“I’m thinking of the dismemberment of robust local news outlets across huge swaths of the country in the past five to ten years. If they haven’t been gutted, they’ve closed. That goes for big outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, and especially for medium-sized and small outlets with a strong tradition of fact-based reporting, like the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Battle Creek Enquirer, the South Bend Tribune.
I’m thinking of The Rocky Mountain News (defunct), The Boston Phoenix (defunct), The Green Bay Press-Gazette, The Flint Journal, The Columbus Dispatch, The Pittsburgh Press-Gazette. I’m thinking of ethnic media, like Michigan Chronicle and the Chicago Defender. Where I grew up in Southwest Michigan, it’s a desert of reported local news. Most of the country can say the same.
This near-erasure of a news infrastructure over huge stretches of the country has a serious impact on our democracy. Omnipresent issues that might rise to the surface in, say, Michigan or Wisconsin, never do; the national press that is almost entirely clustered on coasts is never alerted. Locally, the news vacuum contributes to a profound cycle of disinformation that citizens are fed about what is happening in their disinvested regions, and why. And, as a particularly prescient journalist suggested to me this week, not having local reporters among you — visible, part of your neighborhood, someone turning out dispatches from the school board meetings — makes it easier to demonize “journalists” and “the media.” They start to seem distant and scary, just like politicians.
I get irritated with folks who say that they rely primarily on “social media” for news. But when there’s a total void of local news outlets, it’s all you have.
Anyway. It’s a weird time to be a journalist based in Michigan who writes for mostly national outlets. A freelancer, natch, whose only option for health insurance is through the Affordable Care Act.
Rebuilding and supporting the architecture of local news seems like it should be high on the agenda of us all. Here is how we might begin. These suggestions are adapted as a downloadable PDF here.
- Subscribe, donate, and/or advertise
Become a stakeholder. Good journalism—or any journalism—is impossible without your support. That is just how it is. When you think about where to put your dollars, consider both local news outlets and national ones; digital and print subscriptions; magazines, newspapers, online nonprofit journalism outlets (like ProPublica, The Marshall Project, Belt, WisconsinWatch, MinnPost, or Bridge Magazine), public radio (NPR, PRI), and public broadcasting (PBS).
This is the number-one thing you can do to help.
Consider a range of journalism perspectives and reporting styles, or trying out different ones year to year. And give gift subscriptions to your friends and family members! Magazines are especially good for this.
- Support the work of those fighting for a free press
This can take a variety of approaches. Here are a few possibilities:
The Investigative Fund
This Fund provides reporters with the editorial guidance and financial support necessary to do the expensive work of investigative reporting. This helps fill the gap in watchdog reporting across the country. Work they’ve incubated has appeared in or on The New York Times Magazine; PBS’s Need to Know; NPR’s Marketplace, Harper’s, The New Republic, AARP Magazine, The New Republic, and more.
The Society for Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund
A news outlet can go bankrupt when a person wealthy enough to fund a lawsuit decides to sue them—whether the complaint is justified or not. Plus, it takes money for journalists to hold our government accountable to open records laws. This Fund “collects and distributes contributions for aiding journalists in defending the freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The Columbia Journalism Review
Caveat: I wrote for them for 4.5 years, covering journalism in the Great Lakes states. But I read them long before that. CJR is “the most respected voice on press criticism, and it shapes the ideas that make media leaders and journalists smarter about their work.” Be part of visioning the future.
New America Media
This is the country’s largest national network of 3,000 ethnic news organizations. New America advocates for strong journalism that serves over 57 million ethnic adults across the country.
Committee to Project Journalists
CPJ is a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of reporters around the world who have been attacked, imprisoned and persecuted for doing their jobs. It also does a great deal of research on press freedoms, and their repression.
The News Literacy Reporting Project
This is a national education project where professional journalists work with young people in middle and high schools, teaching them digital-age media literacy and how to discern fact from fiction.
Like the Investigative Fund, but with a focus on poverty and economic insecurity. Founded by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nicked and Dimed, it commissions narrative features, photo essays, and video that “put a human face on financial instability.” The Project funds the reporting and photojournalism, and then helps it get published in places like The New York Times, MSNBC, and Slate.
- Participate in media yourself—responsibly
Contribute op-eds and letters to the editor from time to time.
When you share news stories on social media, vet them—make sure they are coming from a reputable news outlet, so that you don’t contribute to the cycle of disinformation. If you share something that turns out to be false, delete it and make a transparent note about why. Help hold your networks to the same standards.
Also, consider integrating journalism into the work that you do. If you are an educator, for example, you might add news outlets to your curriculum. I’ve seen college classes where the “textbook” the students must each get is a semester-long subscription to the New York Times, or a magazine of their choice. Media literacy and engagement is part of the necessary work.
And, hell, if you want to start your own great new news outlet, or buy one so that you can pour resources into it, then more power to you!
- Read and share original sourced work, not aggregations
Rather than sharing a story that aggregates or summarizes the news, choose the original source. Often, it is embedded as a link or credit line in the summary stories; it should be no trouble to find it. This ensures that the news outlet that did the actual reporting will get the benefit of all those clicks—not the website that poaches their work.
The same goes for partisan memes and hot takes. As Detroit Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer has urged, choose instead to prioritize well-sourced opinion pieces.
And before you share something, do a quick scan of the date, so that you aren’t, say, sharing the obituary of someone who died years ago as if it happened today. Let’s try to avoid adding to the fog!
- Remove your ad-blockers
Don’t use ad-blockers on your computer. While, yes, they can be annoying, those ads are what urgently needed to pay for the journalism. The news outlet doesn’t realize any benefit if your system blocks them.
FOR NATIONAL REPORTERS:
- Consider who you’re talking to
When you report a feature from a region that is a relative news desert—say, the Upper Midwest—consider publishing it in an alt-weekly or local publication, rather than Esquire. You might get it funded by, say, the Investigative Fund, in order to pay for the work, but you might choose to publish it in a place where you are talking to and not just about people in these areas.
Pause here for a plug to ProPublica, which partners with local news outlets. The stories they cultivate are typically cross-published so that readers of both the local and national outlets benefit from it.
FOR DECISION-MAKERS AT NATIONAL NEWS OUTLETS
- Spread full-time reporting staff across the country
Occasional freelance work and thinly-staffed bureaus are not enough. The digital era has seen even more media consolidation on the coasts—not less, as one might expect, since it is less logistically necessary than ever. This contributes to serious blind spots in national reporting. Remember: it took three months after the Michigan governor acknowledged that Flint’s water was poisonous before it became a national news story. This coastal consolidation also contributes to widespread mistrust of “the media” as journalists become ever more distant and defamliarized from communities that they want to serve.
There’s no reason for this. To borrow from Pamela Colloff of the excellent Texas Monthly, who wrote on Twitter recently: “My suggestion from flyover country: don’t send reporters here on anthropology trips. Live here. Be deeply-rooted.”
Let’s widen the bench. Hire full-time talent that lives in Detroit, Kansas City, South Bend, Louisville, Reno, Houston, and beyond. Plenty of talent is already here, after all. We’ve got our notepads, recorders, and wireless connections. We’re ready to do the work.
Belt asked editors and authors of our books for their views on the media and the election based on their local perspectives. For other pieces in this ongoing series, see Eric Boyd’s view from Pittsburgh, Ted McClelland on the Rust Belt as political and economic bellwether, Mark Athitakis on the export of Rust Belt jobs to the southwest, and more to come.