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.
Local news makes a huge difference. A PEN America study concluded last year that as local journalism declines, “government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness,” and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office, according to the study. Democracy loses its foundation.
The tight connection between local news and good citizenship became abundantly clear in 2018 to Nate McMurray, the Democratic candidate for Congress in a heavily Republican district in upstate New York. Although McMurray, the supervisor of the town of Grand Island, was battling a party enrollment skewed against him (the gerrymandered district is the size of Rhode Island and spreads into eight counties), he did have one monumental advantage: His Republican opponent, the incumbent Chris Collins, had just been indicted on insider-trading charges. One would expect that to be disqualifying—but it wasn’t. News of Collins’s indictment did make a difference in the campaign in areas where local news was strong: The Buffalo News has an excellent Washington correspondent, Jerry Zremski, who had broken a major part of the insider-trading story and followed its developments diligently for months. (I spent three decades at The Buffalo News, where I began as a summer intern, including a dozen years as its chief editor.) Many people living in the area around Buffalo, where this newspaper still has a wide circulation, who would have likely voted for the incumbent, crossed the aisle to vote blue. This is clear by a comparison of the election’s results with past voting patterns in the district.
But in the more far-flung parts of the sprawling congressional district, voters were far less informed. The largely rural and suburban district includes Orleans County, which, according to Abernathy’s criteria, is a news desert—one of just a few in New York State.
“I’d be going door to door, 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,” McMurray told me. Orleans County, west of Rochester, he said, was “one of the toughest places.” Some people didn’t even know who Collins was, and many were incredulous when McMurray told them of the federal charges.
“People told me I was making it up,” said McMurray. That shouldn’t have been the case, given that television news stations in both Rochester and Buffalo were giving plenty of airtime to the scandal as it developed, and those stations were available throughout the district. Nevertheless, the constituents lacked access to the in-depth coverage that a newspaper would have provided. At one time, almost everyone in the district had ready access to print editions of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle or The Buffalo News, or were within easy reach of smaller newspapers in nearby Niagara Falls or Lockport.
As a result, Collins—the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president—was taking full advantage of the decline of credible news sources. He sent fundraising emails to constituents, blasting what he called “fake news” about his misdeeds—and relied heavily on TV ads to promote his supposed effectiveness in Congress. McMurray put it to me this way: “The lack of real journalism in a lot of the more remote parts of the district meant that people were relying on gossip, conservative radio, or social media. People were really deep into their echo chambers, or they just didn’t care.”
McMurray lost that 2018 election by a whisker: less than half a percentage point—far less than expected, given the natural party skew of the district. As for the incumbent Collins, he later pleaded guilty to two felonies, resigned from Congress, and was sentenced to prison. Some of his constituents may be unaware of that too, or wouldn’t believe it if they saw it in a neighbor’s Facebook post. Of course, citizens may be uninformed about their public officials for many reasons—among them the spotty civics education in schools and the public’s increased reliance on social media—but the loss of newspapers is surely a contributing factor.
Despite some hopeful signs, such as the many nonprofit news sites that have cropped up around the country, the overall trends are troubling. As Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, told me: “If we don’t monitor power at the local level, there will be massive abuse of power at the local level.” That’s something that Alexander Hamilton and his fellow constitutional architects could not have reconciled with what they had in mind: a society in which citizens are well-informed and active participants in how their government operates. If we in the 21st century are to remain true to their vision, we must find a way—indeed, many ways—to reinvent local journalism before it is too late.
This article is adapted from Sullivan’s recent book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.