The murder of five people at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, was tragic. It was also a powerful reminder that local news organizations are the bedrock of engagement in a democratic republic. They inform citizens in local congressional districts, mayoral regions or neighborhood councils — the basic units of government.
The Gazette tells its community’s story: Who did what, what the board of education or city council did, what streets are closed, who won the game and who got married. Consumers of local newspapers — or local radio, online or television news operations — judge the reliability of the publication because they live the paper’s stories. The citizen is the ultimate fact-checker — and it couldn’t be more different than the distant report from national news centers, or the anonymous or unverified writings that flood the internet.
For the last couple of decades, local news has been under financial stress, as readers have embraced the internet and cable TV, disconnected from the geographical location of the news consumer.
Unlike European and Latin American newspapers, the holy grail of American journalism has long been the full, accurate contextual search for truth, regardless of ideology. The Founding Fathers formalized the role of the press as the staging ground for the middle, a written and spoken battlefield where wars of words are waged until common ground is reached.
This tendency toward the middle, toward principled compromise based on common interests and promoted by a local press, is the genius of our democracy. Americans ultimately reject extremes, often tempering the power of an executive with one ideology by installing a legislature with another, tuning out or voting out voices that lead to the edges.
Yet today, our collective ability to engage in principled compromise is waning. Local radio, television, internet and newspaper reporters have not been immune from anti-news media sentiment. By design, they are approachable to their readers which, until Annapolis, seemed a good thing to ensure authenticity. And that shouldn’t change.
The existential threat to local news is rooted in the collapse of the ad-based business model that sustained local news for more than a century. Local publications have gone digital but mostly haven’t found the way to build a robust business online, despite hundreds of experiments in membership, event sponsorships and advertising. With scale and an ability to target audiences precisely, Facebook and Google have captured close to 90 percent of new digital advertising revenue over the last decade.
For the last 25 years, news companies have squeezed operations to stay profitable. Having been an early part of that trend, I know personally what an increasingly difficult task it has been. More recently, private equity investors have entered the field, making cuts that have turned huge swaths of our country into local news deserts, unable to keep tabs on government and corruption, or even daily life.
What to do? If you want to support your community, subscribe to your local paper and demand more coverage. Support local public radio news or nonprofit news outlets that are filling critical gaps in coverage. You can find nonprofit organizations across the country through NewsMatch.org.
Many foundations have begun to invest in journalism. I applaud that and urge that they fund journalism, not advocacy. And then there are the digital platforms, the accidental publishers of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat that present the work of others without sharing profits with news producers or assuming responsibility for the veracity of the information. That needs to change by pressure from the market or, heaven help us, from government.
I live in Miami. I used to marvel at the fact that only 90 miles away from Florida, in Cuba, people might be shot or jailed for doing what we were privileged to do because we practiced journalism in the United States. That’s a distinction worth preserving.
Alberto Ibargüen is president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.