The Threat to American Democracy That Has Nothing to Do With Trump

The disappearance of local news is a slow-moving disaster.

Shutterstock; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Updated at 9:45 a.m. ET on July 20, 2020.

In the summer of 1945, for 17 days, the newspaper deliverers of New York City went on strike. As hundreds of thousands of city residents found themselves temporarily deprived of their daily papers, the behavioral scientist Bernard Berelson saw an opportunity: He wanted to understand what it felt like for people to suddenly lose their primary sources of news. So he set about interviewing them. Asked what the absent papers had meant to them, the interviewees often responded with bromides about news’s crucial role in a government of the people. With more pressing, though, their responses deepened. What they really missed, Berelson came to realize, wasn’t the news as a noun so much as the news as a verb: the daily rituals of the reading, and the connection that reading made them feel to their communities and to the wider world. News is a product and a service and a foundation of any functioning democracy; what it is also, though, is an anchor—a tether to other people, woven of words and arguments and daily discoveries. Without it, people felt adrift.

Many Americans now find themselves in the situation those New Yorkers did all those decades ago: The papers have stopped arriving. The absence, however, is permanent. Even as the news writ large has expanded its reach, through cable networks and talk radio and the internet, local journalism is in grave danger of dying out. That fact, with its dire implications both for individual communities and for the fragile democracy that contains them, is the premise of a book-length warning: Margaret Sullivan’s Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. Sullivan travels across the country, to observe papers in the process of shuttering and new enterprises that hope to fill the void left in their place, and makes an argument that is as plain as it is worthy of panic: The journalism that Americans need to function—the institutions that provide people with the information they require to make decisions for themselves and for the country—is in the midst of a mass extinction.

Ghosting the News, as the bearer of very bad news about the news itself, adopts an aptly funereal feel. But Sullivan—a media columnist at The Washington Post, a former public editor at The New York Times, and a longtime chief editor of The Buffalo News—is also offering an opportunity: to recalibrate our vision. To think of “the news” not as so many Americans are conditioned to, as the stuff of Fox and CNN and The New York Times, but instead as an intimately local proposition. Pay attention to the problems of the national news, certainly. But don’t ignore the crisis at the local level: the news deserts, the information vacuums, the truths that will never be revealed. To write a book like Ghosting the News is to take on the challenge of proving a negative—to make a case for the urgency of the known unknown. Sullivan succeeds. Her book is an ink-bound alarm bell. The threat Americans face, she argues, is not just the news that lies. It is also the news that will never exist in the first place.

Here are just some of the dire statistics. Between 2008 and 2017, American newspapers cut 45 percent of their newsrooms staff—and the following years, for many outlets, brought even deeper contractions. From 2004 to 2015, the United States lost more than 1,800 print outlets—some because of corporate mergers and others because of simple closures. Fewer than one in six Americans subscribe to a local newspaper, in either print or digital form. Over the past two decades, the revenue sources that once made newspapers lucrative enterprises—in particular, the money that flowed in from local and classified advertising—have dried up as sites like Craigslist have proliferated and as advertisers have shifted their dollars to digital platforms.

Papers adjusted to those shifts, many embracing the new affordances of online news, but a digital ad will never be worth what a print ad once was. And while some outlets experimented with transferring the logic of the subscription to the web—micropayments, regular payments—most simply gave away their news products for free. The decision conditioned generations’ worth of American news consumers to expect that, online, news was not something to be paid for—the product of journalists and their labor—but instead something to be taken for granted. The news industry, and the American public, is living with the consequences. It is further contending with the power of mega-publishers like Google and Facebook, which give platforms to news “content” with only grudging acknowledgment of the economic or civic value of journalism. And, particularly with the current economic contraction, the problem is getting worse. That makes the predicament of local news akin to other slow-moving  crises, among them climate change, the erosion of democratic norms, and the erosion of constitutional rights. They happen gradually until they happen suddenly. The sickness is chronic until the sickness becomes, finally, incurable.

And yet many Americans, Sullivan notes, are unaware of the gravity of the emergency—and unaware of the existential threat to the country’s informational ecosystem. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Americans believed local news was, in fact, doing well financially. And it is indeed possible to watch the local news or listen to the local radio—or even to read the local newspaper, if you are lucky enough to have one, still—and be ignorant of the scope of the problem. Local news, or a version of it, is still being produced. Skeleton staffs at hollowed-out papers are doing tireless work to inform their audiences about their communities. And because of the amount of information being churned out nationally, every day, on the air and on websites and podcasts and social media, and in national papers and magazines, the cracks at the foundation can be difficult to perceive. If the news is a verb, its movements, now more than ever, can feel frenzied and relentless. There’s already so much; why would you want more?

Sullivan interviews Nate McMurray, a 2018 Democratic candidate for Congress. McMurray was fighting an uphill battle: He was running as a Democrat in a largely Republican district of western New York State. But he did, Sullivan notes, have one distinct advantage: McMurray’s opponent, the incumbent Chris Collins, had recently been indicted on charges of insider trading. The Buffalo News, Sullivan’s former paper, broke the story of the indictment, and some smaller sites and TV stations picked up the News’s reporting. Readers and viewers in areas that had strong local news presences, Sullivan notes, learned of the indictment and, armed with that information, voted accordingly. But many in the sprawling district were not so equipped. “I’d be going door to door,” McMurray tells Sullivan, “or meeting with people at a diner or a fair, for example, and in the most isolated areas, a lot of people had no idea that their own congressman had been indicted.”

And so, by a razor-thin margin, Chris Collins—who would go on to plead guilty to two felonies, be sentenced to prison, and resign from Congress—won the election.

There are a few—a very few—bright spots. New, digital-first and digital-only sites have sprung up in recent years with a focus on accountability journalism, both at the national (ProPublica) and the local (Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, The Texas Tribune) level. Efforts like Report for America, which places young reporters, Peace Corps–style, in local communities, stanch some of the bleeding. News organizations that once thrived on market competition—sometimes to redundant effect—have found power in partnering with each other for both the work of investigative reporting and the distribution of the results. Paradigms are shifting, slowly.

But the current replacements for the perished local papers, Sullivan argues, are insufficient to fill the vacuums. What newspapers have been consummately good at—and what TV news and radio news, even at the local level, have not been as focused on, traditionally—is the kind of watchdog reporting that holds public officials to account. As the papers fall away, corruption flourishes. Government efficiency plummets. (“Following a newspaper closure,” a 2018 Hutchins Center working paper found, “municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points, costing the municipality an additional $650,000 per issue.” The paper added: “This effect is causal and not driven by underlying economic conditions.”)

And injustices of a more complicated strain can go unchecked. Jeffrey Epstein was arrested last year because Julie K. Brown, reporting for the Miami Herald, refused to let the breadth of his alleged abuses go unreported. Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics, is in prison for sexual assault of minors because of survivors who risked their careers to tell the truth about him, but also because a team of reporters at The Indianapolis Star turned that truth into public knowledge. There are so many other examples—so many ways Americans are better off when the facts of our lives are made legible through the workings of news. And there are the examples in the other direction, as well: the phantom stories that will never get published because the erosion of journalism’s labor force has led to an erosion of everything else. The truism, after all, is also a truth: You don’t know what you don’t know. We are in the midst of a crisis defined by the darkness of all that has never—all that will never—come to light.

Americans often talk about the news using the language of nutrition: news as something to be consumed. The array of outlets and the sources people rely on for their sense of the world is summarized into “news diets.” Good information is that which nourishes; bad information is akin to junk. That language is apt. News really does function like food: It is fuel—for people, for communities, for bodies politic—that can either contribute to health or compromise it. When scholars talk about “news deserts”—an informational counterpart to “food deserts”—there is aptness in that, as well. A democracy is a living thing. It requires quality news to sustain it.

Sullivan offers a miniature profile of Alice Dreger, a former professor at Michigan State University, who responded to the stark reduction of news coverage of her home, East Lansing, by creating a community “news brigade” that grew into the nonprofit news site East Lansing Info. Here are some pieces of information revealed by ELI, through the work of more than 100 community volunteers:

  • East Lansing had an undisclosed pension debt of $200 million.
  • The East Lansing waste-water treatment plant mishandled a mercury spill at the plant.
  • A retaining wall, built at public expense and with federal funds, had been benefiting the city attorney’s personal property.
  • The city of East Lansing was selling off a piece of municipal property on eBay.

“People used to tell us, ‘There’s no there there, in East Lansing,’” Dreger tells Sullivan. ELI’s discoveries, however, suggest otherwise. And the existence of the site, Dreger says—its stories produced by city residents, and for them—has slowly changed public views of what news is, definitionally. “People didn’t see news as a service, they saw it as a product,” Dreger notes. Now they feel invested. That is a small, but crucial shift—for East Lansing, and potentially for other communities. During a time when Americans’ trust in national news is plummeting, their trust in local news is (relatively) high. And another crisis—a pandemic whose toll has varied greatly across American regions—has served as yet another reminder of how desperately important accurate local information can be, not just as a matter of civics, but also as a matter of public health.

Local news is extremely easy to take for granted. It is, by definition, narrow in its interests. But even beyond serving as the core of America’s news ecosystem, local news can be the glue that connects people in a given community. “It’s the way a local columnist can express a community’s frustration or triumph,” Sullivan writes, “the way the local music critic can review a concert, the deeply reported feature stories, the assessment of a new restaurant, the obituaries, the letters to the editor. The newspaper ties a region together, helps it make sense of itself.”

And when the paper dies? When the news—hectic and loud and silly and messy and urgent and teeming with life—fades away? What then? The bonds that connect the people to their places will loosen. The facts that anchor citizens to their communities will dissolve. It will happen gradually until it happens suddenly. There will be time, until it’s too late. And when it’s all over, a country whose government is predicated on an informed citizenry will give way, finally, to its yawning ignorance of itself. An unmoored ship may stay afloat; it has nowhere to go, however, but away.