Local news is good for us, we're told daily, most recently this week in a FiveThirtyEight piece and seconded by the Reliable Sources newsletter. Local news makes representative government more accountable, scholars claim. Books and monographs extolling the virtues of local reporting on everything from public health to economic vitality abound. When local reporting goes south, researchers tell us, political polarization, civic corruption, lower voter turnout, reduced civic engagement and even authoritarianism follow. Even I have gone on the record for local news!
So, why is local news collapsing, a trend spotted over the past two years by everybody from the New York Times to the Brookings Institution to the Harvard Business Review? The blame is often placed on rapacious publishers like Alden Global Capital or online advertising giants like Facebook and Google. Yes, they've contributed to local news' declining fortunes, but the best explanation might be that publishers and editors have ignored the underlying cause. Despite all the impassioned calls from academics and journalists to salvage it, local news' most vital constituency—readers—have withheld their affections.