A new report urges a pivot beyond local journalism into ‘civic information’

By Dan Kennedy

There is no substitute for journalism. For-profit legacy newspapers may no longer muster enough reporting capacity to cover their communities — especially if they’re owned by a corporate chain or a hedge fund. But independent journalism with reporters, editors and ethical standards are fundamental to providing the public with the news and information it needs to govern itself in a democracy.

Today we are seeing an explosion of independent local news outlets, mostly digital, mostly nonprofit. It’s happening in the Boston area and across the country. Yet a different kind of vision, stretching back to the earliest days of the web, persists: that members of the public can take charge of at least some of their own information needs. We used to call these people citizen journalists, and it became fashionable to sneer when that vision fell short of its most idealistic expectations. Yet it persists in some quarters and — harnessed properly — could still prove useful to grassroots democracy and storytelling.

Last week a report called “The Roadmap for Local News: An Emergent Approach to Meeting Civic Information Needs” was released by three respected media thinkers — Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, Darryl Holliday of City Bureau and Mike Rispoli of Free Press. Based on interviews with 51 thought leaders in local news, the report calls for reorienting ourselves from journalism to civic information in solving the local news crisis. They write:

This new ecosystem looks different from what it will replace: while the commercial market rewarded information monopolies, what is emerging now are pluralistic networks in which information is fluid, services are shared, and media is made in cooperation with the people it seeks to serve.

There’s a lot of language like that in the 28-page report, and it can be difficult in places to figure out exactly what they have in mind. But they do offer some examples that help make their vision come into focus. Among them: A text-messaging service, backed by reporting, to help subscribers keep up with school board meetings in Indianapolis; a digital memorial to those who died from COVID-19, along with a way for local residents to contribute more stories; and community events that bring residents and journalists together in order to identify coverage priorities — classic 1990s-style public journalism of the sort espoused by Jay Rosen, I might note. In another section they write:

Civic media practitioners are united by a vision of a world in which people everywhere are equipped to improve their communities through abundant access to high-quality information, on urgent health and safety emergencies, the environment, the people and processes of local government, and daily social services like healthcare, education, and transportation. In this vision, the community librarian facilitating conversations around authoritative, trusted digital news is as celebrated as the dogged reporter pursuing a scoop.

Now, I admire and respect librarians as much as the next person (my wife is one), but when it comes to holding government and other powerful institutions to account, I would respectfully suggest that we need more digging and less facilitating. But maybe we can have both.

Unfortunately, I think the report’s authors really run into trouble when they start telling us what this is all going to cost. They observe that public support for local news is slowly ticking up through direct governmental funding in New Jersey and California and as well as government-provided advertising in places like New York City and Chicago.

But they’re looking for more — a lot more — on the theory that market forces and philanthropy can’t come close to providing what’s needed. On the low end, they say $1 billion a year is needed; on the high end, they suggest $10 billion in order to employ at least 100 reporters per congressional district, as suggested by Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. a few months ago. The political environment is such that a Democratic Congress couldn’t even approve modest measures to let the news business negotiate for compensation from Google and Facebook or tax credits aimed at shoring up community journalism. And the Democrats, in case you haven’t noticed, are no longer in control. Green, Holliday and Rispoli write:

Civic information is a public good that market forces and philanthropy alone cannot support at the scale needed to enable healthy information ecosystems across the country. And for all the good produced by our public broadcasting system, it has also been chronically underfunded especially in comparison to other democratic countries.

The underfunding is certainly real enough. Victor Pickard, in his 2020 book “Democracy without Journalism,” observes that the entire budget for public broadcasting in the U.S. is less than is allocated to the Pentagon’s public-relations office. But the U.S. isn’t Western Europe, where government-funded news is taken for granted and where — we should keep in mind — there is no First Amendment to provide independent journalism with the protections that it enjoys here.

Thus it seems unlikely that the vision laid out in “The Roadmap for Local News” will come to pass. And despite a number of references to the importance of “editorial independence,” some of the ideas in the report strike me as at least a theoretical threat to journalism’s traditional watchdog role. Libraries, after all, are an arm of government — and are under attack from the political right. Local access cable television, which also gets a shoutout, is under the government’s thumb as well. Don’t get me wrong — local access is a wonderful, underutilized asset in every community. But it’s really not in a position to lead the charge on corruption in the mayor’s office.

The agenda in “The Roadmap for Local News” is worth following through on, and would result in better informed communities and greater public participation in civic life. These are worthy goals. But we need journalism, too. I would go so far as to say we need what we might refer to as traditional journalism, even if our reporting methods and the ways in which we distribute our work have changed. Moreover, the money for doing that is not going to come from the government — and shouldn’t, except in a few indirect ways that don’t threaten our independence.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University specializing in the future of local journalism at whatworks.news. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

2 thoughts on “A new report urges a pivot beyond local journalism into ‘civic information’”

  1. I will never say “no” to more local news, but briefly reading the report, it seems like more of the same we see out of a lot of Local Revivalism proposals. My biggest hang-up is with “Communities with less local news experienced … fewer people running for office, lower attendance at public meetings on community issues, a declining sense of belonging, and a decline in rates of voting.” I think the causation here is entirely backwards. A lack of local news isn’t causing the decline in local participation. When I think about my small town of 10,000 outside of Worcester, it isn’t that information isn’t available – There are very low barriers to voting and, if you have the time, watching local meetings. This is a story about social capital and group activism! Local newspapers are declining because they have less to report on and fewer readers willing to pay.

    Government and Journalism share the responsibility of lowering barriers to participation, and today they are at historically low levels. It is up to actual political organizations to create what political engagement!


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