News Literacy Week: There’s still hope for local news

When you consider that more than two-thirds of newspaper journalists across the country have lost their jobs, it’s easy to see how it’s become harder to hold those in power accountable and keep communities well-informed. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI

Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Last year, the Pulitzer Prize for Local Journalism went to Mississippi Today for reporting how the state's governor used his office to steer millions of welfare dollars to family and friends.

Alabama's also was honored for exposing how police in the town of Brookside preyed on local residents to inflate revenue. The latter led to the resignation of the local police chief.

Beyond the Pulitzer winners, investigative journalist Joseph Cranney recently celebrated local journalism in a thread on X (formerly Twitter) that showcased an example of local reporting from every state in the nation that exposed corruption and wrongdoing in 2023.

In a functioning democracy, high-quality local journalism is essential to ensuring that community leaders are working in the public's best interest. Local news unites communities, serving as the proverbial "water cooler" where people gather to find out what the city council is working on, who won school board elections, what the high school football scores were, which roads are under repair and numerous other developments that residents need to know.

But local news is in crisis. Since 2005, almost 2,900 newspapers in the United States have shut down, leaving many communities without a reliable source of information. According to Northwestern University's Local News Initiative, residents in more than half of U.S. counties have little or no access to reliable local news. When you consider that more than two-thirds of newspaper journalists across the country have lost their jobs, it's easy to see how it's become harder to hold those in power accountable and keep communities well-informed.

That loss can change a community. When local newspapers are shut down, communities have lower voter turnout, decreased civic engagement, less well-functioning government and increased polarization.

Ironically, even with fewer community newspapers, Americans tend to trust local news more than they do national news. A recent Gallup poll shows only 23% of people believe national news organizations care about the best interests of their audience, as opposed to 47% who believe local news outlets care.

There are solutions to this crisis and ways to build greater trust in the fourth estate.

Last year, an initiative called Press Forward announced that it will inject $500 million into the local news landscape. The goal is to support sustainable news organizations that will "re-center local journalism as a force for community cohesion" through technological innovation and hiring of diverse staff representative of the regions they report on. Rebuild Local News is taking important steps on the legislative front by introducing bipartisan solutions such as tax credits for hiring local journalists, new antitrust policies to discourage newspaper consolidation and other incentives for advertisers and subscribers.

And they aren't alone. Many initiatives and groups are addressing this crisis, including Trusting News, which offers detailed plans for news outlets to demonstrate their credibility and trustworthiness to the communities and the National Trust for Local News, which helps to find capital for new ownership structures of local media.

The public also has a role. People can subscribe and donate to their local news outlets. Producing high-quality news costs money and highlighting local accountability journalism that improves lives in the community helps news consumers who value credible reporting understand the need to pay for it.

A less obvious but equally important step is to become more news-literate. News literacy is the ability to identify credible sources of news and information. It empowers people to think critically about social media posts and news reports to determine for themselves whether the information is factual and trustworthy.

Now is a great time to start. The News Literacy Project, the organization I lead, in conjunction with the E.W. Scripps Co., will present the fifth annual National News Literacy Week this week. This year's theme is "spotlight on local news." We're hosting several events to showcase how we can help keep our communities informed, what students are doing to address this crisis, how educators can teach news literacy skills to their students and ways the public can apply simple tips and tools to find reliable information.

I hope you'll join us and be part of a national conversation about the role of local news in a democracy and the responsibilities we, as voters, must ensure that we're all well-informed about what's happening in our communities.

Charles Salter is president and CEO of the News Literacy Project and a former educator.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.