By Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times
Like many people, I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how we can shore up our democracy. We voted in November and that seems to have gone pretty well. Election deniers and conspiracy fanatics traveling in swing states have lost. Common sense candidates who focused on questions around the kitchen table won. But what happens after the vote? In this time of giving, I have a humble suggestion: support your local news organization.
I’ve spent most of my career focusing on international news, covering stories like the civil war in Congo and ethnic cleansing in Darfur. This kind of journalism is of course important. But like many journalists of my generation, I began my career in local news, in my case as a reporter at The Times Union assigned to cover a handful of communities along the Hudson River near Albany, New York. It was there that I first learned to overcome my fears of knocking on strangers’ doors, making unannounced calls to politicians and business leaders, speaking to people who are going through the worst day of their lives.
The Times Union, owned by Hearst Corp. Like many local newspapers, it has undergone staff takeovers, although it continues to break news, publish ambitious research and win awards. But the overall picture for local journalism is disastrous. Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative released a report on the state of local news in June, and the results were dismal. Since 2005, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have closed. Those who survive have lost journalists at an alarming rate: about 60 percent fewer journalists work in newspapers today than in 2005.
There is strong evidence that the erosion of local journalism has accelerated some of the worst trends in our civic lives. “In communities without a credible source of local news, voter turnout falls, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at the till,” the Northwestern report said.
As local news gathering shrinks, people are spending more time in places where divisions between parties are likely to deepen: on social media, on platforms like Nextdoor, or on national cable TV. A 2019 Scientific American study found that voters in areas where local news outlets were closed were less likely to choose a split ticket, a signal that indicates deepening polarization in those communities.
“Local newspapers,” the report’s authors wrote, “serve as a central source of shared information and set a shared agenda. Readers of local newspapers feel more connected to their communities.”
So important is local reporting that one of my journalistic heroes and former editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, founded and will lead a New York Times Fellowship to help local reporters do big, challenging investigations like the ones that are doing this he has skillfully overseen his career.
Some of the most important and impactful examples of accountability journalism started as local stories. Watergate wasn’t a hit with political reporters; it came from some hungry Washington Post Metro Beat reporters. Local reporters from The Boston Globe have uncovered the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
These became national and global stories immortalized by Hollywood movies. But every day, local journalists uncover news that really matters to their communities.
Take Greg Smith, a reporter for a local nonprofit news organization in New York called The City, to which I donated. At 5 p.m. on the Friday before Labor Day, he received a text message from a source at the New York City Housing Authority. The drinking water in a large Manhattan public housing complex had tested positive for arsenic, and city officials had known about it for two weeks. Only after Smith reached out to the housing authority and city hall for comment on his discovery did the city scramble to make bottled water available to the thousands of tenants who live in the complex.
Achieving instant results like this is part of what made Richard Kim leave the high-profile world of national media to become Editor-in-Chief of The City. He was Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost and before that The Nation. He and I worked together when I was editor-in-chief of HuffPost, and we often bemoaned how hard it was to make a real, direct impact with our reporting.
“It’s been particularly satisfying for me to do journalism every day, where you publish a story and the outcome is produced by that story that day,” Richard told me. “We write about a subway station that is disgusting and hasn’t been cleaned, and it’s being cleaned. We write about neighborhood playgrounds that are closed, and then the mayor comes and opens them the next day.”
In my other hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota, a different kind of nonprofit local news has been making waves. Mukhtar Ibrahim, a Somali immigrant, founded the Sahan Journal after working as a local journalist in the Twin Cities. In 2014, nine young men from the Somali community were accused of plotting to fight for the Islamic State group in Syria. Ibrahim was proud of his coverage of her trial but wanted to go deeper.
“Newsrooms really invest in reporting terrorism cases that involve communities, but when things are done they just move on,” he said. That’s why he founded the Sahan Journal. “The idea is to provide real and comprehensive coverage of these communities so they feel seen and involved in the Minnesota civic process,” Ibrahim told me. “We’re trying to get these communities better informed and more involved.”
Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the United States, as well as large numbers of Hmong, Liberian, and Ethiopian immigrants and refugees. Ibrahim saw a need for journalism for, by and about these communities.
The Sahan Journal began publication in the summer of 2019 and has proven to be a vital source of news and information not only during the COVID crisis but also in the aftermath of the assassination of George Floyd. That’s one of the reasons I donated to the project.
Ibrahim said he often hears news organizations complain that they can’t find reporters from diverse backgrounds, but he’s never had trouble finding talent from the communities his newsroom serves.
“Our mission at Sahan Journal is to create a pipeline for young black journalists and to be a place that has the resources that will allow them to grow and thrive,” he said.
These are two organizations in two places that I have called home and both would appreciate your support. But I also encourage you to support the local organization that is doing great journalism in your community. There has been an enormous innovation boom in local non-profit news. New branches are constantly opening. They rely on the support of their communities. The future of our democracy and the long-term health of our citizens may well depend on it.