Local news is critical infrastructure. It’s time we treat it that way.

July 6, 2022  • Aspen Digital & Diara-Jepris Townes

What role does journalism serve in a community? How does it interact with other municipal institutions to help deliver a vibrant, multiracial democracy? On Tuesday, May 17, journalists, media leaders, academics, local, state, and federal government officials, civic leaders, and philanthropists came together to discuss these critical questions.

Siegel Family Endowment’s understanding of the issue, as stated in their seminal essay, Infrastructure: Building the World We Deserve, noted how “infrastructure influences everything in society, and if we are going to solve the country’s most pressing challenges — wealth inequalities, racial injustice, and runaway climate change — we need a new, multidimensional framework for designing, funding, and governing it.” This approach, which recognizes the interdependence between the physical, digital, and social dimensions of infrastructure, reveals how vital local news is to a healthy society. In that context, local journalism serves a critical role alongside more traditional infrastructure in the maintenance of our social fabric by informing, engaging, and equipping citizens to be active participants in their communities. 

We kicked off the meeting by underlining the challenges a community faces when the local news ecosystem is hobbled, outlining three key points of evidence, as informed by studies:  

  • Community and local news health are correlated. The ability of a community to solve its own problems and to make choices that are reflective of its needs and livelihood is correlated to the health of the local news environment. 
  • Less local news leads to lower voter turnout and participation. Communities that produce fewer candidates running for office result in less split-ticket voting, which then drives polarization and increases political corruption. 
  • News media helps a community know itself. The collapse of local journalism is leading to a lack of communal understanding, respect, and trust, and an increase in polarization. 

Participants came together with the understanding that local news media has a responsibility to serve the information needs of its community. Civil society and advocacy organizations, government, and community foundations all share in this responsibility. Over the course of the discussion, the group began to reimagine what a resilient civic infrastructure for the 21st century could look like, outlining an early framework for a more sustainable information ecosystem, while also taking into consideration that trust is a two-way street. Local media and civic institutions must support one another’s mission if they are to serve the community and its informational, multilingual, and multicultural needs. 

The following are critical discussion takeaways.

Civic Society and News Media:

  • Civic institutions are on the frontlines of advancing a truly multiracial democracy in the 21st century. Libraries and museums, in particular, are stewards of civic memory. They provide the historical context for opinions and perspectives. Movements have ignited critical reflection on institutions’ legacies of oppression, leading to an internal deconstruction of how that legacy affected community trust. Local media should operate as a platform to elevate this work and inform the community of their contextual role in society. 
  • Coalitions and grassroots organizations, not unlike libraries and museums, require a certain amount of in-person interconnectivity to establish and maintain communal trust. Newsrooms can support trust-building by accommodating citizens with varying digital literacy, reporting on the unequal access to digital services, and diversifying their products and stories for populations who speak different languages. 
  • Newsrooms that have shifted to digital should focus on increasing access to reliable information through partnerships. Wikimedia Commons is a model for how local newsrooms and civic organizations can curate information, communicate with one another, and engage with the community in a mutually beneficial way. 
  • Journalists have a responsibility to maintain connections with local experts and grassroots sources both before and after the story is published. This will facilitate trust and elevate a newsroom’s value within the community. 
  • Civic institutions, such as grassroots activist groups and religious organizations, rely on the community’s understanding of the most pressing issues and the work they are doing to address local issues. Without the coverage provided by local media, this effort faces a steeper hill to success.
  • Local newsroom partnerships with civic centers, hospitals, other local organizations, and so forth can advance community trust, increasing reliable information and decreasing polarization.

Local Government and News Media: 

  • Robust local news organizations provide a foundation and a baseline of factual information that contribute to informed public policy decisions. Legislators, both locally and in Washington, rely on local journalism to stay informed about public concerns and community events. Without this coverage, policymakers are less informed and their constituents are less supported. Consolidation and corporate ownership of local news, which often results in a degradation of reporter ranks, undermine the effective government.
  • The rise in disinformation on social media discourages moderate, thoughtful community members from running for local office. There is a real fear of reputational and even personal harm as a result of the political environment created by social media and disinformation. Journalism is a mitigant to these harms. 
  • A healthy, transparent relationship between local media and government officials can lead to increased support for free speech protections, especially now when local journalists, both professionally and in youth journalism environments, are facing censorship threats, bias claims, and other risks to their credibility, safety and overall role in a democratic society.
  • Media coverage increases public awareness of local laws and policies. It provides an accurate portrayal of elected officials’ perspectives that may or may not align with popular public opinion. It brings awareness and context to the local issues people may only learn about on social media via posts or digital campaign ads, or in the national news. 
  • When the community has access to expert perspectives and fact-based investigatory information, elected officials can be held accountable for the actions and decisions they make on their constituents’ behalf. Local investigative journalism enables accountability. 
  • Communities can benefit from better-informed citizens. Diverse political and cultural perspectives promote civic as well as civil dialogue in the community. Braver Angels, a citizens’ organization dedicated to depolarizing America through workshops and debates, and 50×2026, a national initiative to elevate civics education policy in every state by 2026, are two efforts that are actively pushing for civic dialogue and problem-solving among politically diverse communities. By re-engaging individuals with civil and civic dialogue, either through coverage by local media or with partnerships with organizations such as these, political polarization can be effectively lowered. 

Community Foundations and News Media: 

  • Community foundations are crucial. Journalism should be every community foundation’s “second most important issue,” meaning regardless of a foundation’s cause, they need a healthy new media to inform citizens about the issues. A campaign effort that normally takes a year to reach the desks of local legislators or receive funding could be expedited with journalistic coverage. News outlets act as a megaphone, elevating and highlighting audience perspectives, catalyzing foundations’ fundraising and engagement process. 
  • Community foundations help address news deserts by providing critical and locally-relevant information to the people in their communities. However, they can’t replace the impact and efficacy of investigative journalism. Foundations can build and activate the community equipped with the information local journalists are adept at uncovering. 
  • Local media can act as protectors of the objective truth, but can also facilitate discussions around racial equity and social justice in conjunction with community foundations. To be incorporated into a community’s civic infrastructure, journalism must also emphasize and amplify lived experiences within the community.
  • Community foundations can create what Report for America is calling “Community News Funds,” using multi-donor, multi-recipient funding methodologies focused solely on local news. It’s a mutually-beneficial effort for the news organization(s), the foundation, and the community. 

Participants agreed that local journalism is a critical piece of civic infrastructure, but needs support and must continue to evolve. Local newsrooms also have a responsibility to reflect on their position within the community, including: 

  • The ways news organizations can authentically elevate lived experiences of the community: 
  • Partnering with community organizations to promote civic dialogue
  • Considering how diverse journalists are included and empowered in the newsroom 
  • How newsrooms can avoid overburdening and exploiting trusted messengers and experts in the civic institution and advocacy spaces while still aligning with the information and accessibility needs of a disenfranchised community

Our next steps will focus on addressing these questions and solidifying the framework within the aforementioned sections. It will take a whole-of-society approach – and a recognition that there are multiple solutions – to turn the tide on the declining trust in institutions and the deteriorating state of the journalism industry.