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News deserts will proliferate — but so will new solutions

“When I was a young producer, a mentor told me something that has stuck with me ever since: Corruption doesn’t show its face. That seemed a challenge to live and work by.”

When I was a young producer, a mentor told me something that has stuck with me ever since: Corruption doesn’t show its face. That seemed a challenge to live and work by; journalism after all has always been a first line of defense against wrongdoing in places high and low.

The problem is there are fewer and fewer of us doing it these days, especially in the places that need strong journalism the most: so-called “news deserts,” regions of the country where local newsrooms have been drained of resources or shut down by the economic upheaval of the modern media landscape.

That has profound implications for the role of the press in maintaining a functioning democracy. Without committed journalists, those in power can more easily escape accountability, and members of the public lack the information to make informed decisions at the polls.

In 2020, we’re not likely to see major reversals in a trend that has already shrunk the industry by almost 25 percent over the past 10 years. But while news deserts will persist — as will the attacks on the independence and integrity of the press — we will see an increase in innovative thinking about ways to support local journalism where it’s endangered.

Initiatives like the American Journalism Project are working to embed tech and business support within existing local outlets. Organizations like Chalkbeat are digging into specialized reporting topics. Journalism philanthropy is on the rise. Regionally-focused nonprofit news outlets like The Texas Tribune and Oklahoma Watch, as well as national-local collaborations like ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, are doing increasingly robust and important work in the public interest. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has made major investments in local and regional news collaborations involving local PBS and NPR stations, and the first regional journalism hub in CPB and NPR’s Collaborative Journalism Network launched this year.

And here at Frontline, we’ve developed our own initiative to strengthen local enterprise journalism. We’re partnering with five news organizations in communities from Florida to New Mexico, supporting them over the next year as they carry out investigations that serve their communities, while working with them to develop sustainable models to connect their journalism with new audiences. We’re grateful to the Knight Foundation and CPB for supporting this effort, which will continue with new partner organizations over the next several years.

It’s worth mentioning that in an age where cries of “fake news” have eroded public faith in journalism, renewed investment in local news has the potential to help rebuild trust in media from the ground up. A Pew study earlier this year made an important observation: that while the public has a polarized view of national news outlets, most people Pew surveyed actually believe their local news is accurate, fair, and does a good job of keeping tabs on area leaders.

So, let’s hope that in the coming year these different sectors will work together to find new ways to ensure that local journalism survives and thrives. Nothing less than the health of our democracy is at stake.

Raney Aronson-Rath is the executive producer of Frontline.

When I was a young producer, a mentor told me something that has stuck with me ever since: Corruption doesn’t show its face. That seemed a challenge to live and work by; journalism after all has always been a first line of defense against wrongdoing in places high and low.

The problem is there are fewer and fewer of us doing it these days, especially in the places that need strong journalism the most: so-called “news deserts,” regions of the country where local newsrooms have been drained of resources or shut down by the economic upheaval of the modern media landscape.

That has profound implications for the role of the press in maintaining a functioning democracy. Without committed journalists, those in power can more easily escape accountability, and members of the public lack the information to make informed decisions at the polls.

In 2020, we’re not likely to see major reversals in a trend that has already shrunk the industry by almost 25 percent over the past 10 years. But while news deserts will persist — as will the attacks on the independence and integrity of the press — we will see an increase in innovative thinking about ways to support local journalism where it’s endangered.

Initiatives like the American Journalism Project are working to embed tech and business support within existing local outlets. Organizations like Chalkbeat are digging into specialized reporting topics. Journalism philanthropy is on the rise. Regionally-focused nonprofit news outlets like The Texas Tribune and Oklahoma Watch, as well as national-local collaborations like ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, are doing increasingly robust and important work in the public interest. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has made major investments in local and regional news collaborations involving local PBS and NPR stations, and the first regional journalism hub in CPB and NPR’s Collaborative Journalism Network launched this year.

And here at Frontline, we’ve developed our own initiative to strengthen local enterprise journalism. We’re partnering with five news organizations in communities from Florida to New Mexico, supporting them over the next year as they carry out investigations that serve their communities, while working with them to develop sustainable models to connect their journalism with new audiences. We’re grateful to the Knight Foundation and CPB for supporting this effort, which will continue with new partner organizations over the next several years.

It’s worth mentioning that in an age where cries of “fake news” have eroded public faith in journalism, renewed investment in local news has the potential to help rebuild trust in media from the ground up. A Pew study earlier this year made an important observation: that while the public has a polarized view of national news outlets, most people Pew surveyed actually believe their local news is accurate, fair, and does a good job of keeping tabs on area leaders.

So, let’s hope that in the coming year these different sectors will work together to find new ways to ensure that local journalism survives and thrives. Nothing less than the health of our democracy is at stake.

Raney Aronson-Rath is the executive producer of Frontline.

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