Good piece by Osita Nwanevu about using the infrastructure plan to provide another key piece of what props up the nation: local journalism. And it is indeed crumbling.
Unfortunately, our journalistic institutions are also crumbling. Thanks to the disruptions wrought by the dawn of the internet age and sharp declines in traditional advertising revenue, the country has lost more than 2,000 newspapers since 2004, according to the Brookings Institution’s 2019 report “Local Journalism in Crisis.” More than five million Americans across more than 200 counties have no local newspaper serving them at all. Almost half of the communities in these news deserts are rural. Newsroom employment across all mediums fell by 25 percent between 2008 and 2018. At newspapers, employment dropped 47 percent.
The journalists we have left have helped shepherd us through the pandemic. Right now, many Americans are turning to state and local outlets to find out where and when they can get their vaccines, how to stay safe, when schools and businesses might reopen, and what their leaders are doing to pull communities through the remainder of the crisis—a crisis that, it should be said, hit the news media particularly hard early on as businesses dialed back their ad spending, leading to scaled-down or suspended publication at numerous outlets and the loss of 11,000 more newsroom jobs in the first half of last year.
Stimulus spending helped stop some of the bleeding, and some outlets will emerge from the pandemic with more readers, viewers, and subscribers. But the outlook for the industry remains poor, and its ongoing collapse has already had a profound impact on our politics. The number of full-time reporters at state capitals fell by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014, reducing, for millions of Americans, access to reporting on policies that directly affect them, written from a local perspective. That decline has contributed heavily to the nationalization and hollowing out of our political discourse. “It used to be that most people consumed their news via newspapers that reported on the news from, say, an Idaho-specific point of view,” progressive data analyst David Shor said in a recent interview with The New Republic. “‘Frank Church gets an appropriation to get a new highway near Boise’—that was the framing and context in which people read things back then. Now they don’t.”
As a historian, I cannot agree with Shor strongly enough. Knowing how people in Idaho respond to that new highway compared to people in Portland, let’s say, is critical to my own research. Or how environmental issues were battled out in local newspaper letters to the editors sections in Eugene and Spokane. This is all basically gone now. The nationalization of news and extreme polarization has led to a real loss of localism, definitely in the media but also in our politics. It’s clear that these far right extremists elected to Congress such as Boebert and Taylor Greene and Cawthorn have absolutely no interest in any kind of local politics. They are there to own the libs and message about taking back America for whites.
If we are expanding the definition of infrastructure to include all sorts of things outside of road building–which we definitely should–then thinking about propping up local journalism is a good idea too. We desperately need it as a society.