In the flood of disinformation filling the internet this election season, it was easy to miss another rapidly spreading phenomenon: partisan profit-driven websites putting out propaganda masquerading as local news.
Across the country, more than 1,000 websites with the look of local journalism are publishing articles, ordered up by political operatives to cast a favorable or unfavorable light on candidates and issues. These websites, like weeds thriving in vacant lots, have grown to fill the void left by the collapse of local newspapers. Readers, eager for information, often can’t tell the difference because these sites are good at masking their purpose.
In the last 15 years, according to a report by Penelope Abernathy, a scholar at the University of North Carolina who tracks “news deserts,” more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have closed and 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 were left without any at the beginning of 2020. Without local newsrooms, the basic work of reporting — gathering accurate information and demanding transparency and accountability from local governments and powerful business interests — vanishes.
This loss directly imperils a functioning democracy, which requires an informed citizenry. In communities that have lost a local paper, voters become more polarized, according to a 2018 study by communications scholars. As voters rely more on highly polarized national outlets, they become less likely to cast ballots for candidates beyond any one party.
The closure of news outlets also makes governments more wasteful; with nobody looking over their shoulder, local officials tend to drive up government wages, taxes and deficits, researchers from Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago have found. Conversely, access to reliable local news is associated with higher political participation. Towns with newspapers have greater voter turnout, according to a study led by Matthew Gentzkow, a Stanford economist.
The disappearance of local journalism has been particularly damaging this year. In the early weeks of the pandemic, news organizations reported spikes in traffic to their websites as people sought out information about COVID-19 and its effects on hospitals, schools and businesses. When protests against racial injustice erupted in June, Americans looked for detailed reporting on policing and criminal justice policies. This year’s elections, likewise, generated record traffic from voters seeking information.
Yet despite the surging demand for news, the industry has continued to falter. Since the pandemic hit the United States, 36,000 newspaper employees have been laid off, furloughed or subjected to pay cuts. In many cases, advertising, the foundation of the traditional newspaper model, virtually vanished in the economic downturn. And while paid subscriptions rose sharply for some national outlets, most local news organizations do not have large enough markets to sustain even a modest professional newsroom. The result is a familiar spiral: A smaller staff produces a poorer product, which attracts fewer customers, depriving a community of a basic public service.
But there are also promising examples of a new model: next-generation news organizations with diverse leadership and financial support from local communities. In 2016, a team of journalists, backed by philanthropists and local readers, launched Mississippi Today, a nonprofit that soon became the largest newsroom in the state. In recent months, it conducted public surveys about the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi’s state flag and led detailed coverage of that change. Inquiries from Mississippi Today have also persuaded state health authorities to provide greater transparency into levels of coronavirus infection in schools.
In June, a diverse team of journalists in Oakland launched a similar nonprofit local news site, the Oaklandside. With an emphasis on listening to the community to tailor their areas of focus, they have attracted philanthropic gifts and local advertising and have exceeded projections in the number of supporting members. And recently Chalkbeat, a nonprofit network of news sites covering education, launched Votebeat, a pop-up newsroom focused on covering election administration in eight battleground states in collaboration with local news organizations.
What all of these newsrooms need is money. And some promising funding efforts are underway. NewsMatch, a national grassroots campaign to support nonprofit local news, has pledged to match contributions from individuals through the end of 2020. At the American Journalism Project, we provide grants and strategic support to help ventures grow sustainably, including Mississippi Today and the Oaklandside. And a new bipartisan bill in Congress called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, drafted by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., proposes a refundable $250 tax credit that could be used to buy a news subscription or donate to a local news nonprofit.
A colossal $14 billion was spent on the 2020 presidential and congressional election, making it the most expensive in U.S. history. The results include not only a new presidential administration but also deeper polarization. As we emerge from this election, we face a choice: Will we let disinformation and propaganda fill the void left by shuttered newsrooms, or can we find new ways to maintain local journalism, a crucial pillar of American democracy?