GREAT FALLS — It’s News Literacy week for MTN - and the theme is Spotlight on Local News. Local news is the backbone of how we stay informed about issues and events that impact us.
But it’s in peril.
MTN News talked to Hannah Covington, the education director for the News Literacy Project, about the importance of local news and the major issues facing the industry
"Local news is crucial in a democracy, and at its core, a democracy requires an informed citizenry and it requires people to have access to credible information. And local news sources are a key part of offering that information to their communities,” Covington said. "And there's really a crisis moment in local news. There’s a huge decline in the number of newspapers and a huge increase in the number of news deserts. That's an area where people have little to no access to a local news source. And that's that's a big problem."
In the last 20 years over 2000 newspapers have closed, and many others are a shell of what they once were.
For example, the Great Falls Tribune once had dozens of reporters and one of the widest circulations in the state at its peak. But under the ownership of New Media Investment group, a private equity firm, the Tribune has cut staff and operations. It is now down to two reporters, has no physical address in the community and just announced a transition to postal delivery.
Local television stations aren’t immune either. A rapidly shifting media landscape has forced difficult changes in the industry as outlets adapt their business models and identities.
“We talk a lot about the transition to online, the transition to digital. People just have so many choices of where they're getting their information from and traditional sources of revenue that newsrooms relied on for decades have just largely dried up,” Covington said. "And people oftentimes might not be willing to pay for news or can't pay for news
"But the reality is that credible, responsible journalism costs money to produce. It takes time, it takes resources. And a lot of newsrooms are now owned by private equity firms that have made deep and devastating cuts to the newsroom. So beats are going uncovered and meetings are going unattended and, you know, abuses of power going unchecked."
So what are some solutions?
There’s a push from several organizations to find ways for communities to invest in local news, whether it’s the private sector or through legislation.
The business model needs to change, and the challenge is convincing people it’s worth changing. That was a toic of discussion at a News Literacy panel discussion event earlier this week titled ‘Extra, Extra: How to Solve the Local News Crisis’.
One of the panel members was Steven Waldman, the founder and president of Report For America and Rebuild Local News.
“We’re trying to convince either philanthropists or government to do this – investments and donation and sacrifice their money or taxpayer money – in order to help local news. The point is, actually, it would pay back many times over,” Waldman said. "The investment in local news pays many, many dividends to taxpayers, to governments… communities that don't have local news, have worse bond ratings, meaning their municipal borrowing costs go up, which translates into higher taxes and more expenses, so literally dollars and cents.”
There’s no magic bullet to fix the issues facing local news. And there are some who would even celebrate it’s downfall. But the consequences of living in a community without acess to reliable, accurate information can’t be ignored.
“What everyday people can do is become more news literate and recognize the role that local news plays in our communities,” Covington said.
To learn more about News Literacy week and the issues facing local news visit NewsLit.org.