By Robert Penna
Throughout history, residents of smaller communities have relied on local tribunes, gazettes, chronicles, heralds, and posts for credible and pertinent news and information. Sadly, in the past 15 years, more than ¼ of local newspapers have closed or merged with larger media outlets. The disappearance of this type of publication has left many inner-city, suburban, and rural communities high and dry in what is known as news deserts. News deserts are areas with limited access to trusted news and information.
In 2012, the FCC defined eight topics they consider to be critical information needs for all American citizens:
- Emergencies and Public Safety
- Environment and Planning
- Economic Development
- Civic Life
- Political Life
Struggling newspapers have been bought out and gutted by hedge funds or merged with larger media companies. The staff is cut severely, and newsrooms lose their capacity to address local needs meaningfully and thoroughly. A community can lose its identity and knowledge of self without local journalists providing a mirror to reflect. Integrity suffers, and trust is lost without local perspectives. This is where a breakdown in two of the pillars of democracy can be seen, representation and access to information. A healthy democracy is one that sees to it that all citizens are represented and presented with the information that they need to make responsible decisions.
What does representation look like?
One of the beauties of local journalism lies in the importance assigned to the very readers themselves. A local newspaper connects the citizens with some national news and headlines, but one of its more important functions is the legitimizing of local achievements. An achievement may not be worthy of making national news, but to the residents of the community, even the smallest of victories are worth celebrating. Community members can read the same articles as their neighbors and be unified in their support of local sports teams, schools and businesses. Individuals are also remembered in their life and death in obituaries.
What does access to information look like?
Another important role local newspapers have is informing readers of the issues most likely to affect them. These are issues specific to communities that may go completely unnoticed by larger media sources but are locally very significant. The topics covered in the local paper include the local weather, events, taxes, zoning, crime, and developments in city and state government. Keeping citizens in the know about the happenings of their own community is a crucial part of promoting civic engagement both individually and collectively. In this way, local journalism serves as an essential democratic force that supports community cohesion and informed political participation.
Local is defined as belonging or relational to a particular area or neighborhood. Giving voice to information from a local perspective makes it impactful, relevant, and essential. This is how we identify ourselves, and local newspapers are cornerstones of this uniqueness.