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We’ll get better at making the case for local journalism

“For all the urgency around saving local journalism, it’s unclear to me that a persuasive, resounding case has yet been made to key stakeholders, much less the general public, about why it’s worth saving.”

About three years ago, I was sitting in a day-long workshop at the National Press Club with journalists, academics, funders ,and think-tank types. Toward the end of the day, someone referenced, in passing, a peer-reviewed paper showing that local journalism has a measurable and positive impact on governance and civic life. From across the room, another workshop participant, himself a leader in the news space, was exasperated: “You’re telling me now that there’s actually evidence for that?”

It’s information that, as Adam Sandler put it, could have been brought to his attention yesterday.

For all the urgency around saving local journalism, it’s unclear to me that a persuasive, resounding case has yet been made to key stakeholders, much less the general public, about why it’s worth saving, and how we know that. To be fair, the ad-driven business model meant that newsrooms didn’t feel the need to make a case for themselves—if there ever was a muscle for that, it had atrophied by the time the new century brought extreme disruption to the news industry.

The good news is that we do have evidence. Research tells us that watchdog reporting generates economic benefits to society, that local journalism leads to increased political participation, and holds elected officials accountable. There’s ground-level evidence, too: it’s hard to count the number of local reporters who can cite a story they’ve done that had a concrete, measurable impact in their community (actually, somebody should count those). And for every one of those, there are more counterfactuals: elected officials, business leaders, and others in power who might’ve committed waste, fraud or abuse if nobody was watching.

This prediction is somewhat milquetoast because progress is already being made. Much of the research I reference above can be found in this handy writeup from the Democracy Fund. Newsrooms now have in-house impact measurement tracking systems, and the data they collect gets circulated back to funders, donors, and subscribers as ROI. Even Hollywood has taken up the cause (although, Nightcrawler).

We need more of that, and it will require coordination between the researchers, program evaluators, and journalists to make that happen. But success in this area doesn’t quite address what is perhaps a bigger problem: disengagement with local politics and civic affairs.

Here, too, local newsrooms can find a raison d’être. Maybe 2019 will be the year that local reporters break new ground in making the case for engagement with politics at the state and municipal level. If that sounds like something Common Cause would do, there’s a reason for that. After all, open and accountable government, transparency, a voice for everyone — these are shared aspirations that bind together journalists and the communities they serve in ways that have become increasingly clear in the past couple of years. Got questions about this whole democracy thing? Good thing we’ve got an army of kick-ass local reporters who are good at answering questions.

Jesse Holcomb is assistant professor of journalism and communication at Calvin College.

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