Is local news dying?

Much has been written in the past week or so about what some have pronounced the “death of local journalism,” prompted by the shockingly sudden shutdown of a network of local news websites that served some of America’s largest cities.
 
Billionaire owner Joe Ricketts closed The Gothamist group of sites, and laid off all of their employees, including DNAinfo in New York, LAist in Los Angeles, Chicagoist in Chicago, SFist in San Francisco and DCist in Washington. Ricketts also shut down Shanghaiist in China.
 
He blamed the tough economics of running pure-play digital news organizations, but it did not go unnoticed that the closings followed by only a few days – coincidentally or not; only he knows for sure – a vote by Ricketts’ New York employees to unionize.
 
New York Media reporter Errol Louis, appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” said because of what happened with Gothamist, along with the consolidation and closing of other hyperlocal news organizations, “the people in power” will be allowed to “get away with murder” because there are fewer journalists watching them.
 
The headline of an article written by former LAist editor Julia Wick stated, “Everyone Should Fear What Happened to the Gothamist Sites.” In the story, Wick wrote, “The future of local news, especially here in Los Angeles, remains deeply uncertain.”
 
AXIOS’ Sara Fischer notes the demise of Baltimore City Paper and other alternative weeklies around the country as further evidence of what the publication calls “the crisis in local news.”
 
This past spring, Columbia Journalism Review launched an interactive map of what it calls “America’s growing news deserts,” showing which parts of the country have “no daily local news outlet at all.” CJR’s premise is that if a community has no local newspaper, it has no access to local news. Never mind the television and radio stations that serve the public many in those “deserts.”
 
It is a worthwhile and necessary exercise to lament the loss of the Gothamist sites or any source of local news and, more important, to try to find ways to reverse the trend. The most immediate thing one can do is to support local journalism by contributing to public radio, subscribing to local newspapers’ digital editions, listening to local radio news and watching local TV news.
 
We should also do all we can to support the people who have lost their jobs when newsrooms shrink or go away. There are some fine journalists on the market right now that could help your local newsroom.
 
Speaking of your newsrooms, they continue to be bastions of responsible journalism and community service. Recent notable examples include the news organizations in and around San Antonio, which led the way on coverage of the tragic Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting; newsrooms in Las Vegas that that are still covering the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history; and newsrooms near the Gulf Coast, in Florida, and in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, devastated by hurricanes.
 
But the fact is that local communities – many in what CJR and others have labeled “news deserts” – are being served quite well by news organizations every single day, even when there isn’t a major tragedy occurring.
 
For example, the 2017 national Murrow Award for investigative reporting in small-market television went to Gray Television-owned KWCH-TV, Wichita, for exposing how police officers who’d been fired in one or more small Kansas towns were easily able to get jobs with law enforcement agencies in other small Kansas towns, bouncing around, as the station put it, from “badge to badge.” The state launched an investigation.
 
In large-market radio, San Francisco’s KQED won the investigative reporting Murrow for calling attention to the presence of cancer-causing TCP in the drinking water of numerous small, medium and large cities throughout California. The state is finally regulating the situation.
 
And in large-market television, NBC-owned KXAS-TV, Dallas, exposed how some Dallas County school bus drivers were routinely violating traffic laws – running red lights and worse – often putting children’s safety at risk. As a result, several bus drivers were suspended or fired, and the station’s investigative reporting team says it is still uncovering other disturbing facts months later.
 
You can see all of this year’s Edward R. Murrow Award recipients here. They are the best of the best, but represent only a small percentage of the outstanding responsible journalism occurring on a daily basis in communities around the nation. 

Also encouraging is this factoid: Last month, ProPublica announced it would fund the hiring of a reporter dedicated to investigative journalism in as many as six news organizations. Deputy Managing Editor Eric Umansky said the folks there thought they’d get about 75 applications. Wrong. They got 239. “It wasn’t just the number of proposals that surprised us, but also the breadth,” according to Umansky. 
 
The point is that despite the unfortunate loss of some local news outlets and the reporters, editors and photojournalists who went away with them, assertions about the death of local journalism are greatly exaggerated.
 
That is not to say that the complexion of local journalism is not, in some cases, changing. The current wave of media deregulation, including the elimination of the FCC’s main studio rule and the impending revocation of the cross-ownership rule, among others, is likely to spawn further change. Many believe the current regulatory environment in Washington will encourage media companies to reduce their investments in local news.
 
I tend to view what’s happening now just as part of another cyclical shift in the business of journalism. We have seen this movie before. Waves of deregulation or other kinds of sea change have happened in the past, and journalism has adapted. While the previous waves did produce adjustments – which some skeptics and cynics still deride at every opportunity – the industry did, in fact, evolve. And guess what? The public is still being served well by the Fourth Estate.
 
I am personally acquainted with many journalists and, perhaps more significant, media company executives, who are committed to serving local communities through more, and better, responsible journalism. They have already expanded the hours of daily newscasts their stations produce, and likely will continue to do so. They are making hefty investments in investigative reporting, ethics training, and other professional development opportunities for their employees.
 
Sadly, we will no doubt see more short-term effects that some will view as negative from what is now happening, and about to happen, thanks to further deregulation. But in the mid- to long-term, I believe we’ll see new forms of news organizations and journalism platforms emerge that will keep the public informed.
 
The demand is there. Local TV stations continue to be profitable. Digital subscriptions to major newspapers have increased significantly during the past year. Even billionaire Joe Ricketts, who shut down the Gothamist family of sites last week, admitted in an open letter to his readers that they were attracting nine million monthly unique visitors, and more than two million followers on their social channels.
 
Local journalism’s lunar cycle is currently in its waxing crescent phase. But unlike the real lunar cycle, it will take far longer than a matter of days to reach waxing gibbous or even a full moon, let alone the final, waning crescent phase.
 
Eventually, as it always does, the nighttime in which the moon thrives will give way to a new, although likely different, kind of sunrise that will provide people all over America with the journalistic Vitamin D so necessary to the health of our society.