© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A global threat to journalism invites us to “think local”

You wouldn’t figure a Scottish sociologist born in the middle of the 19th century would be the ideal author of a favorite bumper sticker in 2024. But the other day, when I once again saw that saying, “Think globally, act locally” on a bumper, I had to check it out. Turns out the concept originated with Patrick Geddes, whose career in Scotland ranged from botany to town planning, who originated the concept. Geddes was active as industrialization and urban growth began to yield more crime, poverty and illness. He counseled communities to meet those challenges with what he called “constructive and conservative surgery” — that is, small changes in buildings and neighborhoods — rather than “heroic, all of a place schemes,” (his words, again) which were popular then. Geddes’ one-step-at-a-time approach turned out to be both efficient and effective, and his insights have powered the work of leading thinkers for generations.

You can apply this “think globally, act locally” philosophy to all sorts of problems in search of solutions — to climate change, for example, a global crisis that won’t be solved until millions of people reduce their own carbon footprints. But lately I’ve been thinking that acting locally might be the path to restoring the vitality of journalism, which matters a lot to me, of course, since I spent more than 40 years in newspapering.

The scope of the problem is, in fact, global: Across advanced societies, more people than ever before are turning away from the news, just as sources of honest reporting are withering under the stress of the digital revolution. It’s by now an old story that print newspapers are dying, which is seen in the shuttering of two U.S. newspapers each week, on average, leaving 1,800 communities that used to have a local news source without one now. But the crisis increasingly confronts digital news, too: Almost half of the people surveyed on six continents for last year’s Reuters Digital News Report don’t engage with the news at all. News avoidance is growing in almost every country.

This matters to all of us. Researchers have linked a decline of news coverage to higher taxes, more government corruption and increased polarization. Democracies depend upon an informed electorate, and as partisan or commercial messages replace reported truth, the security that attaches to free societies is increasingly threatened.

But a resurgence of local journalism, one community at a time, could revitalize journalism more generally – and that ground-up solution might not be impossible to achieve. A small but growing number of local newsrooms are returning to local ownership across the country, sometimes as not-for-profits, which seem likely to be more sustainable than debt-laden chain-owned newspapers.

And Steven Waldman, one of the leading architects of possible solutions to the decline of American journalism, suggested in The Atlantic last year that an investment of $1.5 billion a year could support salaries for 25,000 reporters, which is about the number of reporting jobs that have disappeared over the past two decades. Sure, $1.5 billion is a lot, but it’s roughly two-hundredths of one percent of federal spending. That doesn’t sound like such a huge sum to raise, right?

One way to drive that funding into local news would be through a refundable tax credit for news organizations that employ local reporters – and New York is about to do just that.. The state Legislature a few weeks back approved a $90 million first-in-the-nation tax break to help local news organizations survive. It’s a three-year experiment that allows some media companies to reduce their tax liability to the state for half of a worker’s salary, up to $50,000 per worker (capped at $320,000 per local news outlet).

Again, think context: $90 million is not much of a drain in a $237 billion state budget. But that amount of money could literally sustain some small to mid-sized news organizations. Think of it as a commitment by New York taxpayers to begin to preserve the coverage that helps people identify with their home community and understand what’s going on in their local schools, village halls and social organizations. 

Other states will be watching to see how it works out in New York. It is possible that as the infusion of funds helps the local reporting infrastructure recover, trust in journalism generally might rebound. Part of the suspicion of national news outlets surely arises from the fact that most folks no longer have neighbors who cover their community’s school boards and sports teams. It’s harder to mistrust people you know – so the credibility that will grow as local newsrooms recover might then attach to people who are doing the same thing as the people you know.

Because the effort to support local newsrooms around the country is about more than journalism. It’s essential to sustaining civic life in America. That’s a huge goal, to be sure. But its very scale makes it the sort of a challenge that a brilliant Scotsman a century and a half ago might have urged us to take on, one locality at a time. Maybe that’s the only way that we can protect the freedom we all hold dear.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

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

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
Related Content