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Growing local news deserts endanger democracy, study finds

Over the last 15 years, local newspapers across the U.S. have lost more than $35 billion in advertising revenue and half of their staffs, while at least 2,000 news outlets have shuttered during that time, according to a new study by the non-profit PEN America. Viktorya Vilk, who co-authored the report, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how the decline of local news is impacting civic engagement.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last month, PEN America, a nonprofit organization for literature and freedom of expression, released a report detailing the loss of local news coverage in communities across the United States. The findings noted that as a result, Americans are not adequately informed and less likely to engage in political and civic life.

    I recently sat down with Viktorya Vilk, manager of Special Projects for Free Expression Programs at PEN America and one of the coauthors of the report. So Viktorya, lay out a local news problem for us.

  • Viktorya Vilk:

    We spent the last year, my colleagues and I at PEN America talking to dozens of journalists, elected officials, community activists and media scholars. And we were hearing the same refrain over and over again. Local news outlets across the country are shrinking and shuttering at an alarming rate. And it is very bad news for our communities.

    If you look at some very powerful studies that have come out in the last few years, what they found is that if you look at just newspapers over the last 15 years, they've lost $35 billion in ad revenue and nearly 50 percent, nearly half of staff, over 2,000 newspapers have shut down across the country, local newspapers and over a thousand more are ghost papers. So they're just shells of their former selves, they're producing very little original reporting.

    And the reason newspapers matter is because if you think of journalism as an ecosystem where you also have TV, radio, social media, all the places people get their information, newspapers are still providing the bulk of original reporting at the local level. So when you lose them, you lose that watchdog function that is so important in our democracy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, if there isn't anybody watching the city council meetings and going to them, there's potential for abuse or fraud, is that what you're saying?

  • Viktorya Vilk:

    That's exactly what I'm saying. And there's a growing body of very compelling and very frightening literature that shows that as local news declines, government corruption and government costs increase, officials conduct themselves with less integrity and efficiency.

    We also know that local news drives civic engagement. So there are fewer people going out to vote and they don't know exactly who's running for office or what that person's platform is because they don't have local sources that they trust to turn to for that information.

    So the consequences can be really dire. And as we enter an election cycle that is rife with political polarization and disinformation, we need trusted local sources now more than ever.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So which communities are affected the most? I mean, is this hitting rural areas or smaller markets? Is it communities of color that don't have other publications paying attention to them?

  • Viktorya Vilk:

    It's all of that and more. So when we started this project, we were thinking almost exclusively of news deserts, right? Places where there isn't a local outlet of some kind.

    And then we realized, spending a year working on this project that this is a national problem and it affects major cities, rural communities, small and mid-sized towns and everything in between. But you are absolutely right that it is precisely the communities that have actually historically been underserved by local media, communities of color, poor communities, low income communities that are now being most severely affected by this crisis.

    So you have major outlets in the black press, Hispanic language outlets, Native American outlets are all shutting down. They're under the same pressure, but they didn't have the financial support and stability that legacy outlets once had.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So you have, what, four pages of recommendations. Summarized some of that for us. What can we do? What shouldn't get done?

  • Viktorya Vilk:

    Our top line recommendation is that we actually have to radically shift how we think about journalism in this country so that we are no longer thinking of it exclusively as a commercial product but also as a public good, a service that is so vital to society that we must support it through public and private means and to protect it. And so there are a number of things we propose.

    There is an enormous amount of innovation taking place in the industry itself. There are nonprofit outlets popping up, digital outlets popping up, but they need money. And so what we suggest is radically expanding philanthropic funding.

    Right now, foundations have led the way. They're giving hundreds of millions of dollars a year. What we need is billions of dollars a year. And that giving is not going to local outlets. And it's very concentrated on the coasts and in a handful of states in between. It's not hitting the Southwest, the Midwest, the South. Right. And rural communities and low income communities in particular.

    We're also recommending actually majorly expanding the pool of public funding that's available to journalism, either through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is our existing model, or perhaps through our National Endowment for Journalism.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right now, in this climate, that is a pretty difficult ask.

  • Viktorya Vilk:

    It is. The reason we are saying we need to think big is because the crisis is that bad. What a lot of Americans don't realize is that we have actually subsidized commercial media since 1792.Through postal subsidies, through tax breaks and through government ads. 36 states across this country actually support media. But we're doing so at a rate somewhere between 25 and 30 times less per person than most of the high income democracies in the rest of the world.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Viktorya Vilk from PEN America. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Viktorya Vilk:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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