What Local News?

By Alex Jenson

Journalism is often described as a dying industry. Net newsroom employment has shrunk by nearly half, revenue from print advertising has fallen from $65 to $19 million, and revenue from digital advertising and subscription rarely fills the gap. However, over the course of our time in D.C., we have been privileged to meet a variety of individuals intimately connected to the business of national political journalism. Their perception of their situation is almost uniformly optimistic, contrary to the commonly held perception of political journalism. The cause of this could be the centralization of the nation’s power and attendant ability to make news at the federal level. This could help explain the dying of local reporting, which can and will have significant repercussions for government transparency and the future of local and state power in this country.

On our first Wednesday, we met Drake alumna Jane Norman at Politico.  While a substantial portion of her work is behind a pay wall, she is a skilled reporter on education and federal activity related to the field. As she answered our questions about journalism as a career, she encouraged would-be reporters to come to D.C., describing it as an excellent area to find work (in journalism), filled with young people. Thursday, we were fortunate enough to be connected with Bob Cusack, editor in chief of “The Hill,” another successful national news organization. He described the Trump presidency as a golden age of journalism, and gave us some idea as to how he vetted potential hires. This would suggest that both of these firms are on relatively stable footing and are at least able to consider expansion. This relative success is likely due to two differentiating factors. Firstly, both Politico and The Hill are primarily digital publishers. Secondly, they cover national politics.

On the local level, the news is much more grim. A majority of daily newspapers are in a cycle of downsizing. While some fault the transition to more digital content by those local readers, the grim  reality is that revenue cannot continue to support most newspapers in their current form. They also suffer from  the national focus of news consumer. 99% of respondents in a federal survey stated that they never visited sites dedicated to local news. In Canada, townships that should be able to support a daily paper simply don’t patronize it. The result is less knowledge on local and state government, which the Framers intended to be the most influential aspects of a citizen’s daily life.

The impact has the potential to be absolutely massive. In the absence of a printed newspaper, citizens are much less able to become educated and involved in local government. This lack of information greatly decreases the ability of citizens to examine the individual merits of their local elected officials, resulting in increased reliance upon party labeling at the national level. This weakens local parties and discourages them from developing unique stances that are tailored to the specific needs of the states. Additionally, the lack of nonpartisan oversight has been linked to damaging the borrowing capacity of local governments. This will likely result in a steady decrease in the quality of government, giving the Federal Government an opportunity to seize ownership of more powers generally left to other levels. This will decrease each individual citizen’s representation and reduce protections for whichever party is in the political minority. While defending federalism has typically been a Republican proposition, this is an opportunity for both parties to defend their state governments, typically all red or all blue, from the changing national political winds. However, this may rely entirely on whether or not there is a newspaper to tell the citizenry of their work.



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