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Future of Local News: Public Good or Private Enterprise?
Gallup Blog

Future of Local News: Public Good or Private Enterprise?

by Angelina Theodorou and Megan Brenan

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in partnership with Gallup, recently released its latest Trust, Media and Democracy report, entitled Putting a Price Tag on Local News. The report explores Americans' perceptions of the importance and financial future of local news, finding that most think everyone should have access to it but have reservations about using government funding to maintain it.

Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led a panel discussion focusing on many of the report's findings about the local news crisis in the U.S. on Nov. 18 at Gallup's world headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Watch the video below that presents the highlights from the event, and then read the five key takeaways from the report and panel discussion.

1. Americans take pride in their local newspapers.

A majority of Americans -- about six in 10 -- consider their local newspaper to be an important symbol of civic pride. Abernathy, who is the author of the book The Expanding News Desert, which documents the decline and loss of local news organizations in the U.S., pointed out that this sentiment is not surprising, given the role newspapers have played in U.S. history and the lives of Americans. She described the crucial relationship between local and regional news as a connection between communities. The local news organization covers stories that directly relate to the individuals in the community. At the next level, regional news captures how people are related to those around them. This connection between local and regional areas is what helps build a broader sense of community. With the decline of so many local and regional news organizations, these civic benefits are at risk.

2. Although there is a national crisis in local news, most Americans aren't aware of it.

Abernathy kicked off the discussion with a sobering explanation of what has happened to local news. "The problem is that the business model that sustained print journalism, especially the local newspapers, has collapsed. Print newspapers were often the prime, if not the sole, source of news and information about the issues that affect your quality of life, especially if you live in small and midsize communities." She went on to say that the U.S. has lost 2,100 newspapers over the past 15 years, representing about one-quarter of all local newspapers. Despite these sobering statistics, the national panel survey that much of the Knight/Gallup data are based on found that 56% of Americans erroneously believe that local news organizations are doing well financially.

3. The local news crisis is more dire in poorer and older communities.

Most Americans (86%) say everyone should have access to local news, even if they don't pay for it. Abernathy explained that financial barriers to accessing local news affect communities differently -- there is a vast difference between how poor and wealthy community members access local news. People in poor communities cannot afford to donate or subscribe, and if there is a paywall, they will not be able to access the news. Of the 2,100 newspapers that have folded in the past 15 years, most were nondaily or weekly publications serving communities that are significantly poorer and older.

4. There is no easy fix for the local news crisis.

Although the public largely agrees that local news should be accessible to everyone regardless of their ability to afford or pay for it, panelist Howard Husock, Vice President, Research and Publications and Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute and Contributing Editor, City Journal, explained that there is no "magic bullet" that will make some new revenue available.

Danielle Coffey, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the News Media Alliance, agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to funding local news. She explained that while some local news organizations will offer the opportunity for readers to pay per article, others might look to a subscription model.

5. There is little consensus about how -- or whether -- to sustain local news organizations.

Just under half of Americans, 47%, say local newspapers are vital and should be preserved even if they can't sustain themselves financially. The public is sharply divided along party lines on whether those newspapers should be allowed to fail: 72% of Democrats vs. 22% of Republicans say local newspapers are vital and should be preserved even if they can't sustain themselves financially.

Looking at options to sustain local news organizations, most Americans oppose providing federal or local government funding for these organizations. The public largely favors private sources of funding, such as from local residents, philanthropic organizations, individual investors and technology companies. Husock pointed out that many local news organizations already rely on public funding. He said the public subsidy model can be adapted to help spur growth in local news, and he emphasized the vital role local public media broadcasting has had on local journalism. Combined federal funding and local donations allow local public news stations to fund their local programming and pay for national programming. Husock suggested that reallocating money from national programming toward the development of more local programming could better support local broadcasting.

Coffey advocated a different approach, citing her organization's efforts to pass antitrust safe-harbor legislation for publishers to negotiate with technology platform companies. She noted that this ongoing effort relies on a bipartisan market-based, nonregulatory approach, and she stressed that the immediacy and urgency of the local news media crisis make efforts like the antitrust legislation a solution for today. She stressed that if you can collectively negotiate, you can get what you want -- particularly from tech companies that control the platforms where Americans are accessing the news.

Under such legislation, publishers would be able to negotiate with technology companies on issues such as compensation mechanisms, subscriptions, data access and brand recognition. Without that negotiating power, "We are beholden to the benevolence of the platforms." Coffey explained that, "Right now, the platforms are deciding what people see for us. They decide who gets the news, what news, how they get it, how much we can charge for it. They are our regulators. That is the world that we live in today."

While Chris Lewis, the President and CEO of Public Knowledge, agreed that more needs to be done with moderating news content on technology platforms, he is "wary of guidelines from the government that say, 'This is how you will moderate content.'" Instead, he would like to see the creation of some standard practices and expectations and to have competition for the user to choose the platform. He is a proponent of solutions that "foster trust and fight misinformation that existed before digital media."

Abernathy concluded the session by saying the collapse of local news organizations has happened so quickly that we are only beginning to explore it. She thinks "we need to bring a whole toolkit in and consider things we hadn't thought of in the past."

Read the full John S. and James L. Knight Foundation/Gallup report Putting a Price Tag on Local News.

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