By Michael Shapiro
This week, I’m headed to the New Jersey League of Municipalities annual conference in Atlantic City. The League, as it is colloquially known, provides municipal officials across New Jersey with opportunities to learn about the latest in management of local government. I am fortunate to have been asked to serve on two panels that will focus on local news, which is not perhaps something that immediately comes to mind as a topic germane to municipal officials.
But it is, and the very fact that an organization that represents municipalities and municipal officials is thinking about the impact of local news on communities goes to show that it is a topic worth paying attention to.
For context, local news coverage has been in a steady state of decline in communities across the United States. Old business models and the rise of social media have complicated the economics of local news. The effect has been consolidation and cost-cutting at news organizations.
Just last week, Gannett shareholders voted to approve a merger with GateHouse Media, creating the nation’s largest publisher. In New Jersey, Gannett owns ten daily local or regional newspapers. Newsroom head-counts at those papers have declined appreciably over the years. The merger with GateHouse has sparked fears that additional cuts will be made, further reducing important news reporting.
As we emerge from an off-year election cycle in New Jersey, the impact of local news on communities is even clearer. TAPinto has worked to expand coverage of local elections across New Jersey. In what was otherwise a low-interest year, we saw strong demand on our sites for truly local coverage of everything from school board races to mayor and council races on up to New Jersey State Assembly.
Beyond reader demand, local news has very real implications for the functioning of our communities and civic life. Without a strong local news ecosystem, our democracy suffers — even at the municipal level.
Facts vs. Not Facts
Last week AP NORC and USA Facts released a survey that shows that Americans are having increasing difficulty discerning what is fact and what is not. There are very clear partisan divides in what sources of information Americans see as credible, including the media. While there is a divide, media gets fairly low marks across the board. This is especially true of national media.
Local media, on the other hand, has been more of a bright spot, with more Americans expressing a sense of trust in their local outlets. The trouble is, there are fewer local outlets, which has left a void. Without credible local news coverage, governing and communicating effectively with the public becomes more difficult.
Civic participation is good for democracy. Research has shown that not only is local news consumption linked to civic participation but is also tied to more participation in elections and civic life overall. Indeed, large majorities of TAPinto’s readers are not only registered voters but are active voters. Local news spurs citizen input and increases accountability. When local news disappears, so too do its benefits.
When a local government is trying to fill a vacancy on a board, it needs engaged citizens. When elected officials seek input on an important project they need citizens to participate. When a recreation department needs to find coaches and volunteers, it needs citizens who are motivated and know what is happening in their communities. The list goes on, but the point is, without local news all of these things become more difficult.
That is why it is important to start a robust dialogue on how to bring credible, independent local news back to our communities. A big part of the conversation is developing new business models that put reporting back on the ground in our communities while adhering to rigorous ethical standards. We’ve had significant success in this area having launched 80 local new sites across several states and are working to further expand.
But the conversation needs to be broader. The fact that we’re talking seriously about local news at a conference dedicated to municipal governance is a good start in educating stakeholders about the importance of local news.
Michael Shapiro is CEO and publisher of TAPinto.net, a network of more than 80 independently owned and operated local news websites in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. This post originally appeared on Medium at https://link.medium.com/Xd8WImmzJ1, and is re-posted here with the permission of the author.