In May 2020, as the US approached a gruesome record of 100,000 coronavirus deaths, the front page of the New York Times recounted an “Incalculable Loss.”
Void of the usual photographs or advertisements, this Sunday edition of the paper listed 1,000 names of individuals whose lives have been lost to the coronavirus. Telling the stories of just 1 percent of those who lost their lives to the deadly virus, this compilation of names came from local newspapers, large and small, scattered across the country. These names reflected not only the severity of the virus, but the necessity of local news outlets during times of crisis.
“Where can I get tested for the coronavirus?”
“How can I keep my family safe?”
“How many cases are in my county?”
Amid a pandemic that has raised a seemingly endless stream of questions, local news has become an individual's lifeline to public information.
Across the country, reporters have set up camp at hospitals, food pantries, protests, and street corners, providing the public with trustworthy and accurate reporting far beyond the usual 9-5 workday. Living and breathing the stories of their community, local journalists saturate their reporting with a personal, intimate connection that defines local news as local. Unfortunately, rather than being treated as a necessity, hundreds of these outlets have met their final deadlines as newsroom doors close permanently.
Between furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs, local newsrooms have fought to keep the presses running, but for many, these efforts simply weren’t enough. More than 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic and more than 50 newsrooms and counting have shut down completely. With news deserts popping up across the country, the information gap continues to widen as fewer areas have access to local reporting. These shutdowns have disproportionately impacted communities of color and of low income, further widening the information gap and allowing for the spread of misinformation. With the rise of nonprofit news and social media networks, some may argue that traditional local news outlets are less necessary for the spread of accurate information.
However, these networks do not operate under the same code of ethics that many newsrooms do, differentiating them from a reliable source of information. Regardless, no source of media can match the “all-hands on deck comprehensive coverage” that local outlets provide, as discussed by Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds. As the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy concluded, “Newspapers may have their shortcomings, but in many communities, they have been for a century or longer the primary source of fair, accurate and independent news.”
While the future of local journalism may appear bleak, the protection and prosperity of the country’s ‘Fourth Estate’ belongs to the public. Support for local outlets through subscriptions, donations, advertisements can mean the difference between an open or closed newsroom.
As the backbone of a free press, local journalism is an essential force of democracy.
It’s time that we started treating it as such.