Local citizenship

February 3rd, 2021

Losing the news 

In a recent interview, former President Barack Obama described the experience of introducing himself to America in his 2008 campaign. Going into small towns, Obama reflects, he would meet the editor of the local newspaper, “a conservative guy” who’s “been a Republican for years.” This local newsman isn’t sympathetic to Obama’s politics, but “he’ll take a meeting with me” and acknowledge his decency, if not endorse his platform. Likewise, Obama said, “the local TV station will cover me straight.” 

2008 doesn’t seem that long ago, but in media terms, it’s an entirely different world. In these same small towns and communities today, Obama says, “the newspapers are gone.” While social media pulled advertising dollars and news consumers away from local papers, 24-hour cable news networks have spent years building up partisan profiles by replacing the work of news-gathering with punditry and analysis. 

Similarly, while many newspapers have seen their readership crash and many have closed their doors, a few major national newspapers built stronger operations with a broad base of digital subscribers. Nationwide, circulation, staff and advertising revenue have plunged over the last decade. According to one study, 1,800 newspapers, or one out of every five, closed between 2004 and 2019, leaving communities without basic information about local government decisions, community events and the low-grade corruption that doesn’t make the national news. Even big-city dailies that have held on have seen their staff and pages shrink. 

One result of replacing local news with the national news of cable networks and viral social media content is increased political polarization. If our media consumption is heavily nationalized, it’s easier for us to view every story, every election and every public issue in terms of national parties and priorities. As the gap widens, it becomes easier and easier to focus on the more thrilling (and infuriating) business of national politics. At the same time, it becomes harder for a candidate introducing himself or herself to a new constituency to get the kind of fair hearing Obama remembers getting from those conservative small-town papers. It also becomes harder to exercise our citizenship closer to home. “[O]ur community does not know itself and has no idea of important local issues,” a citizen in a small city that lost its paper reports. 

Acting locally 

The irony of nationalized politics is that citizenship is much more powerful at the local and even state levels. Smaller electorates and lower turnout raise the odds that a small group of committed, organized citizens will be decisive. For instance, after the 2017 state elections, Virginia Republicans held on to their House majority by a random drawing that decided a tied race. Activism and pressure can also influence local policy much more quickly than it can move national legislation. 

Additionally, while many of us as are obsessed with the presidency, congress and even the courts — making national politics into a product consumed by fans as much as a process driven by citizens — it remains true that the institutions and decisions that affect us most are closer at hand: school boards, zoning bodies, county courts and prosecutors, city councils and the like. 

Activists who run into frustration at the national level periodically discover and organize around this fact. Social conservatives famously focused on school boards and other local races in the 1980s and 90s. More recently, progressives have taken up the push for criminal justice reform closer to where decisions about prosecution and sentencing are made by focusing on district attorney and judgeship races. It’s also worth considering that many local issues don’t fall neatly into a left-right, Democratic or Republican spectrum at all. Housing policy may be broadly set by federal laws, but whether a town or a neighborhood allows affordable multi-unit housing or walkable development depends on local decisions. The federal Department of Justice may investigate police misconduct in some cities, but rules and oversight for police are mostly made or enforced locally.

Loving our literal neighbors 

Nevertheless, it’s not accurate to say that local advocacy or local political disputes always work themselves out smoothly and amicably. Local fights over school issues, policing, housing and real estate development, and pretty much anything else can become every bit as contentious as a televised battle over a Supreme Court nomination. But in a society so riven by theatrical partisanship — to the point where gestures are often meant purely to provoke or agitate allies and where one’s opponents can become a substitute for actual policy itself — focusing on concerns closer to home can give us a different perspective on what really binds us and what truly divides us. My neighbors with yard signs for national candidates I don’t like still drive on the same streets I drive on, depend on the same city water lines and call the same emergency services. We have at least that much common interest. 

This is one last tragedy of the loss of the humble local paper: it can be harder to identify with our neighbors close at hand than with those on a much larger, more amorphous “team.” This is a theological challenge. “Who is my neighbor?” someone asks Jesus, and preachers are always reminding us that the answer includes the person we don’t expect, who is not part of our community or nation or tribe. But in some ways, the harder, more tedious task is embracing the neighbor who literally lives next door or across the highway or one town over. In a world where our attention has virtually extended so far beyond our immediate location, it is all the more urgent to focus on where we are physically present. Unless we learn to be neighbors to those who share our sidewalks, schools, and libraries, we probably won’t know how to be neighbors to anyone else. 


The future of local news 

One possible future for local news is to embrace a nonprofit model. Instead of relying exclusively on advertising and subscriptions, news organizations can reorganize as a nonprofit entity to gain access to grants and member funding. This way, local news can be treated as a public good, benefiting the whole community whether individuals make direct use of it or not. The Salt Lake Tribune has embraced this model and become a nonprofit organization, as has The Philadelphia Inquirer. For over a decade, ProPublica has operated as a nonprofit news organization focusing on government and corruption, supplementing the watchdog function traditionally played by daily newspapers. 

Just as funding for arts and higher education has come to rely heavily on donors, local news may have to do the same. A not-for-profit model does not guarantee that news organizations will survive, let alone do the work we need them to do. But it offers a way to pursue local news without relying on a business model that has little to connect it to the work of gathering that news. Nonprofit newsrooms can also rely on more stable funding than advertising provides, and often have more diversity both in their staffs and in the stories they cover. Also, unlike traditional daily papers, some of them even have usable websites. 

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