By Jessie Walton for Midstory.

For decades, the bike-riding paperboy hurling the daily news at doorsteps was a staple in the average American city. Over morning coffee, readers would learn about the band coming to town next week, the local official accused of embezzlement or a Tuesday deal at the nearby barbershop. Now, with paperboys out of a job, the daily news is at our fingertips even when we don’t actively seek it, carefully selected by convoluted algorithms. In the Starbucks drive-thru line on the way to work, we listen to our news podcast of choice—hearing almost exclusively about national turmoil—and scroll through the local weather forecast for the day while at a red light.

In a time of extreme, multitudinous crises and amidst cries of “fake news,” foreign interference and biased coverage, journalism finds itself in a more complicated and muddy situation than ever. Fundamentally, the issues haven’t changed much: misinformation, confirmation bias and lack of transparency were already crucial points of debate by 1919 thanks to Walter Lippman (What really is a “free” press?). But no longer are they somewhat straightforward struggles amongst editors, writers, laymen and philosophers; in a mere century, technological innovation and rapid globalization have forever changed the environment in which news media functions. 

That once-picturesque and quaint yet vital role of news media shifted dramatically in the 21st century as the Internet opened the way for the digital era. On the positive side, accessibility and diversity of resources skyrocketed as news became available and, in some sense, “free.” On the other hand, with a new plethora of access and choice in the news we consume came new challenges and responsibilities: Who decides what is “true”? What responsibility does the journalist have to inform the general public, and, in turn, what responsibility does the general public have to consume and uphold that information? And perhaps a most dire question: How can we support and uphold the integrity of journalism in this new era, a century that has disrupted the traditional workings of the news industry?

An Industry in Decline

While some national news organizations have seen record subscriptions and have had mild success with the digital transition (subscriber-only content, online advertising, etc.), the majority of newsrooms across the U.S. remain in decline—especially small, local publications. In the last 15 years, U.S. cities lost about 2,100 newspapers, according to a study by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Journalists—even those with Pulitzers on their resumes—have not survived the expansion of “news deserts” throughout the nation. More than 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs since 2004. 

And print is not the only medium struggling. Thousands of local radio channels facing financial pressures have succumbed to corporate ownership. Deregulation gave corporations the green light to buy out local stations, contributing to a decline of local ownership. With this comes a decline in local focus.

Outcomes for local TV news are slightly better, but the industry is still in decline. While local TV news revenue remains steady and continues to be consistent during election years, stations are losing their audience across multiple time slots. The broadcast news industry also currently employs close to 30,000 people a year with a median annual income of $50,000. TV news is taking up more airtime than it has in the past, and now most stations broadcast an average of 6 hours of news programming a day. But local TV news stations are also frequently owned by a larger media company, with TV news acquisitions spiking in 2006 and rising again in 2013 and 2018. Despite some promising trends in broadcast news and the industry continuously innovating, there are still some points of concern. 

Local TV news is following a trend seen in national news, cutting down on edited news packages and instead focusing on live coverage, sports, and weather, possibly in an effort to decrease the resources and funding it takes to produce news packages. And with a younger generation increasingly turning off TV news and instead turning to online sources, there remains concern that TV news will face similar problems to print news, especially in local communities. So while TV news remains a staple in many people’s day to day lives, its future is uncertain. 

A Regional Perspective

So what does this decline in local journalism mean for the Midwest? For Ohio? How can we revitalize local journalism in the region? The Local Journalism Project seeks to begin to answer these questions—and to open up a platform to brainstorm for innovation. 

The Midwest is in a unique geographical and social position; it has physical distance from urban news hubs on the coasts, and the working class, middle American population of the Midwest is typically not well represented in media produced outside of the region. While there are several local print publications published in the Midwest and along the East Coast, print papers are increasingly dying off in favor of digital journalism. Currently, the main boom of online reporting is occurring in New York City and Los Angeles, and the largest Midwestern bases for online reporting are near Chicago and also on the border of Ohio and Indiana. There are already seeds in place for greater reporting in the Midwest, and there is a vital need for local news sources to provide both information and representation to Midwesterners that they will not receive elsewhere. 

Despite this need for local news sources, local journalism is lacking in many parts of the Midwest. For example, 38 out of Ohio’s 88 counties only have one newspaper. And 17 of those newspapers in single-newspaper counties publish weekly. The absence of local media outlets and the lack of competition between those still standing means that some stories are never reported. 

Furthemore, Ohio simply employs fewer journalists. Out of 12 Midwestern states, Ohio ranks seventh in number of journalists per 1,000 employees, which highlights weak local journalism presence. And a continuing trend of layoffs threatens the strength of newsrooms throughout the state.

Even Ohio’s most prominent news outlets are not immune to this trend. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, a 178-year-old publication with an average circulation size ranked 17th in the nation in 2013, laid off 22 journalists in April. This is only the most recent of several decisions made by the paper to downsize its newsroom in the past few years. 

This time, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s leadership also informed the remaining staff that they were no longer allowed to cover Cleveland, Cuyahoga county or the state of Ohio. Coverage of those areas was transferred to nonunion reporters at the PD’s sister newsroom, cleveland.com. This sudden change highlights the job insecurity that further pushes even journalists with decades of experience out of Ohio’s news industry. 

Lack of adequate accountability reporting leads to tangible negative impact on American cities. Local governments are more likely to be corrupt and wasteful. The quality of education in local public schools tends to worsen. Additionally, municipal borrowing and local taxes increase significantly, according to research by Professor Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame.  Local journalists across the country uncover these issues through hard-hitting accountability reporting, and for their efforts to continue and expand, local media must be restored.

In subsequent installments of this project, Midstory will discuss various factors contributing to the loss of local media outlets, evaluate recent changes to the news media landscape and consider prospects for the future of local journalism, all with a focus on the Midwest.

One major factor to consider is funding. Struggling outlets either shut down or sell out to media groups that own several outlets in different cities across the U.S. This leads to more homogeneity in coverage and less local reporting. To preserve the local focus in the Midwest, there needs to be a better understanding of the causes behind decreasing circulation and the changes in traditional revenue models. Moreover, the possibility of reviving local journalism through the nonprofit model has gained attention in recent years.

Midstory is also looking into the ongoing impact emerging technologies and digital connection have on local journalism. While most national newspapers, networks and magazines now have an extensive online presence with innovative multimedia pieces and engaging social media usage, the Midstory team will explore how smaller and more local newsrooms measure up with their digital reporting. This discussion includes the contemporary history of digital reporting, modern trends, what online journalists need to change about their work and how the Internet will influence the future of local journalism.

Also, to understand the prospects of journalism in a place like Ohio, there’s no better place to look than student journalism. Future writers, podcasters, and editors often hone their skills at colleges and universities, reporting on student life and opining about local controversies for their campus publications. A strong presence of student journalism bodes well not only for schools, but also for localities that lack dedicated professional reporters.

Student newspapers have found longevity through unique business models – sustained primarily by the churn of journalistically-inclined students through academic communities – but they, too, have been forced to adapt to a rapidly-evolving news environment. Though many have switched to primarily online operations, some decades-old publications have become inactive, leaving students without a voice in campus affairs or an accessible platform to express their ideas about happenings beyond the ivory tower.

The overall impact of local journalism is evident now more than ever, with COVID-19 both amplifying the need for accurate information and exacerbating the financial challenges that threaten local media outlets. These conflicting truths shed light on the necessity of a better understanding of our sources of local information, how they survive and how they fall. Look out for more through the Local Journalism Project from Midstory.

Karolen Eid, Delaney Murray and Remy Reya contributed to this article.

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