Local news can keep government accountable

On Wednesday, November 2, we held the final talk in our series of conversations on the impact of local news. Michelle De La Isla, former mayor of Topeka, Kansas, moderated this session with Jon Ralston, CEO of the Nevada Independent and Nikki Usher, professor at the University of San Diego (who uses the pronouns they and them).

De La Isla, Ralston and Usher focused on findings from Usher’s book, “News for the Rich, White, and Blue” and firsthand experiences from the Nevada Independent.

When local newspapers shutter, communities lose vital information on local government, its leaders, and the actions they take. This opens an information gap that can be exploited by bad actors spreading disinformation, and this spread of disinformation can widen partisan divides. Research also shows that in the absence of local news, government waste increases. De La Isla opened the discussion by reflecting on her firsthand experience of the importance of a strong accountability-based partnership between the media and the government to ensure communities are informed and empowered.

Usher’s research uncovered important findings about how to disrupt a hyper-partisan media environment and the role funders can play in ensuring the communities who really need it get the news they need, free from political bias. At the Nevada Independent, Ralston and his team are creating a newsroom norm of deep transparency and watchdog journalism that goes in-depth into the government and business corruption stories that often go overlooked.

Here are some of Usher and Ralston’s takeaways on how local news can improve meaningful political education and keep government accountable.

  • The research on the relationship between nonprofit news and government accountability shows promise
    In their forthcoming still-under-peer-review paper, Usher described evidence of a positive relationship between local watchdog reporting and prosecutions in cases of corruption: in judicial districts with a nonprofit news outlet (which Usher determined based on INN membership), prosecutions for public corruption were more frequent. In communities that have experienced a loss in local news offerings, nonprofit news organizations can fill the gap by producing investigative reporting that exposes wrongdoing and holds public officials accountable.
  • Rigorous reporting goes deep into issues that are often overlooked
    Local journalism can help fight back against perceptions that the news media is overly polarized. Readers need deeply reported, transparent journalism to make sense of a chaotic news landscape. The Nevada Independent has worked to uncover wide ranging stories of government corruption, including more frequently overlooked instances. The news outlet went deep on a story about the state’s exploitive mining industry, partnering with High Country News to bring the investigation together. In tirelessly covering this story, which affected Nevada’s rural community the most, Nevada Independent demonstrated a real commitment to overlooked Nevadans.
  • News organizations need advanced outreach tactics
    Usher’s research backs up a need for local news to meet readers where they are. News outlets should invest in deep community research and strengthen their presence in a variety of mediums, like Facebook, direct mail and door-to-door outreach – particularly important in rural communities often unserved by journalism.

At a time when massive disinformation campaigns and voter disenfranchisement efforts worsen polarization and suppress civic engagement, local news plays a critical role.  At the American Journalism Project, we remain committed to improving the availability of high quality local news that rigorously reports on the issues most pressing to the communities it serves. By taking on community-centered, innovative approaches that prioritize truth above all else, we believe local journalism will continue to play an important role in protecting our democracy.

This session concluded a series of important conversations about why local news matters. In our other sessions, we uncovered important findings on how local news can curb polarization, how it boosts civic engagement, particularly at the local level – and how it can improve community representation