News & Insights

The Crisis in Local News

By Anna Hansen

At RF|Binder’s recent Hour to Empower, we had the opportunity to learn from Steve Waldman, a former journalist and current advocate for local journalism. Steve is the founder of Rebuild Local News, a nonprofit that focuses on building and advocating for public policies that strengthen local news throughout the country. Before starting Rebuild Local News, Steve was influenced by his time in AmeriCorps and applied a similar business model when founding Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in newsrooms across America.  

RF|Binder hosts Hour to Empower sessions regularly, featuring a diverse array of speakers and thought leaders. These sessions aim to ignite introspection, foster meaningful conversations, and push new perspectives to lead to tangible outcomes for our clients.

Local news plays a crucial role in the democracy, accessibility and health of communities. Local news acts as a fundamental pillar of democracy by providing citizens with essential and timely information about local governance, community events, and civic engagement opportunities. It enables people to stay informed about local issues, celebrate community achievements and identity, and address challenges collaboratively, ultimately strengthening the social fabric and resilience of neighborhoods and towns. However, local news is facing an interesting paradox: though we are increasingly inundated with information from every direction, there’s a growing shortage of local reporting.

The United States has seen a drastic decrease in local newsrooms, with around 3,000 local newspapers closing in the past two decades and a 60% decrease in the number of local reporters, according to Steve Waldman. Throughout the country, thousands of communities are lacking credible news sources that connect people to their neighbors, schools and local businesses. And of the local newspapers that do still exist, many are part of larger media networks that focus on syndicating content instead of original, in-depth reporting.

During our conversation with Steve, he discussed some ways that we can support and revive local journalism, so communities can thrive with access to quality reporting on issues that directly affect them.

Supporting Local Journalism

It may seem obvious, but the first step to supporting local news starts with subscribing. Even as the media industry continues to navigate the best tactics for generating revenue, subscriptions go a long way in ensuring independent local news’ viability and longevity.

Although print subscriptions still provide value and revenue, digital subscriptions will be the make-or-break business model moving forward because of the ease and low cost of adding subscribers. Publications are embracing the flexibility of digital subscriptions as consumer agency and dynamic pricing trends shape audience engagement. According to Mather Economics, the average publication saw more digital-only subscriptions than print for the first time in January 2024.

Searching for Long-Term Solutions

From Steve’s perspective, the key to ensuring the economic sustainability and longevity of local news is through public policy and effective legislation. However, the challenge is to develop public policy within the journalism landscape without impacting editorial independence. This can be done by removing any selective processes that contribute to biases.

For example, Rebuild Local News introduced a policy that grants a tax break to all news organizations, regardless of affiliation or endorsements. By eliminating a selection process in awarding monetary support, newsrooms can maintain editorial independence and avoid governmental interference. According to Steve, the revival and economic sustainability of local news ultimately lie in passing legislation to strengthen the revenue stream of newsrooms.

The Future of Local News in the Age of AI

Along with most media sectors, local news is navigating the complexities of the rise of AI. On one hand, local newsrooms will be able to utilize AI to produce news more efficiently and at a lower price for readers, allowing reporters to focus on the quality and accuracy of their content. Newsrooms will be able to provide a better experience to a broader reach of readers by using AI for tasks that otherwise would be impractical, such as simultaneous language translation.

On the other hand, AI will make the spread of misinformation much easier, inhibiting readers’ ability to distinguish between authentic, reliable sources and irrelevant sources. We have seen examples of deep fakes generated by AI circulating social media and national news, but at the local level, Steve believes misinformation will be hyper-targeted toward individuals and communities.

An AI-generated source posing as reliable local news media can utilize personal and community information to spread misinformation, from inaccurate locations of polling stations to misleading weather reports. Because of the current lack of local reporters who act as watchdogs, this spread of misinformation will go undetected for longer than what is seen at the national level, impacting communities at scale.

Why It Matters for Communications

Public relations and communications professionals have a unique stake in the health of a versatile and robust media ecosystem that would be incomplete without local news. The lack of local reporters places the increased critical responsibility of verifying accurate and factual information on communications professionals. In instances of understaffing within local reporting systems, communications professionals often take on added responsibilities such as providing artwork and conducting fact-checking to maintain the quality of news stories.

Local news works to build well-informed communities that strengthen the media economy, allowing communications professionals to create a media strategy that best meets its objective. This allows us to make an immense impact in revitalizing local media through our work. In extending campaigns and news projects to local media, the communications industry can become a leading advocate for the survival and success of local news.

To see how you can get involved in public policy matters around local journalism, visit Rebuild Local News to learn more.

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