The Decline of Local News and Deterioration of Civil Discourse

By Leah Cogguillo

In recent years, productive civil discourse has diminished, replaced with partisan attacks characterized by pettiness and even malevolence. Today, polarization and ideologically-driven division transcends legislative offices, permeating our everyday lives and dictating our relationships. According to one study by Pew Research, 63% of consistent conservatives and 49% of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. We limit our social networks, barring exposure to new ideas and confining ourselves to ideological echo chambers. Furthermore, extreme partisanship has come to characterize our political climate; the same study found that 92% of Republicans being to the right of the median Democrat and 94% of Democrats being to the left of the median Republican. Our current political climate offers a grim forecast of our future, but yet, local politics may have the potential to overcome the dysfunction and polarization that has crippled the national political scene. 

Despite these seemingly enormous divisions on the national level, this isn’t necessarily the case on the local level. A recent study using survey results from eight metro areas across the United States found only modest levels of sorting and polarization over local development issues. While polarization and staunch party allegiance undoubtedly poses a threat to our nation, Americans presented with local issues share more common ground than expected, despite contrasting party affiliations or views on national issues. The study offers two explanations for this divergence from national trends; the need for officeholders to craft policy that can compete for talent and investment against other cities, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the absence of overt partisan cues at the local level. At the national level, political parties send clear messages about key issues to their members that are then reinforced by media giants which dominate national news. Because it is unfeasible to have stances on every local issue, national parties tend to ignore local development and do not offer clear positions on such issues. As a result, local news serves to inform rather than divide by pandering to the ideological preferences of its viewers. 

Despite the critical role of local news in building communal prosperity, it is in grave danger. More than 1,800 newspapers have shut down since 2004. Between 2008 and 2018, the newspaper industry experienced a 68% drop in advertising revenue. Now, sixty-five million Americans live in counties with only one local newspaper or none at all. Of those newspapers still in existence, many have faced damaging budget cuts with statehouse and Washington coverage especially impaired. 

These restrictions have substantive consequences. For example, Chris Collins, a congressman from western New York, was indicted for fraud while running for reelection in a distinctly republican district. Though many Republicans in areas with accessible local news crossed the political aisle to support Nate McMurray, Collins’s opponent, many citizens were unaware of the charges due to insufficient news coverage in rural areas. Ultimately, Collins was reelected and later sentenced to jail. Evidently, the emergence of news deserts discourages participation in the political process and disables government accountability. As local news has dwindled, voter turnout and the number of candidates running for office have also fallen, making local offices less representative of its constituents’ best interests. Beyond touching nearly all aspects of constituents’ lives, local politics showcase the importance of  bipartisanship and informed opinions. Whether it be through the allocation of public funds for grants and tax deductions or through social movements like all-volunteer news organizations, there are endless ways to help salvage local journalism. Regardless of the method, local news can and must be preserved. 

Saving the communal news and maintaining a healthy local democracy requires innovative solutions. One such example is Alice Dreger’s nonprofit, all-volunteer news organization, the East Lansing Info. As reported by RDI contributor Clement Obroptain in a previous Democracy Examined article, Dreger assembled a local “news militia” in 2014 to respond to the lack of local news in the community of East Lansing, Michigan. Although the non-partisan coverage is written by non-journalists – primarily students, stay-at-home parents, and retirees, the paper maintains an uncompromising standard of excellence. Similar efforts have sprung in other areas, and some communities have even become reliant on college newspapers for critical reporting. Such publications are especially relevant during the pandemic. As campuses have become hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks, student reporting has played a vital role in community safety, holding administrations and students accountable and responsible. While such initiatives are just one way communities can adapt to reinvigorate local journalism, the freedom and accessibility of the press is undeniably a battle worth fighting; local news keeps the fabric of our national civil discourse together.

Title Image Credit: Brown University