If the local free press is to survive, it must better understand what readers want. Simply fixing the cash flow isn’t enough. A new report by the Pew Research Center can help.

A vibrant, local free press is essential to democracy and civic discourse. Local news media hold city, county and state officials accountable. They cover the stories that no national media have time for. They bring professionalism to their reporting that is absent from amateur reporters and partisan news sites.

That’s not enough to convince the public that the press is on their side, according to Pew’s findings.

The nonpartisan research center found that not only do the majority of Americans view the news media skeptically, they also believe such skepticism is healthy. “Americans want to keep a watchful eye on the watchdog,” said Amy Mitchell, Pew’s director of journalism research.

When every news report is dissected, doubted and filtered through partisan lenses, the imperative role of a free press in a free society erodes.

Pew found that a perceived lack of transparency helps drive skepticism. Respondents said news media don’t explain where their money comes from, when they have a conflict of interest and how they choose their sources.

Advertising

Some disdain breaks along partisan lines. Sixty percent of people who are Republican or lean Republican said that a desire to mislead the public is a major reason significant mistakes make their way into news stories. Only 32% of Democrats and lean-Democrats agreed.

After more than 20 years of working for newspapers, I can assure you that when reporters or editorial writers make mistakes, it’s because they are fallible human beings, not because they want to mislead anyone. There are few things worse than walking into your editor’s office and telling them you need to run a correction.

At least those corrections matter. Half of the Pew respondents said that seeing corrections increased their confidence in news outlets.

Local news media shouldn’t despair, though. Pew’s report was about The News Media, as if it were some sort of monolithic entity. When someone mentions “The News Media,” my mind goes first to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and MSNBC, not The Seattle Times. I suspect most people have the same response.

And once our minds go there, it colors answers to survey questions. The local press winds up stained by the sins of the national media. “Do you think the news media is biased?” Well sure, Fox News and MSNBC have their respective slants.

When researchers ask about the local news media specifically, a different picture emerges. A 2019 Pew report found that two-thirds of Americans believe local news sources are accurate and supply news they use daily.

Advertising

More clearly differentiating local news media from national news media could be a solid foundation on which to build press credibility.

Mitchell suggested that the local press do things that the national press can’t or won’t. Starting with financial transparency, “a majority thinks there is corporate interest influencing the news reporting,” she said.

In the interest of such transparency, then, I can share that The Seattle Times is locally owned and is not in the pocket of corporate interests. Amazon and Microsoft don’t dictate content; readers do. Sixty-five percent of the Times’ total revenue comes from subscriptions, 26% from ads and 9% from other sources like delivery of partner papers and grants, according to Alan Fisco, Times president.

Local newspapers also can increase trust by better engaging with readers, according to Mitchell. “Most Americans want to have a personal connection to their news sources, but most don’t feel it,” she said. “They say news outlets don’t understand them or value people like them.”

That’s something the local media’s reporters on the ground and in the community can do far better than any national press that parachutes in for a riot or superficial travel piece.

Perhaps the most important finding in Pew’s research, the one that sums up everything else is that readers who feel valued by the press view the press much more favorably. Cultivate that feeling, then, and the free press’ other challenges might become more manageable.