Many of the Southeast Iowa Union’s older readers live in rural areas and don’t get their news online. So when they need to know how the coronavirus is affecting their community, they rely on the newspaper.
“People appreciated the reporting we did,” says Ashley Duong, a former reporter for the paper. “Rural America is kind of forgotten, and . . . national publications, they aren’t covering it.”
Yet local news outlets are in trouble. Many are downsizing or closing. They can’t compete with national outlets in attracting advertisers. Some are bought by national media companies and stop covering local stories. This is a problem for democracy.
According to a report by PEN America, some 1,800 local newspapers have closed since 2004. Many communities do not have a trusted source for health or education news. And there is little or no reporting about local government. Without that information, people are often less likely to vote in local elections.
Many Americans still trust local news outlets over national ones. The Pew Research Center found that 46% of adults relied heavily on local coverage early in the pandemic.
It’s easy to see why. Ren Larson is a reporter for the Texas Tribune and ProPublica. “The media holds our elected officials and community leaders accountable ,” she says.
Making a Difference
Larson’s reporting has helped readers take action. In 2019, she worked on a story for the Arizona Republic about towns vulnerable to wildfire. It drew on data from about 5,000 communities in the western United States. “People used that data to present to their local council about the hazards [in their area],” Larson says. Local reporting is especially important in a pandemic. People need information about safety measures and vaccines.
Annika Hom writes about inequality for Mission Local, in San Francisco, California. The news site covers the city’s Mission District. Its reporters questioned officials about how they were handling the neighborhood’s struggle with COVID-19. “Local journalism helps you get closer to the truth,” Hom says.
Larson agrees. “Local newsrooms have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in a community,” she says. “They are essential to maintaining a democracy.”