Local news: the lever of democracy every community needs

For weeks, the residents of Jackson, Miss. have been in crisis. In late August, a period of flooding and a failure at the city’s largest water treatment plant left Jackson residents with low or no water pressure — and a scarcity of information about when service would be restored. 

From the start of the water crisis, Mississippi Today has led on reporting efforts, working tirelessly to keep Jackson residents informed. The nonprofit newsroom’s team had been reporting on the city’s aging infrastructure for years, and was able to quickly deploy all of its journalists to cover the situation with nuance and a deep understanding of its impact on the community. Weeks later, it continues to do so.

To date, Mississippi Today has published more than five dozen stories on the issue, set up a text line to answer community member questions, and led reporting efforts to help national audiences understand the crisis. And yesterday, the newsroom won a Sidney Award for its reporting on the crisis, highlighting the critical role the newsroom played in helping its community stay informed, engaged, and safe.

When Mississippi Today launched in 2016, it filled a deep need for local, nuanced reporting that wasn’t being met by other sources, including the nearly 200-year-old legacy newspaper in the area. It was created as a statehouse watchdog — its team doubled the existing press corp for the 2016 legislative session — and has proven itself to be a critical resource that holds the powerful to account and meets state information needs. As coverage from other sources in the state declines, Mississippi Today continues to ramp up its powerful work, all with the goal of serving Mississippians.

At the American Journalism Project, we believe that local journalism, like Mississippi Today’s coverage, is a public good — one that’s crucial to the survival of our communities and the success of our democracy. But the market failure of the local news industry has left communities in peril, strapped for the information they need to function, make decisions, and to hold their local leaders accountable. 

Today, on the International Day of Democracy, we’re joining a national group of media organizations and their supporters that are each sharing ways that American democracy is under threat — and how we can save it.

American residents, in orphan counties and elsewhere, need access to thriving local news, which is a vital lever of democracy. Local news is the most trusted source of information for the world around us, keeping us tapped into our city halls, schools and businesses. Robust local news sources connect us to our communities, our neighbors, and share perspectives that may otherwise go unheard.

Local news also demands accountability of our community, business, and governmental bodies, just as we’ve seen illustrated in Jackson in recent weeks. When we have strong local news systems, we — as individuals and as communities — have agency; we’re empowered with the knowledge we need to make informed decisions about issues critical to our daily lives.

Research shows that a decline in local news leads to serious community issues — voter and civic engagement decline, government waste increases, and public polarization rises.

The path forward is clear: we must save local news to save our democracy. Every community deserves access to high-quality, local news that is governed, sustained by, and looks like the public it serves. 

This is an issue that transcends any political ideology. No matter who you vote for — or who’s elected — it’s critical to ensure that there are people on the ground covering the intricacies of our local communities. It’s at the local level where the issues that most affect our daily lives occur; and it’s at the local level where we need to stay informed.

The 33 news organizations in our growing portfolio of grantees are independent, nonprofit news organizations that hold the powerful accountable, combat disinformation and deepen civic participation in their communities. They’re making an impact in more than 30 states across the country, and we’re honored and proud to support their work. 

The path forward requires work and a commitment that’s bigger than ourselves; each of us — as individuals and as organizations — can play a part in saving local news. Whether you subscribe or donate to a news organization near you, join us in solving information gaps across the country, or give to an organization supporting journalism, you can play a part in the ongoing work to keep communities informed, engaged, and connected.

Now’s the time to ensure our communities are illuminated and our democracy thrives. We’re proud to participate in building a robust, thriving democracy — today, and every day.

Sarabeth Berman is the chief executive of the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy for nonprofit local news. Find her on Twitter at @SarabethBerman.

Photo (top): Mississippi State Capitol building in Jackson, Miss.