The solution is local

February 28, 2019 12:30

“Informed and engaged communities are the bedrock of a healthy democracy. But that bedrock has begun to quake. We meet today not just to describe the problem, but to find solutions,” Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said to open Knight’s Media Forum this week.

That summed up the theme of the ensuing two day gathering of media, technology and community leaders, which despite addressing dire social challenges was an inspiring look at the power of local news to provide solutions.

The Challenges of Division
Multiple speakers cited Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the purpose of misinformation: It’s not to give you a false idea. It’s to make people not believe anything.

Bad actors sewing mis- and disinformation, danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society noted, are experts at tapping into curiosity and pushing it into extremism. They’re particularly adept, she said, at exploiting data voids on sites like YouTube to send searchers down conspiratorial paths. They capitalize on search terms journalists are unlikely to use in their reporting but the public is likely to query, and even create divisive terms that filter into mainstream usage.

But “just because you have the right to speak does not mean you have the right to be amplified,” she said, calling on journalists to “build connections in the local fabric” and be cognizant of amplifying divisive, hate full voices.

The Power of Community
Social capital, measures of community like participation in clubs and churches, has been decreasing for decades, and communities are less engaged. This is one of the primary challenges highlighted by the Aspen Institute/Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. Keynote David Brooks described what this means for the increasingly disconnected: we’re left alone and adrift, more likely to be lonely and depressed.

But everywhere there are still “weavers” – people who build relationships – he said. The weavers are rebuilding our social fabric, and journalists should tell their stories and amplify voices of connection, not division.

But just as society needs journalism to remain connected, “Community journalism won’t survive unless the community supports it,” said Steve Waldman of Report for America.

The Strength of Local
To get that community support, journalism must start in communities. Mirta Ojito of Telemundo noted that Spanish language media is widely trusted by the communities it serves because, unlike many other traditional outlets, its reporting process starts at the bottom, working in and with the community and tapping into power structures secondarily.

 “There is strength in local, and local leads to trust,” Ibargüen said in his opening remarks.  “The shorter the distance between our neighbors and our news, the stronger the community.”

When audiences know a journalist – see their local reporter in the neighborhood at the grocery store, gym or kids’ school, they’re more likely to trust news, one reason local wins out in trust.

The Way Forward for Journalism
Though local news is best positioned to rebuild fraying social fabric, it faces an uphill battle against other challenges. The three key steps forward for local news, the commission report posited and the event affirmed, are:


  • “Radical transparency”
Journalists must start “casting aside assumptions that the audience knows what we do and why we do it” – such as the assumption audiences know journalists aren’t paid by sources - and “explaining what we do in real time,” commission member Mizell Stewart said.
  • Innovation
While innovation includes use of technology, as many speakers discussed, it’s also more fundamental.

Newsroom innovation can mean reframing stories to focus on “weavers.”

More collaborative models, such as that embraced by the Texas Tribune whose Evan Smith said “We have no competitors; just current and future collaborators,” are also key. Smith also advocated newsrooms take risks and be open to fail in service to greatness.
  • Diversity and inclusion
Local newsrooms still not reflective of the communities they serve, which widens “the distance between our neighbors and our news.” The pace of change must quicken for local news to retain and grow younger, changing audiences and produce inclusive, accessible work.
We in local news have work to do – better utilizing YouTube, better explaining how we do what we do and better reflecting those we serve, but: there is strength in local, and the solution is local.


2019 Research