Journalists have a long history of putting citizens first and holding power to account–and that shouldn’t change just because there’s a new owner on the masthead. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel go even further and say in a Neiman Reports post that this responsibility is “a social obligation that can actually override their employers’ immediate interests at times.”
The reality of putting citizens first is not that straightforward. The Internet, and more recently, the coronavirus pandemic completely disrupted the news industry’s business model. Before the digital age, news outlets made money from local advertising and subscriptions. Now, 82 percent of U.S. adults get at least some of their news on digital devices, and ad dollars are following those customers online.
Conditions worsened during the pandemic when many local businesses couldn’t afford any advertising, which also gutted newsroom budgets. Three years later, more than 360 newspapers have gone out of business, according to a Northwestern University report, leaving behind news deserts. “Recent research shows that in communities without a strong print or digital news organization, voter participation declines and corruption increases,” says Penelope Muse Abernathy, the main author of the Northwestern report.
The local news outlets that have survived are struggling financially, and that’s where hedge funds come in. As of 2021, they control at least half of the daily newspapers in the U.S., according to the Financial Times. The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Hartford Courant and the Daily News in New York are just a few of more than 1,200 news outlets owned or controlled by hedge funds and private equity firms. In many cases, those acquisitions have led to cuts in staffing and circulation, not the investment these news outlets need to fulfill their responsibilities to the communities they cover.
National news organizations have also hit hard times with layoffs at the Washington Post. Margaret Sullivan, a former Washington Post media columnist, says the shrinking news industry is a threat to democracy. “It’s not just watchdog journalism that suffers when news organizations shrink or die,” says Sullivan. “The decline in news media affects civic engagement and political polarization, too.”
While financial constraints are making it harder for some news organizations to put citizens first, newsrooms, both big and small, are engaging their communities in other ways, like town hall-style settings. National outlets such as CNN and MSNBC have hosted events with President Joe Biden, while local television stations like NY1 have partnered with WNYC radio to host debates for candidates vying for elected office.
So what can news consumers do to make sure news outlets do their job? For starters:
-Subscribe to a local news organization. News outlets can no longer rely on ad spending to fund their operations and need more revenue from subscriptions.
-Engage with reporters. As a former local news reporter in Portland, Ore. Victoria, Texas and New Haven, Conn., some important work has come from reader tips. Public support and feedback are effective ways to get a news organization’s attention.
-Support startups. Over the past three years, entrepreneurs and non-profits have launched about 100 new newspapers or digital outlets, according to the Northwestern report. The Baltimore Banner and The City in New York are examples of startups that emerged as news coverage in their cities deteriorated.
-Raise awareness. Rebuild Local News, a nonpartisan and non-profit coalition founded in 2020, is educating the public about the value of local news and promoting ways to support news organizations. It’s calling for a $3-5 billion investment into the local news industry, mostly through tax credits.
That idea has made its way to Congress. A bill called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act would allow people to claim a $250 tax credit for a local newspaper subscription. The bill was introduced in 2020 and 2021 in the House of Representatives but has not been voted on.
Meanwhile, about two newspapers a week are going under. “The crisis in local news will solely be behind us when a new model of consistent and sustainable growth by news and information providers has been achieved,” writes Craig I. Forman, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “These new services cannot simply reach a chosen few elite populations on the coasts and interior city centers.”
All Americans need access to the fact-based information that journalists are in a unique position to provide because, as Kovach and Rosenstiel say, “Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens.”