The dwindling local news environment makes us all less informed

August 23, 2022 6:45 am
Tablet computer with news articles

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(This commentary has been updated to reflect new information. See editor’s note at end.)

People have a right to know what their government is doing in their name.

As the editor of a small weekly newspaper in Louisiana in the late 1970s, I helped uncover insider dealing by a city commissioner and regularly covered a levee district board known for cronyism.

Unfortunately, too many community newspapers have closed over the past couple of years.  When local newspapers close, people lose reliable, trustworthy information sources about their school boards, city councils and county governing bodies.

In a report released at the end of June, The State of Local News: The 2022 Report, researchers with the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University estimated that more than 360 newspapers — almost all of them weeklies — had closed since the end of 2019, the start of the pandemic. That’s in addition to the 2,500 U.S. newspapers that have closed since 2005, representing more than a quarter of the publications that existed before then.

“The country has 6,377 surviving papers: 1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies,” according to the report.

That may seem like a lot. And you may think you’re not missing anything because of the near-constant stream of news and opinion extruded by TV and online sources. But very few of those streams tell us what our local officials are doing, how they’re spending our tax dollars and whether you should be supportive of their decisions or alarmed.

What’s more, too much of our news feeds focus on national politics and pay very little attention to local concerns.

“What we’ve seen over the course of the last several decades is a complete hollowing out of the local news environment while at the same time we’ve seen unprecedented growth at the national level,”  Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia professor quoted in a 2021 report from Medill.

Political junkies can get all the national political news and commentary they want like never before.

“When it comes to local politics, though,” Lawless said, “the local newspaper remains the predominant source of information about local government, whether that be school boards, city councils, mayors, county commissions. And over the course of the last 20 years, and it started even before then, we’ve seen a steady decline in the availability of local news.”

The danger with the increased dominance of national political news over local coverage, according to Lawless, is that the growing partisan nature of national news is seeping into the local level. Consequently, readers and viewers are beginning to distrust even the remaining local news outlets they might have.

Fortunately, most Arkansans still have local news sources they can rely on. We might complain about the quality of the reporting or decisions editors make about what to cover, but we still have newspapers like the Madison County Record, winner of a national award for fairness in journalism.

Still, residents in three Arkansas counties — Sharp, Little River and Nevada — no longer have a local newspaper.*  Three counties are served by three newspapers each; 13 counties have two newspapers each. The remaining counties each have one, according to the new Medill report.

“Most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a digital or print replacement.” the report says.

Over the past two years, the Medill researchers say, 64 new digital-only state and local news sites arrived on the scene. That made for 545 online-only state and local news outlets nationwide in 2022.

The Arkansas Advocate is among those digital sites, and we aim to give Arkansans the kind of local and state political and governmental coverage they need to make informed decisions about themselves and their communities.

But even we cannot replace what too many of you have lost or are in danger of losing: reputable news about your community and local governments produced by reporters who live and work among you. 

As the Medill researchers note, 40% of local digital sites are nonprofits, supported by a combination of grants, sponsorships and donations. But whether nonprofit or for-profit, most online news sites are located in larger cities, “leaving much of the rest of the country uncovered,” the researchers say.

We here at the Advocate will keep a close eye on state and local governments, but we are also citizens who cherish the dedication of local journalists.

*(Editor’s Note: After publication, Mark Keith, co-publisher of the Hope-Prescott News and the Little River Journal, let us know that he and partner Wendell Hoover started the two newspapers after GateHouse closed the Hope Star. Hoover also runs an online Hope-Prescott news outlet. The Hope-Prescott paper has a full-time reporter, Keith said. “We print and distribute 3,200 Hope-Prescott papers weekly and 1,300 Little River papers weekly,” he said. “Every county should be served by a newspaper, I think, and we’ve done our best to do that in Hempstead , Nevada, and Little River County.”)


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.