Paul Glastris is editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.
The attack on the Capital Gazette in Annapolis horrified the nation, but especially those of us in journalism. On a personal level, we mourn the loss of five devoted colleagues who were working tirelessly, at modest wages, to provide a vital service to their community. More broadly, though, this attack is merely the latest blow inflicted on local journalism — an institution that, despite its fundamental importance to our democracy, has been experiencing serious decline.
The forces that have annihilated independent local media in vast parts of the country are well known: the migration of classified advertising to websites such as Craigslist; the disappearance of competing locally owned businesses that once relied on local media to reach customers; the purchase of local media by distantly owned chains that are more interested in extracting profits than investing in newsgathering; the loss of digital advertising to platforms such as Facebook and Google.
These media-specific causes are really a subset of broader trends that have reshaped the U.S. economy. A few decades ago, Washington began systematically dismantling a previous century’s worth of laws and policies that once allowed all parts of the country to compete, including antitrust measures that kept one or a few large corporations from gobbling up small competitors and dominating markets. As a result, a handful of cities, mostly on the coasts, where the oligopolies are headquartered, have enjoyed unparalleled growth while the rest of the country has fallen further and further behind, with rural and exurban areas hit the hardest. The downwardly mobile residents of this middle 90 percent of the country have consequently become more receptive to a right-wing populism that promises to bring their jobs and communities back, even as it attacks the foundations of our democracy. And there are fewer healthy, trusted local newspapers to dissuade them.
That’s not to say that the opinion pages of most small-town newspapers are, or ever were, bastions of liberalism. But their conservative readers tended to trust the reporting delivered in the rest of the pages. And much of that reporting reflected broader thinking. For day-to-day coverage of national politics, small-town papers typically reprinted reported stories from the major metropolitan dailies and national chains. A newspaper subscriber in rural Missouri in the early 1970s was reading many of the same stories about the Nixon/McGovern race or the Watergate scandal as readers on the coasts.
On the flip side, local and regional media once had Washington bureaus with multiple reporters who covered the local congressional delegation and aspects of Washington policymaking that affected local industries.
These correspondents often knew more about the substance of specific issues than anyone else in the press corps. Even papers from smaller cities and towns that couldn’t afford full-time Washington correspondents could, for a modest fee, purchase Washington reporting from agencies such as the States News Service tailored to their local concerns.
Almost all of this kind of journalism is gone. The business model of local news simply can’t support it. There are still plenty of reporters ably covering the minute substance of policy in Washington — but most are “paywall journalists” whose audiences are lobbyists, corporate executives, Hill staffers, Wall Street traders, think tank researchers, contractors, regulators and trade association wonks. Ordinary Americans who sense that elites have an unfair inside track on what’s really happening in Washington are right.
Local news outlets tend to be highly trusted. When they disappear, partisan national media such as Fox News and social networks such as Facebook fill the void. Without local news to provide a check, voters are more likely to accept the lies and propaganda coming out of these other sources. Fun fact: President Trump has more Twitter followers — 53 million — than the number of subscribers for all newspapers, print and digital, in the country.
The collapse of local news is an important contributor to congressional dysfunction and extreme partisanship. Most lawmakers today have few, if any, reporters from news outlets back home who cover them consistently. So their connection to constituents is weaker than ever. Individual members thus are more and more puppets of party leaders, major donors and the tiny group of highly partisan voters who show up for primaries. They also have less and less incentive to deliver results important to their constituents. Why bother, when the voters have no way of knowing whether the lawmakers are actually doing their jobs?
There are several ways we might reverse the decline of local news. Philanthropy can play a role. So, too, can the federal government, which can take actions to make local news broadly profitable again — such as forcing social media platforms to distribute a much bigger share of ad revenue they make on news stories to the organizations that originally gathered the news.
It’s bad enough that reporters at local papers such as the Capital Gazette already have to endure low pay and long hours. That they now have to worry about being targeted for violence is just another ominous sign of the decline of our democracy.