Former President Barack Obama was interviewed last week by Anderson Cooper. One of the important topics was his concern about America’s slide towards an undemocratic future. President Obama brought up the media as part of the problem. There is a “nationalization” problem, he said, “of politics and media. You used to have a bunch of local newspapers and TV stations. People focused on what was happening day to day; they were not having these highly ideological debates. We don’t have the kind of shared stories that we used to.”
Brian Stelter, CNN commentator, added a bit of color with this line. “Obama was talking about what happens when Sinclair (a local TV owner) lards its local newscasts with national political stories instead of the community news that binds viewers together. Or when Fox News fixates on some over-the-top policy at a random private school in New York City; that’s the nationalization problem in a nutshell.”
The pandemic further strained local media. One-third of large U.S. newspapers had layoffs in 2020 (those with circulation over 50,000) as did half of the newspapers with circulation over 250,000, according to Pew Institute. Even the newer digital-native news outlets had trouble; 20 percent had layoffs in 2020. Columnists such as Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune have their columns in Allentown, Hartford and other city papers though she is reporting only on Chicago.
Business has an interest in an informed populace able to make educated decisions. Here are four ways that business can help local journalism:
- Axios started Axios Local a series of local newsletters. It acquired the Charlotte Agenda, then added Tampa Bay, Des Moines, Denver and the Twin Cities. Companies can do sponsored programs with the Axios team; this has worked well for Edelman on our Trust Barometer reports.
- Substack Local is trying to build local news publications through their subscription model. It enables newsletters by email; companies can buy subscriptions.
- The Lenfest Institute for Journalism organized a group of local philanthropists and businesses to enable the purchase and ongoing support of The Philadelphia Inquirer, now under non-profit ownership. While individual legal structures and motivations may differ, the trend of local news investment by wealthy, civic-minded interests now includes the purchase of The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, StarTribune and The Washington Post, as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer. Each news organization has benefited from their owner’s support, especially with respect to investments in public-service journalism and the digital transformation of products and newsrooms.
- Sponsorship is a viable option for companies interested in quality coverage. For example, Independence Blue Cross has funded the coverage of Covid-19 in The Philadelphia Inquirer for the past year for under $500,000. A different approach is the creation of Spotlight PA, a 14-person unit based in Harrisburg (state capital) to do accountability journalism. This is underwritten by the Lenfest Foundation. Stories on vaccine hesitancy, infrastructure and education have appeared in 67 newspapers around the state.
There is nationalization of outrage that makes mountains out of molehills, dividing employees and putting brands into untenable positions. According to David French of The Dispatch, “The nationalization of everything means that there is constant fuel for the grievance fire.” Local news remains the most trusted source of information. According to Pew Institute research from last summer, just over half (53 percent) of Americans say that local media get the facts right on Covid-19, versus 44 percent for media overall. Local news is more popular with those with high school or less education (36 percent) versus college plus (25 percent) and more with 50+ in age (40 percent) versus those 18-29 years old (15 percent). According to the Facebook Journalism Project, the most positive content on the platform is local and community-oriented news. For brands and corporations, it should matter that local news is synonymous with trust. The choice cannot come down simply to cost per thousand; it is for business a matter of preserving a civil society.
Richard Edelman is CEO.