If you’re reading this, chances are you love local news. And if you love local news, I strongly suggest you read a small but powerful new book that The Atlantic’s reviewer called “an ink-bound alarm bell” warning of a “slow-moving disaster” — nothing less than “the disappearance of local news.” The book is called Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, and it’s by Margaret Sullivan, the smart, tough and influential media columnist for The Washington Post.
Sullivan describes the collapse of the newspaper industry, the challenges facing digital-only news outlets struggling to survive in today’s journalism landscape, and the devastating impact on local communities and citizens. As her subtitle suggests, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. “When local news fails, the foundations of democracy weaken,” Sullivan writes. “The public, which depends on accurate, factual information in order to make good decisions, suffers.”
It’s a dark picture, with only a few rays of optimism poking through. Ironically, because local television news is so much healthier financially than its print and digital-only counterparts, broadcast journalism is barely mentioned. “I think that the really difficult issues in TV news are twofold, one of which is demographic,” Sullivan told me. “We now have a generation and a half or two generations of people who don’t have that appointment viewing habit. And so as the older viewers age out, what happens to TV news? The other issue is how good is it? Is it worth watching? Is it a part of the journalism that shores up democracy? And I think a charitable answer to that is — sometimes.”
What would it take to turn sometimes into always? Is it possible that local TV newsrooms could in fact play a key role in saving local journalism and restoring its critical place in civic life? In my conversation with Sullivan, we discussed several areas of opportunity for local TV news.
Stations increasingly see investigative and enterprise reporting as a way to stand out in a sea of sameness. In Buffalo, New York, for example, where Sullivan served as executive editor of The Buffalo News for almost 13 years, she acknowledged that the local TV newsrooms have “actually upped their games in this new world.” WKBW-TV (Scripps) “has done tremendous work uncovering some of the clergy abuse in the local Catholic church.” TEGNA’s WGRZ-TV has a relationship with a local nonprofit called Investigative Post, “and their reporters turn up all kinds of stuff.”
“Investigative reporting is working at the moment in Buffalo, but it’s every bit as tenuous as the entire national media landscape,” Sullivan writes in Ghosting the News. “The present and future must be created anew, and on the run.” TV newsrooms should be part of that creative reinvention.
As we reported here, Spectrum News Buffalo was the first television news organization to recruit a journalist from Report for America, the nonprofit that helps support and train young journalists in undercovered regions and on undercovered beats. Camaron Todd joined the cable-news outfit last year to cover mental health issues. “Beat reporting is really the basis of some of the best journalism that can be done,” Sullivan said. “And it’s extraordinarily time consuming and labor intensive. It’s something of a luxury for TV stations because their staffs are small. If you’ve only got a few reporters, how are you going to have people cover beats?”
One way is to re-allocate resources currently consumed by the pressure to cover routine “breaking news” — not an easy move for stations bound by traditional competitive pressures, although Spectrum’s upstart newsrooms are doing it, as are ABC’s Community Journalists. “You have to make room and you have to make time to do the things that are important. I think getting away from the sensationalistic ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ coverage is really important,” Sullivan said.
This one’s a tough challenge, but Sullivan’s book has a fascinating section on East Lansing Info, a nonprofit started by a non-journalist — an academic and author named Alice Dreger. Dreger has recruited and trained a “news brigade” of ordinary citizens and pays them (very modestly) to cover local issues and help keep public officials honest in that Michigan city. “I think a very important factor is: can you teach people how to do this work?” Sullivan said. “There’s enough of a real skill set there that most people just don’t have. You need to have some leaders who know what they’re talking about and what they’re doing. And I think if you do have that, then citizen journalism can make some sense. I’m always surprised at what people will do just for a byline.”
How about for a mention on the 11 o’clock news? I can imagine an experiment in citizen-driven newsgathering — especially for hyperlocal stories designed for digital consumption — created and executed by a station. After all, stations have long leveraged their strong audience relationships for amazing storm photos and videos. Might they convert that into a steady and even richer supply of local news content?
Working strategically with like-minded partners is “a no-brainer” when resources are scarce and shrinking, Sullivan said. “When people talk about doing more with less, that’s not possible. In journalism, doing more with less is a ridiculous statement,” she said. “But I think getting the resources, the people, the exposure, the talent from other news organizations that are also trying to make it is one way to approach it.”
Sullivan doesn’t expect TV newsrooms to join forces with the other stations in town: “That may be a bridge too far.” But why couldn’t a television station set itself apart from its traditional competition by placing itself squarely in the middle of a new local journalism consortium? “I think that in a reasonably successful local media ecosystem, you’re going to have nonprofit news organizations, local television, public radio, I hope newspapers that are still functioning at some level,” Sullivan said. “So much more of a cooperative system than a competitive one.”
Making Local News Essential
Sullivan, like the rest of us, has noticed that the COVID-19 pandemic, “an intensely local story,” has brought new viewers, such as young parents, to local TV news. ”If they can develop that habit through this real need right now, it might be something that would stick,” she said. “You have to keep them around. Now that you’ve got their attention, how are you going to prove your worth? This is the question we would ask ourselves and I would ask the staff when I was the editor of The Buffalo News: ‘How can we make ourselves indispensable?’ How can all these stations make themselves indispensable? They sure are when there’s a terrible snowstorm or something, but how about the rest of the time?”
Put another way, make the effort to understand what these non-traditional viewers want from the local news. “It’s like robbing a bank. That’s where the money is,” Sullivan said. “I would try to think hard about what the information needs are of these demographic groups. I would try to be listening very hard and asking questions about what would draw them in, and what would keep them. And just try to do more of that.”
Sullivan writes eloquently in Ghosting the News about the role healthy newspapers have traditionally played in our civic life: “The newspaper ties the region together, helps it makes sense of itself, fosters a sense of community, serves as a village square whose boundaries transcend Facebook’s filter bubble.”
The glory days of newspapers are never coming back, but what’s stopping a local TV newsroom from providing this kind of journalism? What might have to change to make that happen? Is there a ghost of a chance?