Princeton, New Jersey – During a pandemic, accurate information can be a matter of life and death. People need reliable reports about the impact of the disease and the threat it poses to their city, community or neighborhood. Most citizens’ immediate concern is not whether their country is on the right macro-trajectory, but whether their local grocery store is practicing proper hygiene and enforcing social-distancing measures.
One of the many tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it comes at a time when local media have been decimated in many countries.
The heart of the problem is that local news, in particular, has been severely disrupted by a broader restructuring of the economy over the past two decades. Historically, advertising sustained serious journalism. As New York University’s Clay Shirky pointed out in a 2009 commentary, Walmart may or may not have had an interest in the news from Iraq, but it was nonetheless subsidizing newspapers’ Baghdad bureaus.
When digital platforms like Google and Facebook started hoovering up the advertising revenues that previously went directly to news organizations, local outlets were the first to feel the pinch. Newsroom staff was cut dramatically. According to a recent Brookings Institution report, one in five local U.S. newspapers has disappeared since 2004, leaving 5 million Americans with no local newspaper at all, and 60 million more with access to only one.
The growth of such “news deserts” has had profound political effects. When there are no journalists to report on town council meetings and public procurement decisions, corruption can run rampant. But partly because no one hears about it, political interest also declines. Hence, the shuttering of local papers has been associated with lower electoral turnout, fewer candidates seeking office and more incumbents winning. The same trends undercut citizens’ representation at the national level, because local and regional papers cannot afford to keep a correspondent in the capital to report on what their members of Congress or Parliament are doing.
Less obviously, the decline of local news has reinforced the pernicious polarization that we are witnessing in a number of democracies. When it comes to local issues, citizens within the same community or neighborhood are generally pretty good about diagnosing problems and arriving at practical solutions to them. But as local reporting has dried up, the vacuum has been filled by national news, which tends to be geared toward zero-sum culture wars and partisan flame-throwing.
In Hungary, Turkey and other countries where democracy and the rule of law are being systematically dismantled, some relatively independent national newspapers and websites have survived. But, perversely, such institutions can become a fig leaf for regimes facing international criticism for their attacks on press freedom, while pro-regime outlets often enjoy a monopoly at the local level. In rural Hungary, the situation has gotten so bad that the U.S. Department of State has sought to subsidize independent reporting there.
Finally, the fate of local newspapers does not necessarily run in parallel with that of the national press. In the United States, the major “papers of record” have benefited from a “Trump bump” since 2016. And while the COVID-19 crisis could, in theory, make citizens recognize the existential importance of receiving accurate information about their immediate surroundings, a local news bump has yet to materialize.
What can be done? One solution is to tax the Big Tech companies that have destroyed the local-news business model, then redistribute the funds to local outlets. Another option is to legislate an antitrust exception so that newspapers can bargain collectively with digital platforms. The media outlets providing the actual facts and information that show up in a Google search should be compensated accordingly. Australia, the European Union and several individual European countries have already moved in this direction, and similar legislation is pending in the U.S.
There has also been a blossoming of successful nonprofit news organizations in recent years, many of which have a local focus. But the risk now is that such institutions could become dependent on some billionaire philanthropist, leaving them beholden to one person’s arbitrary will. The French social scientist Julia Cage has proposed an ingenious solution: ordinary supporters of accurate reporting could pool their resources to secure controlling shares of the most effective media nonprofits.
It can be fine for such nonprofits to have an agenda. After all, just as with political parties, supporters join organizations because the latter reflect their values in some ways. Having an agenda — such as investigating social injustices — is compatible with a commitment to the highest journalistic standards. What matters is accuracy, (ideally) accessibility and accountability. As philosopher Onora O’Neill explains, truth-seeking media “needs internal disciplines and standards to make it assessable.” Audiences should be in a position to understand who funds an outlet, what guides its editorial decisions and how particular stories are generated.
The problem with many right-wing outlets today is not necessarily that they have an agenda, but that the agenda is hidden, with mere opinion being presented as professionally generated news. A particularly egregious example is Fox News, which earlier this spring eagerly spread dangerous disinformation about the coronavirus, probably costing the lives of some of its predominantly elderly audience.
The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us that journalists are essential workers. Many national media outlets will probably survive (indeed, some are already benefiting from governments’ spending on emergency relief). But local journalism was already in bad shape before the crisis, and the public good it provides tends to be less appreciated. For the sake of our physical health and that of our democracies, we urgently must support it.
Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, is the author of the forthcoming “Democracy Rules.” Project Syndicate, 2020 www.project-syndicate.org