Rebuilding local news fosters civic engagement

On Thursday, October 20, we held our second talk in a series of conversations on the impact of local news. Peter Lattman, managing director of media at the Emerson Collective moderated this virtual session with Mazin Sidahmed, co-executive director of Documented and Danny Hayes, professor of political science at George Washington University. 

Lattman, Sidahmed and Hayes focused on insights from “News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement”, a book by Hayes and Jennifer Lawless, and explored ways to solve the decline of civic engagement through local news. Highlights from our conversation are below.

Despite growing participation in national politics and high volumes of information available online, local political engagement in the U.S. has declined. In their research, Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless identified a connection between the decline in local news and decreased participation in local elections. A concerning cycle has become evident: people across the country aren’t participating in local elections, and they’re becoming increasingly disconnected with issues in their own backyard, — with a widespread lack of knowledge about who’s holding local office positions and what local issues are most pressing. Hayes and Lawless not only identified a need for more high quality local news, but also for an information campaign that helps communities understand all the things local government does and how it affects their lives; this will create the demand that’s needed for local news readership to thrive.

At Documented, Mazin Sidahmed is co-leading a newsroom that responds to this gap and invites engagement through community listening, with a focus on New York City’s immigrant groups. In recent years, immigration coverage has overwhelmingly focused on the U.S./Mexico border and national policies, with oversimplified narratives that lack nuance, humanity or meaningful engagement with this group – and are absent of local context. To ensure the newsroom was reporting on the issues that matter most to its audience, the founding team at Documented did an information needs assessment in New York’s low wage immigrant communities. They identified a need to rewrite the narrative about immigrants in the media, provide actionable information about navigating public resources – and meet readers on the platforms they use most, offering them a two-way avenue to engage.

Throughout the conversation, Hayes and Sidahmed continued to offer meaningful insights; here are some major takeaways from the conversation:

  • Strong local journalism can drive community connection
    Hayes’s research identified an alarming lack of community connectedness, with many people unaware and seemingly uninterested in local issues and local government. Good local journalism can peel back the curtain into how local governments shape communities’ day-to-day lives, and make policy information accessible to readers.At Documented, journalists are offering readers multiple ways to engage, including via a WhatsApp newsletter and by offering content in the languages most commonly spoken by readers: English, Spanish, Chinese and Haitian Creole. Readers were also invited to share which issues were most important to them. The Documented team used those answers to invite policymakers and candidates in New York to share their positions on these issues. When readers see policymakers comment on the issues that affect them, they can see more clearly the connection between local journalism and government transparency.
  • This is an opportunity to reshape the institution of journalism
    We know the erosion of local news has devastating impacts for democracy and public health, but in this stage of rebuilding, there’s an opportunity to chart a new course that makes readers feel invested in the health of the local news outlets that cover their neighborhoods.

    “We’ve adopted an ivory tower approach to journalism for far too long,” Sidahmed said. “We’ve said ‘we know what’s best for the community.’ We have an opportunity to rewrite that contract and bring the community into the news gathering and news creation process, ask them what they need, and produce news based on that. There’s a business case for that, there’s an audience case for that. From a democracy perspective, that’s the only way we’ll re-engage people in the local news conversation.”

    Hayes added that news outlets and the local news ecosystem need to creatively communicate to individuals how essential the information is that local news provides, which connects back to adding more transparency to the operations of local government.
  • Progress can be measured in a number of ways
    In Hayes’s research, progress was measured quantitatively in increased voter turnout and local election participation, but also through milestones like increased knowledge of community updates and participation in local council meetings, noting that community connection is an antecedent to political participation.

    In New York’s immigrant community, the team at Documented sees progress in policymakers increasingly answering to issues most important to the city’s documented and undocumented immigrant communities. Much of the outlet’s readership is undocumented, so while progress won’t always translate at the polls, they’re seeing richer community dialogues happening and readers’ gaining a stronger feeling of connectedness to New York and their neighborhoods.

We hope you’ll join us as we continue holding conversations with leading researchers and local news practitioners to discuss the importance and value of local news. Our next sessions will cover representation and government accountability. Learn more and register to join us here.

If you missed our conversation last week on the topic of polarization, we shared a recap here.

Photo (top) by Antenna on Unsplash