The Framers of the Constitution understood just how important local news would be to the success of their ambitious American experiment. Alexander Hamilton explained the issue this way in “Federalist No. 84,” using as an example one locality in Maryland:
What are the sources of information by which the people in Montgomery County must regulate their judgment of the conduct of their representatives in the State legislature? Of personal observation they can have no benefit. This is confined to the citizens on the spot. They must therefore depend on the information of intelligent men, in whom they confide; and how must these men obtain their information? Evidently from the complexion of public measures, from the public prints, from correspondences with their representatives, and with other persons who reside at the place of their deliberations. This does not apply to Montgomery County only, but to all the counties at any considerable distance from the seat of government.
To hold public officials accountable, in other words, “intelligent men”—all people, in fact—need reliable reporting about the activities of government and politicians. But these days, local news is withering in many places across America. The United States is dotted with “news deserts,” regions where no newspaper or other local news organization exists. In many other places, once-vibrant local outlets have become “ghost newspapers”—their name remains, and you can still buy a subscription, but their staff and ambitions are so diminished that they can no longer do the day-to-day reporting that allows citizens to make good decisions at the polls about their governmental representatives.
The local-news losses are startling: As I write in my new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, in the past 15 years, more than 2,100 local newspapers have gone out of business, according to the journalism scholar Penny Muse Abernathy at the University of North Carolina. And about half of American journalism jobs have gone away, too—either as a result of those closures or because of constant layoffs and buyouts in newsrooms—not only at newspapers but at digital-only nonprofits, and at television and radio stations. (These losses occurred before the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn, which has caused even more decline.) The business model for local newspapers, based largely on once-abundant print advertising, has crumbled. And while hundreds of start-up news organizations have emerged, some of them excellent, they have not come close to filling the gap across the country.