Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Last week, I asked readers, “What is the state of local journalism where you live, and how does it affect your community?”
Replies have been edited for length and clarity.
Ralph, who didn’t say where he lived, shared a concern that I heard from readers all over the country:
It is painful to watch as our once-proud newspaper has become a shell nearly devoid of meaningful content. I keep hoping the local-news business will hit bottom and begin a long, slow climb back, but I don’t see any sign of that yet. I wonder when people will begin to feel a need for local news and be willing to pay for it.
Ray weighs in from Texas:
In Dallas we are down to a shell of the once-great daily, The Dallas Morning News, which was once upon a time at its peak when it competed with the afternoon daily, The Dallas Times Herald.
Just 20 years ago, we had many free newspapers published in English, Spanish, and other languages. Grocery stores had racks for all of them. We once had many independent radio and TV stations, too. The competitive media environment in Dallas in the ’80s is even a theme in an ESPN documentary, 30 for 30: Pony Excess, about the pay-for-play scandal in Southern Methodist University football. Without such competitive media chasing the “scoop,” the story of the SMU scandal might never have been uncovered. And that’s just football, not to mention city hall and the state capitol. We all suffer from the absence of local investigative journalism to keep us informed and keep the powerful in check.
Patti frets about the future of news in her community more than the present:
I live in a remote, small, rural (and breathtakingly beautiful) valley in Washington State. We are fortunate to have a weekly local newspaper that has been operating for over 100 years. However, the owner/editor is elderly. How many more years does he have in him? Who, if anyone, will take over when he is done? I don’t know how else we would get reliable news and information.
Elsewhere in Washington State, Dana is grateful for a relatively new venture:
A longtime Seattle Times staff journalist recently started a new full-featured paper focused mostly on the northernmost 50 miles of the state. It took six months before a weekly paper copy was published. It’s now almost as large a paper, by weight, as my Sunday Seattle Times. I think the Cascadia Daily News succeeds in large part because it has a strong local focus. It also has a sense of humor, and isn’t afraid of the big stories.
Suzanne wrote that she likes the tradition of reading a daily newspaper, “coming from an era of Sunday mornings spent waiting for my father to finish reading the paper so we could read the comics, and later in life lazily perusing the Sunday Times over coffee.” But she hasn’t kept it up:
A few years ago I tried to recapture that by ordering a subscription to the Sunday L.A. Times. It didn’t go well. It took weeks to get my first paper, as it was misdelivered, and then I got one every now and then. It was hit-and-miss. After many calls that ended up in a call center, I threw up my hands in despair. By this time my warm and fuzzy nostalgia was gone, and I canceled.
Bekke’s local newspaper covers Mohave County, Arizona:
Recently, the publisher decided to change their schedule from five days per week delivered by carrier and seven days digital to three days per week delivered by USPS and seven days digital. Many of my neighbors are not happy with the change—they like to read their paper copy with breakfast, not in the late afternoon, and they don’t like reading it online.
The paper is now featuring in-depth articles about a variety of subjects. They cover local news about school boards, fire, water, district meetings, board-of-supervisor and city-council meetings, and give updates about street-maintenance projects. The opinions page has expanded, and they try to feature a variety of viewpoints. Cost-wise, The Atlantic and The Washington Post are less expensive for a yearly subscription.
Cindi describes various sources she relies on:
I live in Pinehurst, North Carolina, which is in Moore County, about an hour south of Raleigh and two hours east of Charlotte. Fayetteville is 45 minutes away and is home to Fort Liberty. All three cities have local papers, but none really addresses our hyperlocal news unless it’s big news like our electric substation being shot at or military news (we have a large population of active-duty and retired military personnel).
Our very local paper, The Pilot, may seem provincial to some, but the paper has won many awards for local reporting and seems quite strong these days. I receive a Briefing newsletter every weeknight that has relevant links to the stories. The paper is published in print form twice a week (Wednesdays and Sundays). This paper is especially important for local elections, school-board news (major drama there), economic development, and sports (lots of golf and high-school sports). I rely on The Pilot.
I’d also like to give a shout-out to the Axios Local teams for Raleigh and Charlotte. They are doing an outstanding job reporting on city and state news.
R. lives in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and describes a more diminished news ecosystem:
There are four newspapers covering a county of about 150,000 people. On paper, we’re not a news desert by a long shot. But the reality is we’re a de facto news desert because our newspapers are zombies. Three of the four newspapers are owned by Gannett, which, according to the online staff directories of the Chambersburg Public Opinion, Greencastle Echo Pilot, and Waynesboro Record Herald, employs exactly two journalists across all three newsrooms, which sporadically cover local government. The Echo Pilot lists no staff at all. The fourth newspaper, the Mercersburg Journal, is print-only and owned by a local chain. It covers our borough council and other local events in our tiny town reasonably well, and local officials tend to be extremely aware that what they say and do could end up in the paper the following Wednesday. For me, that’s evidence that traditional dead-tree news remains essential, though I wonder how sustainable it is.
Neil wrote in with advice that could apply to almost any community: “Recently, at a chamber-of-commerce breakfast, I encouraged business owners to advertise with our local paper because local journalism is the best way to hold people like me, a small-town mayor, accountable.”
Josh offers similar advice to his fellow consumers of news:
We get what we pay for.
If we want our news for free, we will only get the slop that government offices and consumer-brand marketing firms want us to see. I live in a city (Ann Arbor) that has a local newsroom through a statewide network (MLive). I donate to our local NPR affiliate. So much of what people view as free is propped up by the work of journalists who need to eat, too. There is far more value in a local-news subscription than there is in Paramount Plus.