Acton Institute Powerblog

5 reasons your local newspaper (probably) deserves your money

In the past five years, one out of every five newspapers nationwide has closed and half of all newsroom employees have been laid off, according to the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. The question is why should you care? Everything takes its course, and then something else takes its place. In this case, social media and national television networks are running small, local newspapers out of business. But the truth is that these new media sources are feeding you more than news: They’re feeding you unprecedented amounts of cortisol and dopamine.

These modern news sources build their business model around keeping the users stuck scrolling their platform. To do this, they need to provoke strong emotions. Researchers have proved that the strongest emotion is anger. Hence, the more that news sources show you radical, polarizing, and anger-inducing news, the more you scroll.

These news outlets have rendered tremendous services, as well. They have brought the entire world’s news to the palm of your hand. But their triumph too often comes at the expense of local news outlets. Here are five reasons why local news outlets protect our democratic society.

1. Higher trust and accountability

Local journalists are usually from the same community as their readers. They and their families are involved in community social activities. Because they are sharing the news with – and about – their friends and family, they hold themselves to a higher standard of excellence and credibility. Last August, the Poynter Media Trust Survey found that 76% of Americans said they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in their local television station, while only 55% of Americans said they trusted the national news networks.

2. Subsidiarity

Local institutions and governments have greater insight about their region than those who live farther away. Hence, they are equipped to make better decisions – a concept known as subsidiarity. Local news outlets have local connections that give them access to information firsthand, far more than more distant media outlets. In a democratic society, we assure that our leaders make the right choices by learning about our community’s issues, following the local political process, and voting in each election cycle for the members of local bodies like city councils and school boards. This begins with trustworthy information about our cities and counties.

3. Comprehensive investigations

There’s ample reason to believe that local news outlets are the best and most prolific investigators in the country. Even though local news outlets make up 25% of the nation’s total media sources, they produce almost half of the nation’s original reporting, according to a study by the Duke University. A prominent example is the Jeffrey Epstein sex scandal, which was exposed by Julie Brown of the Miami Herald. The police commissioner specifically commended her efforts. But even after exposing one of the biggest scandals in the country – and showing a stronger social and moral responsibility than larger media outlets – the Miami Herald is struggling financially.

4. Complete truth vs. selective reporting

Another important factor to consider when choosing your news source is it is giving you the complete truth or selective reporting. As local news outlets shut down, Americans are relying more on national news media outlets to make political decisions. As these outlets have politicized their coverage, the nationalization of news sources has led to a substantial polarization, according to a study published by the Oxford University Press. Local news sources tend to be much less polarizing than national news outlets by presenting more facts and fewer opinions, the study found.

5. Protecting the future of democracy

Local news is vital to upholding democratic values. The problem is evident: Without local news you, the citizen, become less informed about the challenges in your community. Our leaders also get blindsided, because they do not receive feedback from their local community regarding the most immediate issues facing the community.

The death of so many news outlets means that people have fewer choices, and the points of view expressed become constricted. Congress charged the Federal Communications Commission with maximizing “the public interest, convenience, or necessity.” Losing the investigations, stories, and fact-rich reporting of local news poses a looming threat to our discussion of national and local issues – and the decisions that flow from those debates.

Social media and national news media outlets expose us to much information and news, but often at the risk of losing greater perspectives. Their business model relies on provoking anger and stimulating our natural tendency to react rather than to learn. This cortisol-producing news ultimately grounds us down to the lowest common denominator and does not give us the wisdom necessary for discernment.

The media should not be bailed out by the government. Instead, those of us who support local news outlets need to support them and help them help us.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rufus Mathew

Rufus Roby Mathew is part of the Acton Institute's Emerging Leaders Program. He is studying in the NSA-accredited Cybersecurity program at Cedarville University. Mathew served as his freshman class president and is currently the Student Government Association's campus community director. In 2019, Rufus was selected for the United Nations' Temple of Understanding research internship program, where he researched the correlation between a country’s digital infrastructure to its GDP. He is working on facial recognition software that will help locate victims of human trafficking.