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Demonstrating the value of community reporting, from public health to government spending

United States Project

How should local journalism show its value?
By Brendan Fitzgerald

Beginning in 2016, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette—the lone daily newspaper in its region, with offices in two of the state’s most populous counties—covered a mumps outbreak that impacted thousands and ultimately accounted for nearly half of the nation’s mumps cases that year. Headlines in the Democrat Gazette tracked the outbreak’s rise and fall, through a September 2017 article that declared the state “mumps free.” For Maia Majumder, the local paper provided an invaluable public health resource that many communities throughout the country no longer can. (Here’s how Majumder, a computational epidemiology research fellow at HealthMap, sums up her work.)

Her work with colleagues depends “very heavily on local news,” Majumder told STAT in an interview. “And I think what this will probably mean is that there are going to be pockets of the US where we’re just not going to have a particularly good signal anymore.” The STAT story about Majumder’s work caught the attention of Coloradoan columnist Kevin Duggan. “The decline of American journalism could make you sick,” wrote Duggan, who used the STAT story to drum up support for his paper. “A community without a reliable local news source loses out in many ways, including advancing public health.”

Majumder’s comments sharpened concern over the decline of local news in many American communities to a fine point. But there are plenty more. As the STAT story made the rounds again last week, Josh Stearns and Teresa Gorman’s Local Fix newsletter offered more than a half-dozen similar examples of how communities are shaped by the loss of news, which can impact government spending, civic engagement, and volunteering. In Democracy’s Detectives, Stanford University journalism professor James T. Hamilton studied the costs of a News and Observer investigation into North Carolina’s probation system. “I estimate that for each dollar in investigative costs, $287 emerged in net policy benefits in the first year of full implementation of probation reforms,” he told CJR in 2017.

Though its impacts may not always be so easy to quantify, local journalism stitches itself into the fabric of the community it covers. This month, UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media will release new data on the proliferation of news deserts since 2004. Since that year, there has been a net loss of roughly 1,500 news sources, according to this report by Tom Stites in Poynter. When a local news outlet struggles or closes, that fabric weakens.

Majumder’s concern for information access and public health is a strong argument for the necessity of local journalism—a moment when the existential concerns of reporters and their audiences align. While it’s a plea from outside the newsroom, the growth of news deserts and the diminution of countless media outlets in the past decade should make this a prime moment for journalists to consider how they might best justify their work. Great reporting often speaks for itself; increasingly, its authors should consider how to do the same.

How does your local news outlet demonstrate its value to your community? Let us know.

Here are a few more things we’re reading:

  • The long arm of Sinclair: Politico details how Sinclair Broadcasting Group maintains stakes in local TV stations—even after it has sold them. Margaret Harding McGill reports that recent sales arrangements enable Sinclair to “handle advertising sales and offer news programming to the stations,” as well as claim a portion of sales revenue. One purchaser asserted his right to reject Sinclair’s programming, which has included “must-run” segments at the media company’s stations. A former FCC chairman told reporter McGill that Sinclair’s practice “borders on regulatory fraud.”
     
  • “I made my mark the way I did.” As staffers continue to leave the Denver Post, former editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett—who spearheaded the paper’s notorious rebellion against its hedge-fund owners—has a new gig. The University of Colorado Boulder recently chose Plunkett to oversee its CU News Corps team, where he’ll help journalism students shape longform investigative projects. The CU News Corps publishes work in collaboration with a number of Colorado news outlets—including, historically, the Denver Post.
     
  • Speaking of Colorado… The prolific and divisive Ryan Adams recently surprised a Colorado radio station with a jingle. A few clicks later, we’d arrived at this history of radio jingles, courtesy of NPR. Most radio markets had more than one Top 40 station, one source told NPR. “And they both, you know, played the same music. And they both had the same commercials. And they both had screaming Top 40 disc jockeys. And what separated them was the jingles.”
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