Josh Holmes, the former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell, recently tweeted something important:
You won’t hear a conservative say this often enough but pls support your local media. . . Locals are underfunded and overextended and forced to fall into the clickbait competition with national outlets that only exacerbate the problem.
The result is national media misunderstanding/misinterpreting local politics.
If you don’t want someone on the coasts to tell the world what your life is like, what your business does, what you believe or what national policy means for your family, then subscribe to a local outlet. . .
He’s right. One of the most unfortunate traits of the modern political system is that journalism has become associated with liberalism and opposition to President Trump — and therefore is something that conservatives must oppose.
I’m not going to get into why that’s happened — there’s blame to go around — but I want to elaborate on Holmes’s argument that conservatives to take up a new cause: revitalizing local news.
While national institutions like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Fox News are doing well, local news organizations have collapsed. Some 1,300 communities have totally lost coverage since 2004. The number of newspaper reporters in America has gone from 455,000 in 1990 to 183,000 in 2016.
This has made journalism more concentrated on the coasts. In 2004, one in seven reporters lived in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. By 2016, the ratio had worsened, dropping to one in five. Part of why the national media missed the rise of the Trump voter is that newsrooms outside of these more liberal enclaves have been hollowed out.
Of course, this should matter to all Americans, but since saving journalism has not been a conservative cause in recent years, I’d like to suggest that conservatives should be especially concerned.
First, a paucity of reporters means less accountability of government. A study by three researchers at Notre Dame and University of Illinois even found that the shortage of reporters was associated with less efficient government. How did they come to that conclusion? By comparing bond prices in areas where newspapers had closed to economically comparable counties that still had a newspaper. They found that the ones with a recently closed newspaper saw municipal borrowing costs rise five to eleven basis points. The impact was most severe in more isolated communities.
A local newspaper provides an ideal monitoring agent for these revenue-generating projects, as mismanaged projects can be exposed by investigative reporters employed by the local newspaper. When a newspaper closes, this monitoring mechanism also ceases to exist, leading to a greater risk that the cash flows generated by these projects will be mismanaged.
They also found that local governments in those areas increased the amount spent on government-employee wages, and that taxes often went up. The authors theorized that the markets had less confidence that the city was run well since no one was watching.
By the way, the spread of news deserts has not respected political boundaries. Of the 22 states that have the lowest density of reporters, 14 are red states and eight are blue. That means that red-state voters live in areas where government — as well as powerful nonprofit institutions such as universities — is held less accountable.
One of the journalists we at Report for America placed in the field, Will Wright, went to cover Eastern Kentucky, which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. His stories were not about Trump or the Supreme Court — they were about the people there not having running drinking water for a week. When his reporting helped get the state to fix the water system, local residents were thrilled, and forgave Will for working for a newspaper.
Conservatives should also pay attention to the hollowing out of local-news coverage because they have traditionally cared more about civil society — the nonprofit institutions that both provide services and create a sense of community. Another recent study of 100 randomly selected communities found that only 17 percent of the stories in a community paper were actually about something happening in that area. That makes it harder for altruistic or civic groups to get the word out, especially to people whom they have not yet reached.
Finally, there’s the matter of objective truth. Until recently, it was liberals who were arguing that objectivity was impossible, truth subjective. Conservatives, grounded by religion and morality, believed in the reality and attainability of truth. Now would be an excellent time to reclaim that principle.
Some conservatives complain that media is too biased to be worth helping. But news organizations are just people, usually responding to the interests of communities. So if you feel like local news could be better, then help fix it. Conservative philanthropists should help fund local, nonpartisan, objective reporting, and talented young conservative writers should seriously consider becoming local journalists — not just commentators.
The organization where I work, Report for America, is loosely modeled on Teach for America, placing talented emerging journalists into local newsrooms. (We pay half the salary.) We want talented young conservatives to become reporters and serve their local communities.
Mind you, I’m not calling for mini-Fox Newses in local media. That would actually make matters worse, not better. We don’t need more commentary on national issues but rather more reporting on highly local issues: not the Supreme Court but local family court, not the Mexico City policy but the functioning of the local veterans’ hospital. This old-fashioned, on-the-ground community reporting may seem less sexy, but to the people in those communities, it’s crucial.
Thomas Jefferson observed that “the functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents.” Unless the citizenry was well informed, their property and liberty would always be in jeopardy. He wasn’t worried, though. “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” He had it half right. The press has to be free — but it also had to be robust, fair, and local.
— Steven Waldman is co-founder and president of Report for America. Charles Sennott is an RFA co-founder and CEO of the GroundTruth Project.