Local News is Necessary for a Thriving Democracy

An informed citizenry and electorate is necessary for any fully functioning democracy to thrive. This is especially true in a state like New Jersey with its 565 municipalities, each bustling with their own unique issues, events and developments. Local news is an invaluable resource that keeps residents informed and, more importantly, plays a key role in helping communities stay civically engaged and invested.

Conversely, the erosion of local news is directly linked to drops in civic participation and social cohesion, threatening democracy as we know it. New Jersey has a vested interest keeping its communities properly informed, and right now that means protecting local journalism and its ability to report on current events in every corner of the state.

Last year, Governor Murphy sought to address this issue head on by signing the Civic Information Consortium (CIC) into law. The CIC is an initiative meant to support local journalism in collaboration with a few of the state’s public universities, including The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Rowan University, and Rutgers University. Specifically, the consortium would solicit proposals from people around the state with innovative ideas to support journalism in their communities. The CIC would have its own staff to manage the fund and a board of directors to develop strategic priorities and approve grants. The board would prioritize funding to proposals that cover communities lacking a local news source, especially underserved communities, low-income communities and communities of color. Unfortunately, the funding necessary for the effort — $5 million in the first year and $1 million each year after — has yet to be secured. The Governor’s FY20 budget proposal has just $1 million in support for this program. In a budget that exceeds $38 billion in fiscal year 2020, New Jersey must make it a priority to dedicate sufficient funds for the CIC.

Civic Engagement Drops When Local News Disappears

Mounting research finds that local news and civic engagement are inextricably linked. When local news outlets shrink or disappear, knowledge of local politics, voting rates, and the number of candidates running for office significantly drop. The less news coverage there is, the less informed the public becomes, resulting in a lack of scrutiny of local government decision-making.

In early 2009, the Rocky Mountain News folded and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became an online-only publication. Researchers looked at the change in civic engagement after these events through a number of different metrics, including the number of residents who: 1) contacted a public official; 2) boycotted a product or service; 3) held membership in a neighborhood group; 4) help membership in a civic group; and 5) acted as an officer in a group. Compared to 8 other cities with their own dedicated newspapers still in business, Seattle and Denver saw a significant decline in civic engagement by most metrics.

Another study, this one of Cincinnati and its surrounding suburbs, assessed the impact of losing the Cincinnati Post in 2007. It found that, “fewer people voted in elections for city council, city commission, and school board; fewer candidates sought those seats; the remaining candidates spent less money on their campaigns; and, for councils and commissions, [and] incumbents’ chances of retaining office improved.” The report failed to find similar results in those Cincinnati communities served by the Cincinnati Enquirer, a paper that did not close.

The Economic Impact of Watchdog Reporting

Quality, local journalism requires robust resources in order to produce content that fosters civic engagement and promotes good government and healthy communities. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the public benefit that comes from quality press coverage makes government more accountable and communities more liveable. This is how it works: more sophisticated political coverage makes voters better informed, which increases oversight and induces politicians to be more industrious which, finally, produces better policies and outcomes for their constituencies.

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that members of Congress who are covered with less frequency by the local press in their districts produce less benefit for their constituencies, according to things like their voting record, participation in hearings or serving on constituency-oriented committees. Without the built-in accountability fostered by local journalism, less federal dollars are invested in communities that lack adequate political reporting.

And in Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, Stanford University Professor James Hamilton examined the political and social change sparked by journalism and found that “each dollar spent on stories can generate hundreds of dollars of benefits to society.” Just one journalist can have an enormous impact, as illustrated by the case study of Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Pat Stith of The News and Observer in Raleigh, NC. Stitch pursued over 150 investigations that led to the passage of dozens of state laws. We’ve seen similar achievements in New Jersey based on these excellent examples of journalism: a deep dive into the failures of New Jersey’s medical examiner system; an investigative report detailing a culture of sexual harassment and assault of inmates in state women’s prisons; and a look at Rutgers’ refusal to investigate sexual harassment claims against its professors.

Local News Builds Community and Community Builds Local News

As demonstrated by the infamous Bridgegate saga, local coverage is often the first to break a major story before it enters the national conversation. This is especially important in New Jersey, being the only state without its own major media market, with the New York market to the north and Philadelphia market to the south. Local journalists who break major stories are writing the first drafts of history, as their work eventually becomes an important reference for communities, historians, social scientists, and even epidemiologists. These diverse scholars have started to raise the alarm that losing local news and place-specific information cuts off communities who may be facing a crisis — like the lead poisoning in Flint. Losing local news sources also makes garnering national attention for critical issues much harder.

One of the core pillars of any healthy democracy is an informed public, especially when it comes to political issues. A strong local news outlet best serves its community when it creates an ecosystem of healthy debate and exchange of ideas to build social cohesion and empathy. In fact, the two actually reinforce each other: local newspapers are important to community engagement and those who feel connected to their community have stronger ties to local news.

State budgets are moral documents that represent that priorities and will of residents; making a commitment to support the CIC with state dollars sends a clear message that New Jersey values local news and recognizes its social and economic contributions to a thriving democracy.