What happens to local news when there are no local news organizations? What happens to communities without local news? The Washington Post tried to answer those questions the other day, using as an example East Palo Alto, California, where many news organizations are nearby but none pays attention to the town.
Interesting as the Post’s report was, the answers to its questions were a bit obvious: that without local news, communities stay ignorant of themselves; government decisions are made with less participation; problems are not well communicated; corruption increases; and communities lose their identity.
A related question may be more important: What is behind the decline of local news? The decline is manifested by the fall of newspaper circulation, the closing of scores of dailies and weeklies, and the collapse of newspaper employment by more than half since 2001.
The easy answer is the internet. But while the internet competes with newspapers for people’s time, as radio and television did, it seldom provides local news. Instead the internet enables people to engage in virtual communities, to immerse themselves in interests that may span the nation or even the world - sports teams, the stock market, movies, and such - but at the expense of the attention people pay to their geographic communities.
Most of what remains of local news is still produced by newspapers, and the few internet sites carrying local news are supported mainly by charitable donations because local businesses don’t find internet advertising effective.
The real problem with the decline of local news, as that Washington Post story implied, is demographics. While East Palo Alto, a working-class town with a heavily minority population, lacks local news coverage, its wealthy neighbor, Palo Alto, receives plenty of coverage from local dailies and weeklies.
Palo Alto’s median household income is three times higher than East Palo Alto’s, and local news is the most expensive part of journalism, since, while important locally, it is potentially of interest to fewer people than national and world news. Even the most compelling local news story may induce only a few thousand people to pay something for it, while millions of people may pay something for the most compelling national or world news story.
So while struggling communities need local journalism more, they can afford it less - and they have less interest in it, for their residents are less literate and involved.
Indeed, the decline of local newspapers may correspond less with the rise of the internet than with the collapse of civic engagement as measured by voting in elections, which has been diminishing steadily for half a century. Today even in Connecticut a quarter or more of the population doesn’t register to vote.
In a lecture a week ago in his hometown of Winsted, the country’s foremost civic activist, Ralph Nader, noted that most schools fail to teach civic engagement and critical thinking.
Sometimes it’s hard to see what the schools are teaching at all, especially when the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show that even in Connecticut most high school seniors never master high school math or English. Such students are not prepared to become newspaper readers, much less citizens.
In the end communities will get local news only if they are willing and able to pay for it and value civic engagement. As public policy keeps dumbing down and impoverishing Connecticut and the country, demographic trends are otherwise.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester