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OPINION

Saving democracy’s front lines — local newspapers

Local newspapers hold a lens to the regional differences that distinguish American life. National media tend to homogenize — or polarize — but local publications highlight the concerns of communities far outside our own bubbles.

An unlikely source has offered a helping hand to local newspapers and sites: Congress.Paul Turner/Adobe

I subscribe online to The Washington Post, and this week the newspaper sent me a birthday gift: a PDF of the Post’s front page from the day I was born. Dwight Eisenhower was president-elect, and the lead story was about whether Ike would accept an overture for a meeting from the Soviet prime minister, Joseph Stalin. Dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Just as antiquated was the front page itself: a mess of dense, tiny print with just a single photograph, and random content of questionable news judgment. There was an essay written by a local priest comparing Bible verses, and an article about a kitchen grease fire briefly interrupting diners at the Colonial Hotel. On the front page.

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The improvements to American newspapers over my lifetime have been vast: They are brighter; their coverage is broader; and they are far more diverse, ambitious, and responsive to their readers. The quality of the writing alone is a major upgrade.

Of course, this hasn’t slowed their decline. Since 2004, the United States has lost more than 2,100 daily and weekly newspapers — 25 percent since the turn of the millennium. Including the devastating COVID-19 pandemic year of 2020, more than 50,000 journalists have lost their jobs. Cynics may cheer over that, but consider that communities without a strong local newspaper tend to have lower voter turnout, more government corruption, less transparency, and a fraying of civic connections.

Community journalists are the front lines of democracy. They dig through municipal records, attend board meetings, keep tabs on local institutions, expose bad actors and practices. They usually live in the communities they cover and care about keeping them healthy. No wonder local news outlets are still more trusted than other media.

But almost 10 percent of US counties today — about 1,800 communities — are news deserts, without a local paper at all; many more are served by ”ghost papers,” a term coined by professor Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina to describe publications with skeleton crews, or that publish only wire service reports. Predatory hedge funds are buying up legacy newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and strip-mining them for profit. Smaller, regional publications are especially vulnerable. What fills the vacuum are Twitter trolls, rumor mills, conspiracy theories, propaganda, disinformation campaigns, and press releases.

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Now an unlikely source has offered a helping hand: Congress. The bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act would aid regional newspapers (and digital news sites) with a tax credit for hiring new reporters, $250 cash grants to citizens for subscribing or donating to local news outlets, and rebates for some local businesses for advertising. The situation is dire enough that journalists who have jealously guarded their independence against official Washington for years (and I am one) are putting aside their qualms. Sure, some of the tax subsidies could end up enriching those rapacious hedge funds. But why punish hardworking reporters for the sins of their owners?

There are other glimmers of light: Last year, the nonprofit Report for America placed some 300 mostly young reporters in struggling print and digital newsrooms, many in rural towns or communities of color. The scrappy Chicago Sun-Times announced plans to merge newsrooms with WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. Various nonprofit models are taking hold. Boston media critic Dan Kennedy and former Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg have launched a podcast called “What Works” that chronicles “faint chimes of hope” in a bleak landscape.

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Local newspapers hold a lens to the regional differences that distinguish American life. National media tend to homogenize — or polarize — but local publications highlight the concerns of communities far outside our own bubbles. The nonprofit Freedom Forum posts a gallery of 300-plus front pages on its website each day, and just this week we could learn about a controversial school dress code in Visalia, Calif.; approval of a new county jail in Lewiston, Idaho; or the quiet sale of an agricultural expo center (site of many a greased pig contest) in Dothan, Ala. Even the weather is fascinating: Whoa. Sunset in Fairbanks, Alaska, is at 2:40 p.m.!

At a time of increasing fragmentation, newspapers are the civic glue that holds us together, and the closer to home, the tighter the bond. The picture is grim. But forces from all quarters — nonprofit, philanthropic, government, and corporate — may at last be aligning to save this precious resource. And that really is front-page news.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.