The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America should spend billions to revive local news

Freshly printed copies of the San Francisco Chronicle roll off the printing press at one of the Chronicle's printing facilities on Sept. 20, 2007 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

My vision for addressing the huge decline in local journalism involves hiring 87,000 new journalists for about 1,300 news organizations with more than $10 billion in funding. Such a massive investment in local news isn’t going to happen next week and probably not next year, either.

But it is also not a pipe dream. There is a growing recognition that the collapse of local news and information is a crisis undermining the United States’ politics and communities. Ten billion isn’t much money for the United States to spend on something the nation defines as a crisis. Millions of dollars are already being pumped into reviving local journalism, although right now that’s largely limited to a few major cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia.

Where would the $10 billion and all those reporters go? There are five principles for local news that can and should be implemented as widely and quickly as possible: news outlets in communities across the country; more outlets with a well-defined, transparent point of view; coverage that is free for everyone; a lot of in-depth reporting available in multiple formats; and news organizations that are nonprofits.

In every community. This is the most important, fundamental principle. A growing number of areas, particularly small towns, either don’t have any news organizations or those organizations are so under-staffed that they don’t cover much of anything. It’s hard to have real democracy in local decision-making when people have fairly little information about what public officials are doing.

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So, here’s the solution. The United States is divided into 435 congressional districts, each with about 760,000 people. We need at least one 100-staffer news organization in every district. Some of those districts aren’t a single community or city. And districts, of course, change every 10 years. But if there were well-staffed news organizations in 435 distinct geographic areas around the country, that would result in a huge increase in journalism, particularly places that are now “news deserts.”

This would not merely add new outlets in rural areas. Inevitably, a big metro area has suburbs, exurbs and distinct neighborhoods within the central city. In most cases, the central business district within city limits gets the vast majority of coverage. But the people who live in Prince George’s County don’t get much value from news about D.C.’s mayor.

Having well-staffed news organizations in every community isn’t just about making sure city council and school board meetings get covered. It’s a way to build stronger communities. News organizations should be a forum through which communities hash out their goals and priorities. They can, through their coverage and selection of writers and columnists, elevate voices who aren’t rich or powerful.

In-depth, multiplatform. Local newspapers once did a lot of in-depth reporting but they have laid off tens of thousands of reporters over the past two decades due to declining revenue. Local TV still has high profits but never really had a tradition of in-depth reporting. This is a huge problem. It is essential that local news organizations have beat reporters and investigative teams who do real scrutiny of the police, schools, politicians and other centers of power in each community. These organizations should also cover major business and cultural news.

Because people consume news in such a variety of ways, local news organizations need to be producing stories in text, audio, video and whatever formats emerge in the future. Essentially, we need local versions of outlets like The Post, the New York Times, CNN and NPR — lots of original reporting, accessible in many formats.

Free. Anyone born after 1985 has lived in a world where at least some news was on the internet for free. It will be hard to get them to pay for it. When I visit college campuses, students chafe at the very idea of paywalls.

Paywalls often result in the journalism with the most rigorous reporting and editing (like that of The Post, the Times, the Wall Street Journal and many local newspapers) reaching a paying audience that is upper-income and older, while younger and less wealthy nonsubscribers can’t access important stories they might otherwise read. Once you graduate from high school or college, journalism is one of your primary sources of education, particularly about policy and government. Walling off this information might be good economics, but it is bad civics.

Also, as U.S. politics becomes more nationalized, people in, say, Boise, Idaho, might want to read the news in Atlanta for a few weeks during the final stretch of a crucial Senate race without having to subscribe to an entire Atlanta-based publication.

Nonprofit. The internet has killed the business model for local newspapers, which had been the central place for in-depth reporting about towns, cities and states. And those papers weren’t all that great at in-depth reporting in the first place. Truly implementing the three principles I laid out above (everywhere, in-depth, free) isn’t going to be profitable. And profit-seeking in news often results in flawed coverage, such as the excessive focus on crime in local TV.

It’s time to just accept that good local news won’t make anyone much money and will need philanthropic and perhaps even government funding.

With a point of view. Some journalism should try to reach people of all parties and ideologies. I am not sure whether any news organization or individual journalist can be truly objective, neutral, balanced or whatever word we are currently using for the kind of mass audience news that PBS, NPR, The Post and other such organizations try to produce. That said, it’s important to have a core news organization in every community that is trying to reach a mass audience.

At the same time, there is a case for news sources that aren’t as focused on appealing to everyone. Many journalists I know, particularly Black ones, are exhausted and frustrated by the constant demands to prove they are not too harsh toward a Republican Party that tried to overturn the 2020 election and bans books by Black and LGBTQ authors from public schools. Much of the journalism over the past decade that has most accurately captured the radical turn of the Republican Party has been done by opinion writers and those at left-wing publications who are not bound by mainstream journalism conventions. And ratings for MSNBC and Fox News often being higher than CNN indicates that many news consumers actually prefer a product that openly aligns with their values.

So it would be ideal to have a news outlet with 50 or so staffers in each community that acknowledges and prioritizes, say, reducing economic and racial inequality and a second outlet of similar size that would, for example, come from the perspective that capitalism and religion are generally forces for good. I’m not envisioning partisan Democratic and Republican news outlets. My model for these organizations would be the present-day TV program Democracy Now and the Black-owned newspapers of the 1950s and ’60s that challenged leaders of both parties to advance the civil rights of Black Americans. The flip side would ideally be akin to the Salt Lake City-based, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-affiliated Deseret News or the TV network CNBC.

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I haven’t laid out who exactly is going to fund this journalism or the precise structure of these outlets. Perhaps a big newsroom of 150 to 220 staffers is necessary to cover 750,000 people, or maybe 75 would be sufficient. And I understand some obvious objections, such as whether a single publication in each community could in any way represent the views of all people on the right or the left.

But this captures a broad view of what a healthy local journalism sector would look like. If you paid 200 journalists an average salary of $80,000 in each of 435 congressional districts, that’s about $7 billion. Add in operating costs and you’re almost certainly over $10 billion a year. That might sound like a lot, but it’s about $30 per American, far less than the per capita spending on public media in many nations abroad. And this would be for journalism literally across the country, freely available to anyone.

This is not a fantasy. We aren’t as far away from it as you might think. The NPR affiliates in many large and middle-sized cities are already doing in-depth reporting in audio and text and are free and nonprofit. They raise about $1 billion a year through a combination of grants, sponsorships and private donations. Pumping much more money into existing public radio stations and creating more of them would be the easiest, most obvious step toward broad-based news in all 435 congressional districts.

The more ideological outlets would not start with a traditional funding model or an existing network of news sources that could be expanded. But it would probably be easy to raise money for them.

The old version of local news had many more reporters than today’s does, and anyone could buy that day’s paper with the money in their pocket. But those papers largely carried the perspective of the White establishment of a given city and presented that perspective as the objective news. So the old model wasn’t that good. What’s replaced it is even worse — the same papers and approach but fewer staffers.

All of the crises of the United States in 2022 — the decline of newspapers, the deep racial tensions in many cities, the nation’s growing partisan polarization — show the need to create a new and improved version of local news. Let’s do it.

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