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Why 'withering' of local news landscapes is dangerous for democracy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: More than 2,000 newspapers have closed since 2004, and now, amid the global pandemic, local news is again struggling to keep the presses running.

Jeffrey Brown recently spoke with Margaret Sullivan about this decline. It's the focus of her new book, "Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy."

Jeffery Brown: Margaret Sullivan, thanks so much for joining us.

I want to start with the title, "Ghosting the News." Even beyond the numbers, what do you see happening?

Margaret Sullivan: Well, we have a very serious situation with the local news ecosystem in the United States, in which local news in many communities is either withering or dying out altogether.

News deserts are springing up. And, in some cases, newspapers which have been very stalwart in their communities for many years have become just ghosts or specters of what they once were. And citizens are not being well-served in those communities by local news outlets anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: Your concern goes even further than that, and that gets to the subtitle, "The Crisis of American Democracy."

So what's the link between the loss of local news and the loss of a larger ideal nationally?

Margaret Sullivan: You know, in order to function as citizens in our society and in our democracy, we need to have kind of a common basis of facts. We don't have to agree about those facts or what to do about them, but we need to kind of all be functioning from the same set of -- you know, the same set of facts.

And as local news goes away, we lose that in our communities. Yes, we may still have wonderful sources of national news, but we have to think about our local governments, our town councils, our city government, our school boards, all of those things.

And, as that dwindles, you know, citizens become less politically engaged. They become more tribal in the way they vote. And all kinds of things happen that are not really good for a functioning democracy.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, we're at a time where -- you mentioned facts. We're in a time where facts themselves are questioned, right, where the whole idea of objective reporting is questioned.

Can you give me an example of what you think is being lost when we lose the local journalism?

Margaret Sullivan: Yes.

In some ways, it is challenging to describe it, because when we don't have reporting taking place, it's that expression, you don't know what you don't know. But if you just think of some of the great reporting that has happened at the local level -- I mean, for example, the way The Miami Herald, a McClatchy newspaper that is under siege right now, really brought the Jeffrey Epstein story, resuscitated it and created the situation in which that came further to justice.

If those reporters if Julie K. Brown of The Miami Herald hadn't been doing her job, justice may very well never have taken place there. And then it can happen in a smaller way, too.

Who is covering the school board? Who is covering the council meeting?

Jeffrey Brown: What is interesting, though -- and, as you write, even while this is happening, a lot of Americans, maybe most Americans, don't even realize that it is happening.

And I wonder. A lot of people -- most people feel like they're getting plenty of news, right? I mean, in the age of social media, the Internet, more often the complaint is there is just too much information out there.

So how do you convince everyone that they're missing something?

Margaret Sullivan: Well, this is actually why I -- a big reason that I wrote the book I did, because I read some very good research that said that seven of 10 Americans think that local news organizations are doing swimmingly.

And very few people are willing to or do pay for any form of local news. So I thought that it would be important to sort of sound the alarm before we lose this really important resource that we have for being good citizens.

It is a hard message to get across, because, as you say, we have this fire hose of information coming at us, but, very often, that has to do with national politics, national and international news. It doesn't have to do with our community news, which comes from other sources.

Jeffrey Brown: I know that you wrote about some of the solutions, and we can't go into all of them, but are there signs of hope that you see?

Margaret Sullivan: There really are.

In many cases, there are digital start-up news organizations. I mean, you think of The Texas Tribune in Austin. And there are many of them around the country that have been -- that are really a new model. They're not newspapers. They're maybe nonprofits or digital sites that are really doing good work.

And they're based not on advertising generally, but on membership, philanthropy, events, running events. They are really important. I don't think that they fully take the place of newspapers, and I think we need to do both. We need to shore up and support newspapers, while also supporting these new measures that are going to take us into the future.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "Ghosting the News."

Margaret Sullivan, thank you very much.

Margaret Sullivan: Thank you very much for having me.

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