St. Simons Island, Ga. – Tip O’Neill, the legendary House speaker during the Reagan era, once told someone, “All politics is local.”
This suggested a comforting inverted pyramid view of the world that imagined a bottom-up kind of democracy. It put Washington in perspective.
Those were the days, my friend. Speaker O’Neill’s observation now seems quaint. In 2020, all politics is national.
And national politics are ugly. They have divided Americans into warring tribes. Our town squares have been replaced by cable news “politainment,” which poses as news but really acts to kill independent thought. It thrives on stoking outrage and urges us to believe that people with whom we disagree are stupid and evil.
The dominance of the cable industrial complex coupled with the infinity of the Internet have pushed local journalism toward extinction. When all news was local, local papers channeled a big chunk of the national conversation. The successes, failures and tragedies in our communities filled their pages and our conversations. National stories were in the mix, but they were placed in a context that made Washington a part of our worlds – not the center of our universe.
No experience has more clearly reminded me of the importance of local newspapers – and newspapers in general – than the impeachment.
With the cable industry churning in full wartime production mode, the impeachment story has eclipsed everything else. It is nearly inescapable and fully toxic.
That’s not to say that it’s unimportant. We have come to confuse importance with pervasive. Of course, impeachment is an important thing, but it isn’t the only thing.
Try this. Turn off cable news and read the AJC’s coverage of the wars in Washington.
This is what I do. On pretty mornings, I read the online AJC quietly in a comfortable chair on my screened porch. No “breaking news” banners, pounding music or stupefying graphics. I hear birds as I read.
My blood pressure eases. My clarity improves. The only voice I hear is the one in my head, and it’s mine. I read the modulated and verified accounts and reread for meaning. No anchors or their partisan minion-analysts tell me what to think or to stir me to outrage just long enough to get me to the next commercial. No one ever shouts. I make up my own mind.
But this is becoming a rare experience. While the AJC has held its own through the carnage of newspaper industry collapse, papers of such depth and quality are rare. In most places, newspapers are shadows of their former selves, unable to generate sufficient local news to compete with the industrial newsrooms.
More than 65 million Americans live in counties with only one local newspaper — or none at all, according to a 2019 study by the Brookings Institute.
Guess what happens in a world of diminished local news. “With local news struggling to survive and compete with national news outlets for consumers’ attention, partisan reporting and coverage of national partisan conflict has come to dominate news consumers’ diets,” Brookings found. Where newspapers disappear, voters tend to vote straight party tickets “contributing to national political polarization.”
Fewer, more-partisan voters enfeeble democracy. We elect bad candidates and authorize poor policy. “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,” said Viktoria Vilk during a radio interview. She’s one of the authors of a yearlong study at PEN, a nonprofit that supports arts, literature and expression. “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.”
Even though studies have shown Georgia is losing newspapers at an alarming rate, Dan Pool, who edits the Pickens County Progress in north Georgia, says that small papers are persisting in Georgia. The state has lost newspapers, but every county still has a legal organ – the local newspaper that publishes legal advertising.
“Obviously, we are all scaling back on staff, in some cases days of publication and that is pretty much statewide, but as of 2020, newspapers are not closing,” he said. “From the dailies down to the small weeklies, none of us are doing as well as we would like but it’s not collapse-time either.”
He told me he sees the same polarization, but he explains it somewhat differently. “More and more people seek out and are satisfied with the voices — I won’t use the word “news” here — that are biased, simple, reaffirm their already-held positions and don’t acknowledge or present the gray areas when issues aren’t clear-cut,” Pool said. “And let’s face it, how often are the larger issues with any government something that can be wrapped up neatly in one Twitter post or using an emoji?”
With a shift away from talking about local issues — and the shared search for nonpartisan local solutions — communities lose their cohesion. Where we once saw neighbors, we now see Republicans or Democrats.
In addition to a loss of political civility and a decline of civic engagement, less local journalism actually costs you money, according to one comprehensive study. Communities that lack true watchdog reporters often have to pay more to raise money through revenue bonds.
“A local newspaper provides an ideal monitoring agent for these revenue-generating projects, as mismanaged projects can be exposed by investigative reporters employed by the local newspaper,” the study by a team of university researchers found. “When a newspaper closes, this monitoring mechanism also ceases to exist, leading to a greater risk that the cash flows generated by these projects will be mismanaged.”
Vilk views newspapers as a threatened species essential for a healthy system. “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,” she said during radio remarks. “So, when you lose them, you lose that watchdog function that is so important in our democracy.”
The damage already may be done, she said: “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.”
So, what are we to do? Demand great journalism. Hire some editors and reporters by subscribing to your local newspaper.
What can newspapers do? “There is no silver bullet,” says Pool, the Pickens County editor. “It starts with maintaining our standards for unbiased coverage and seeing that it is packaged well in a digital format.
“At some point, the key is for more and more people to realize that they are missing the real facts when they get their daily news from whatever pops up on their feed instead of looking at the local or state news organizations that are staffed with professional reporters and columnists.”
And we can all dream of the day when once again all politics is local.
Bert Roughton Jr. is the retired senior managing editor and editorial director for the AJC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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