.

That paper also made a lot of money, allowing it to have such a huge staff.

Then, the internet destroyed the local newspaper business. As profits dropped in the 2000s and 2010s, the Courier Journal, like other newspapers around the country, just kept cutting costs. The paper’s newsroom staff is around 50 people now, down from 240 in its glory days.

And that number is almost certain to keep dipping, because of the business strategy of Gannett, the national newspaper chain that owns the Courier Journal and hundreds of other papers around the country. Rather than investing deeply in the papers that it owns or selling them to others who might, Gannett — like the hedge funds buying up papers across the country — seems to be trying to wring out the remaining years of revenue that papers with print editions still get from advertisers and subscribers. But since that revenue is constantly dropping, Gannett and many other owners of local papers are regularly cutting reporters and other journalism costs to keep profits as high as possible.

So the Courier Journal is undergoing a slow, steady decline in its staffing and ambition.

“Time after time, @Gannett’s actions have chipped away at morale and at our product. Louisville deserves better,” the paper’s own reporters said in a recent Twitter thread announcing that they were forming a union. The reporters listed numerous criticisms: unpaid furloughs; pay so low for junior staffers that some were working second jobs; too many important stories behind the paper’s paywall, meaning that only subscribers can read them.

Louisville still has some great journalism and people and institutions who care about local news. Even with all of the cuts, the Courier Journal does some tremendous reporting. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for its coverage of controversial pardons issued by then-Gov. Matt Bevin. The NPR affiliate and one of the local TV stations (WDRB) are hiring former newspaper reporters to do in-depth stories, intentionally trying to fill the gap created by the smaller CJ. The city’s news outlets combined to do excellent and extensive coverage of the police killing of Breonna Taylor two years ago and the months of protests that followed.

But the journalism landscape here is far from ideal. Because all of the outlets, particularly the Courier Journal, are trying to keep costs low, they don’t have the more experienced, higher-paid cohort of reporters with deep knowledge of Louisville that the Courier Journal once did. Great stories don’t get the attention they deserve or have the impact they should. Many people in the community don’t regularly check the websites of the public radio and TV stations for in-depth articles, although those sites are often the best place for news about Louisville. Nor are they as tuned into the CJ as they used to be, since the paper is perceived to be declining and not something even people here feel as though they must read daily.

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I and others who lament the decline of the newspapers we grew up reading might be trapped in some nostalgia. The papers during the industry’s glory days, including the Courier Journal, had shortcomings, particularly in coverage of Black people. It’s not clear that the only or even best fix for journalism in Louisville today is re-creating the old Courier Journal.

Nor do I want to valorize local news. I don’t think, as some advocates of local journalism imply, that the decline of local news is the reason national politics is so polarized and ineffectual — or that a revival of local journalism will help much in reducing those problems. I’m also not sure that the newer models of local journalism are sustainable in the long term. Even if they are, I’m leery of one of those new models in particular — the funding of local publications by a single rich individual, giving that person outsize power in a community. This concern applies equally to Post owner Jeff Bezos, who could have disproportionate influence on D.C.-area issues.

But Louisville residents and people in areas across the country where the number of reporters has shrunken would benefit greatly from an infusion of dollars, ambition and energy aimed at bolstering journalism in their communities. That revitalization could come from an individual, some group of people or an entity buying entire chains of papers, if Gannett and other owners could be persuaded to sell. People in individual communities could purchase and invest in the old paper in their cities. Or create a broad-based outlet in each community, along the lines of the Banner in Baltimore. Or a bunch of smaller, specialized outlets could be funded across a city or area, which is happening in Chicago.

Everyone in the United States deserves strong, thriving local news, not just those who live in a few lucky cities and states. I’m thrilled about the money and innovation coming to local journalism. I am frustrated it has not yet reached so many areas, including the city where I live.

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