Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

“The crisis in local news is making it harder for the government to help Americans when they need it the most, and legislatures are beginning to take notice.”

In 2020, there was no doubt that local news is a civic necessity — and no doubt that it faces an existential threat. The good news: Visits to local news sites increased 89 percent from February to March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic surged. The overwhelming bad news: Advertising revenue declined sharply, and many newspapers, such as the Waterbury (Vt.) Record, Daily Clintonian (Ind.), and Eden Prairie (Minn.) News, closed for good.

As hedge funds continue to gobble up floundering papers and newsrooms disappear, local newspapers are unable to meet the coronavirus-fueled demand for information.

We’re beginning to learn how important local news is during a pandemic. For example, early in the pandemic, rural residents served by a big-city news market heard more news about Covid-19 and were likelier to social distance than residents of less-effected markets. Local newspapers also protect Americans against the polarizing influence of national news, and high polarization politicizes attitudes toward the government’s response to the pandemic.

The crisis in local news is making it harder for the government to help Americans when they need it the most, and legislatures are beginning to take notice. Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz introduced a bill in the United States Senate calling for the establishment of a Future of Local News Commission, exploring “policies and mechanisms that could reinvigorate local news to meet the critical information needs” of Americans. Some states are taking matters into their own hands; for example, the Massachusetts legislature is considering a commission to study journalism in underserved communities.

In 2021, more states will convene these kinds of commissions, as Covid-19 continues to lay bare the promise and peril of local news in communities across the nation. Local newspapers help form and maintain community identity, which can lessen the impact of partisan identity on behavior. At a time when individuals’ decisions are so closely linked to the health of the community, local reporters are essential workers.

If more governments take up the call to organize experts, editors, reporters, and philanthropists to address these issues, local news stands a better chance of adapting to modern circumstances and continuing to deliver the civic and health benefits it can uniquely provide.

Joshua P. Darr is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.

In 2020, there was no doubt that local news is a civic necessity — and no doubt that it faces an existential threat. The good news: Visits to local news sites increased 89 percent from February to March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic surged. The overwhelming bad news: Advertising revenue declined sharply, and many newspapers, such as the Waterbury (Vt.) Record, Daily Clintonian (Ind.), and Eden Prairie (Minn.) News, closed for good.

As hedge funds continue to gobble up floundering papers and newsrooms disappear, local newspapers are unable to meet the coronavirus-fueled demand for information.

We’re beginning to learn how important local news is during a pandemic. For example, early in the pandemic, rural residents served by a big-city news market heard more news about Covid-19 and were likelier to social distance than residents of less-effected markets. Local newspapers also protect Americans against the polarizing influence of national news, and high polarization politicizes attitudes toward the government’s response to the pandemic.

The crisis in local news is making it harder for the government to help Americans when they need it the most, and legislatures are beginning to take notice. Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz introduced a bill in the United States Senate calling for the establishment of a Future of Local News Commission, exploring “policies and mechanisms that could reinvigorate local news to meet the critical information needs” of Americans. Some states are taking matters into their own hands; for example, the Massachusetts legislature is considering a commission to study journalism in underserved communities.

In 2021, more states will convene these kinds of commissions, as Covid-19 continues to lay bare the promise and peril of local news in communities across the nation. Local newspapers help form and maintain community identity, which can lessen the impact of partisan identity on behavior. At a time when individuals’ decisions are so closely linked to the health of the community, local reporters are essential workers.

If more governments take up the call to organize experts, editors, reporters, and philanthropists to address these issues, local news stands a better chance of adapting to modern circumstances and continuing to deliver the civic and health benefits it can uniquely provide.

Joshua P. Darr is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.

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