There’s a contradiction in the journalism world right now. First, there’s the doom and gloom. You’ve likely heard some version of the grinding statistics before: over 500 of the 1,800 local newspapers that closed or merged since 2004 were in rural communities, according to “The Expanding News Desert,” a 2018 report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Or “Between 2008 and 2018 the newspaper industry experienced a 68% drop in advertising revenue,” according to a 2019 study from the public policy nonprofit Brookings Institution.
These are the kind of numbers that have probably made every reporter at one time, while staring at a naked white page on their computer screen, wonder “What about that marketing job?”
But in spite of these trends, or maybe because of them, a newfound interest has emerged recently that focuses on how to keep vital local news alive. Investigative nonprofit reporting powerhouse ProPublica created the Local Reporting Network in 2018.
With the goal of supporting local newsrooms, ProPublica partners with reporters who are working on investigative projects in U.S. cities with fewer than 1 million people. In two years, these ProPublica partnerships have produced stories that exposed aggressive medical billing of the poor in Memphis, rising levels of cancer-causing air pollution in Louisiana, and high numbers of inmate deaths in California’s Fresno County Jail.
Another initiative working to support reporting on under-covered issues and communities is Report for America (RFA). Launched in 2017, RFA sends aspiring journalists to thin newsrooms and under-covered regions across the country. Think Teach For America, the program that puts early-career educators in low-income schools, but instead with cameras and notepads. RFA accomplishes its mission by paying half a reporter’s salary along with their sponsor newsroom for up to two years.
My last newsroom at KUER in Salt Lake City hosted two RFA reporters who produced some of the best stories of the year from remote corners of Utah. Listeners suddenly heard what was going on with state politics and the environment every week, instead of sporadic stories reported by phone from 300 miles away in the Capitol. In 2020, our region will also benefit from this initiative; RFA positions were recently announced at the Redding Record Searchlight and the Klamath Falls Herald and News.
All of this is good news. But it’s more of a reminder of the importance of local journalism than a long-term solution to the industry’s problems. ProPublica can only throw its investigative muscle behind a handful of local stories each year. Many staff with Report for America will inevitably move on once their two years is up. That’s especially true if their host newsroom sees their position as another journalism fellowship and doesn’t fundraise to keep them around. In this way, I’m again reminded of the strangely successful business model of public radio.
The brilliance of NPR when it comes to local reporting is the relationship between member stations and “the mothership” in Washington D.C.. While the best newspapers in the country send a handful of correspondents to regional hubs across the country like Seattle, Denver and Atlanta (don’t get me wrong, NPR has correspondents too) NPR does something far simpler: it trusts local reporters at member stations like Jefferson Public Radio to tell their own stories to a national audience. When big news happens near an NPR member station, more often than not, it’s a local reporter that knows the community who will be reporting to national editors on the coasts. Having reporters live in the communities they cover adds regional nuance. Having a national outlet broadcast that work leverages scale and amplifies stories.
Hopefully, this relationship is getting even stronger. While NPR headquarters have historically been split between offices in Washington D.C. and Culver City, California, a new editor was recently hired to cover the Mountain West. Former news director of Montana Public Radio Eric Whitney was hired as NPR’s first Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief to “leverage the talent spread across the public radio system.” That may feel far away from the State of Jefferson, but having more NPR editors in “fly-over states” who understand local issues means more time for the West Coast bureau chief to focus on the nuanced issues in our own region.
Finding ways to fund robust local journalism in a region like ours is difficult. I hope for a future that’s rich in public-interest journalism; journalism that’s competitive, that informs and sheds light, reporting that creates accountability, and that sometimes entertains. The current spotlight on local news should remind us of the important stories that are all around us and that investing in local coverage should be more than just a passing trend.
Erik Neumann is a reporter who grew up in the Northwest. He's passionate about telling the human stories behind America's health care system, public lands and the environment, and the arts. He got his Masters degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Erik joined JPR after several years as a staff reporter at KUER, the NPR station in Salt Lake City, where he focused on health care coverage. He was a 2019 Mountain West fellow with the Association of Health Care Journalists and is a contributor at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics.