October 28, 2020
As rising partisanship continues to divide the country, political parties have begun exploiting “news deserts,” the communities across the nation that lack local news outlets.
This development, though disturbing, is not altogether unsurprising. More than 2,000 local newspapers have closed since 2004, and those that remain open are struggling to survive COVID. This extinction of local newspapers has left 1,300 US communities without access to local coverage.
The decline of local news might seem like a trivial issue compared to the upcoming election but in reality, it has a tremendous impact on the outcome. For example, lack of local news has been directly tied to increased municipal buying costs in government – without reporting on local government, officials have no watchdog to deter them from wasteful spending and corruption.
This lack of local news has also been tied to increased partisanship in communities. Without a local newspaper, people often turn to less reliable sources for information such as social media and talk radio, which are often politically biased. Individuals living in news deserts are thus deprived of critical information to make informed decisions – such as who to vote for.
The New York Times published an investigative article exposing a network of nearly 1,300 websites masquerading as local news sites while publishing propagandistic stories paid for by conservative PR spokespeople and/or Republican operatives. One such Republican congressional candidate was found to have paid the network $55,000 in the past three years. The network’s sites operating in this candidate’s state published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her campaign.
Democracy cannot function when citizens lack the tools to meaningfully educate themselves about politics and thus identify when they are being willfully misled. The fact that certain partisan groups are attempting to capitalize on this crisis by distorting local newspapers into promotional resources for their own gain speaks to how important it is that local news is preserved for the community it serves.
Although the situation appears bleak, there are many ways individuals and communities can help save local news. Making sure to subscribe to your local newspaper is a great first step to help keep its doors open. Other steps to take include donating to nonprofit news outlets and pushing for key legislation from government officials, such as taxing major search engines to help support local news.
Small actions go a long way if enough people take the first step. It is essential that we all do our part to ensure the survival of local news.