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Blair Horner: News "Deserts" Threaten Democracy

As the decade comes to an end, one disturbing trend has been the accelerating loss of local newspapers and other media outlets.  Over the last 15 years, local newspapers across the U.S. have lost more than $35 billion in advertising revenue and shed half of their staff, and at least 2,000 news outlets have closed during that time.

And many of those who have survived barely cling to life.

2019 alone was an extremely tough year for older news sources, like newspapers, magazines, television and radio.  Revenue for television was down nearly 4% this year, and for print it was down nearly 20%.

The human toll has been staggering:  Some have estimated that nearly 8,000 people were laid off or lost their jobs in U.S. media in 2019.

The problem has become so bad that areas without local media outlets are now considered “news deserts.”  What is a “news desert”?  It is a term without a universally agreed-upon definition.  Generally speaking, a news desert is a place with no local news outlets at all.  Some define it a bit more loosely, stating that news deserts are “places where it is difficult to access daily, local news and information” or even “a community overlooked, if not entirely ignored, by the media.”

While the definition is vague, the impact is clear:  Inadequate local media coverage can result in communities that are more willing to rely on ideological messengers and a community where government is less accountable to the public it is supposed to serve.

In our representative democracy, an informed electorate is fundamentally important to ensuring that the system works.  Many Americans have unprecedented access to information, but with lives busier than ever, it’s very hard for citizens to fill the reporting and analysis void provided by local reporting.

If the “watchdogging” that has historically been done by local media evaporates and there isn't anybody watching the local town or city council meetings and reporting on them, there's potential for abuse or fraud.  There's a growing body of compelling research that has found that as local news coverage declines, government corruption and government costs increase.

Moreover, less local coverage can dampen public interest in local elections.   Local news drives civic engagement.  And when it comes time to pick our representatives, voters living in “news deserts” are less likely to know who is running and how they stand on issues.  Thus, they are less likely to participate.

Of course, the situation is not uniformly bad.  Excellent investigative journalism continues, but for those in the “news deserts” – and for those soon to be in them – the situation is very bad.

So, what should be done?  One idea is to consider whether local media should reorganize itself as charitable non-profit corporations – such as the one you are listening to now.

It isn’t a far-fetched idea.  As taxpayers we currently support commercial media through postal subsidies, through tax breaks and through government ads.  Why not encourage them to become nonprofits?

It would help insulate them from the whims of owners and reduce exposure to taxes.  And, after all, the “mission” of local media is actually public service.

Like everything else, it’s easier said than done.  In order to become a nonprofit, a local media outlet would have to reorganize its governance structure and reclassify how it’s registered with the state.  It would also need to meet the IRS’s strict requirements for tax-exempt nonprofit status.  In order to maintain nonprofit status, an organization must be primarily supported by the public, through mechanisms such as foundation grants or individual donations.  Typically, newspapers rely on selling ads and subscriptions, which would have to change.

There are also strict limitations against nonprofits engaging in political activity.  As a result, these nonprofit news organizations are forbidden from endorsing or opposing candidates for office and there are limitations on how they can support or oppose legislation.  That means the newspapers’ editorial pages wouldn’t be able to endorse candidates, and they would likely face a problem in endorsing ballot measures or legislation.

We’re well into a reordering of how some of our basic institutions have operated for the past century.  The decimation of news gathering and reporting outlets in communities across the nation imperils democracy be reducing local government accountability and the amount of information voters receive about candidates.  That’s something that should concern us all and is worthy of putting near the top of the issues we collectively need to address in the decade to come.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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