Has print journalism’s decline contributed to a drop in civic engagement?

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve noticed that citizen participation in everyday local government affairs appears to have declined. This seems to have intensified in recent years as partisanship and political posturing have increased. I find this both sad and alarming because I think now, more than ever, it is important for regular citizens to keep abreast of current events in our communities. “Knowledge is power” may be a cliché, but I believe it is true.

This trend coincides with another that I’ve noticed: Traditional print newspapers are fading away. It’s happening in both rural and urban areas. The causes are myriad but the most prominent are these: increasing costs, competition from digital media, and the disappearance of local journalists. Both large and small papers are feeling the crunch.

I have a friend who recently retired from the Los Angeles Times amidst bulk layoffs. Two other reporters I know changed careers after large and medium-sized newspapers laid them off. Mergers are becoming common as print media struggles to remain competitive. Besides the employees, local news coverage is the biggest casualty of this practice. Buyouts often move headquarters to distant locations. Corporate managers shift emphasis from local events to regional and national news. They tap into national wire service articles as a replacement for local news. County boards, city councils, school boards, library boards, and other local governing entities find themselves without dependable coverage.

Hometown newspapers in towns and villages across the U.S. are closing. Many of these are small, family businesses that have kept their rural populations informed for generations. When a long-time editor retires or dies, often nobody is willing or able to step in, and no buyers come forward. Shuttered newspaper offices litter America’s Main Streets. Although I’m fortunate enough to live in a place where we still have a vibrant weekly newspaper, I feel for the communities that have lost theirs.

The old saying, “all politics is local,” is accurate. Democracy is participatory. Local governments make important decisions that affect all of us. Local journalists keep us in the know and position us to respond and interact appropriately. When local news coverage is replaced by national networks that lean one way or another, by political talk radio, and by social media diatribes and memes, we suffer.

I recently read an article in the Flatwater Free Press about the Documenters program, which first launched in Chicago in 2018 and has so far expanded to 15 American cities. According to the article, this is “an innovative model that trains and pays community members to show up to public meetings and document what they see. Documenters participate in the newsgathering process and help us understand our community. They are high school and college students, working professionals, and retirees. They attend local public meetings and share government actions via detailed note-taking. The fact-checked notes are then published for anyone to use—these Documenters are building a permanent public record of the local decisions being made.”

The Documenters program isn’t just about journalism. It’s about engaging the public in local government, creating what some organizers around the country have called a “civic side hustle.” Here’s what they’ve done in Omaha since last summer: https://omaha-ne.documenters.org/.

Our world is rapidly changing. So is journalism. This program demonstrates what could be an effective step toward revitalizing local civic engagement everywhere.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

#civicengagement #journalism #LocalNews

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