I n 2016, the world witnessed a dramatic political shift as Brexit in the U.K., followed by the election of President Donald Trump in the U.S., revealed fissures in the modern democratic process. The emergence of social and digital media as a way to produce, consume, and share news was a significant contributing factor to both these events (Postill, 2018). While these platforms give audiences the power to share news widely and rapidly, there are few mechanisms to ensure the veracity and provenance of that information. In other words, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google have helped facilitate the spread of what has now been called “fake news” and political propaganda, which may have unduly – and unpredictably – influenced the democratic process. These global events serve as a case study, or perhaps even a warning, about the central role a healthy news ecosystem plays in a functioning democracy. The state of news is under pressure from multiple forces – digital disruption being only one significant factor in an ecosystem struggling with the decline of advertising dollars, increased media concentration and newsroom closures, and an increasingly fragmented audience.
Nowhere are these pressures more keenly felt than in the realm of local and community news. Yet research on local news shows that it plays a vital role in the health of communities around the world. In the United States, for instance, the Knight Commission suggested that local news availability is as important to a well-functioning community as “clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health” (Knight Commission, 2009). In 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that 72 per cent of Americans follow local news closely, relying mostly on newspapers to stay informed (Andrew and Caumont, 2014). But since 2012, hundreds of newspapers across North America have been closed, moved online, or amalgamated (Napoli, Stonbely, McCollough, & Renninger, 2015; Shaker, 2014), making it that much more difficult for citizens to access the news and information they need to effectively and efficiently navigate daily life and participate in the governance of their communities.
Across North America, the availability of news is inconsistent if not scarce. In the U.S., for example, lower-income communities tend to have less access to local news than their higher-income counterparts (Napoli et al., 2015). In Canada, research has shown that news about key election races is available unevenly across the country (Lindgren, Corbett, & Hodson, 2017). Local news plays a critical role in a healthy community public sphere, especially when it comes to charitable giving, increasing turnouts in local elections, sharing community stories to increase social cohesion, and strengthening local civic culture (Knight Commission, 2009; Napoli et al., 2015; Shaker, 2014; Smith, this volume).
Some have suggested that the very digital forces that have brought about transformative business- and attention-related challenges may provide alternative methods to share community news and information. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are thus often seen as effective ways to gather and distribute news as well as reach new audiences. While technology can help to shed light on some of the pressing issues of local news, and can also provide low-cost, high-impact ways for local news outlets to share information, it may be unwise to put too much faith in these technologies. In fact, research shows that only certain types of information spreads far and wide online. Civic reporting such as reports on council meetings or budget briefings are often drowned out by global and national headlines, as well as emotionally-charged and celebrity-driven news. While these preferences reflect previous analog habits to some extent, audiences’ increasing reliance on algorithms and recommendations has led to a deluge of such content, effectively drowning out the weaker signals from local news.
So, we ask, what is the way forward? In this special publication, we explore the changing role of local news in our current media reality and beyond. It brings together peer-reviewed papers by academics who gathered in Toronto in June 2017 to attend Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. The collection explores different facets of local news, and asks how we might begin to move forward in a way that preserves the most crucial parts of traditional news production and distribution models, while building on the best of what we are learning from technological disruption. It considers the role of local news in Canada and around the world, and asks what role policy, financing models, and new technologies might play in forging a new path forward. Above all, it invites the reader to draw their own conclusions. There may be many different ways to get vital civic and community information to the publics that require it, and no one model will work in every instance.
When the editorial team sat down to envision this publication, we wanted to ensure that the research presented here could be widely available, and reach far beyond the walls of the ivory tower. We therefore rejected the idea of paywalls and jargon-laden language accessible to only a limited audience. We also wanted to take advantage of digital tools that allow for storytelling in different formats. The result is an interactive, multimedia publication that is openly available online via multiple channels. In addition to the traditional academic articles, we encouraged multimedia submissions, so in this publication you will find short explanatory videos, an audio podcast, and work that includes links, interactive maps, and infographics. We’ve also included short documentaries produced by Ryerson School of Journalism students that tell the story of local news in Canadian communities. These stories complement the more traditional academic content by providing street-level examinations of why local news matters.
The contributions in this volume are varied and illuminate different aspects of local journalism and its future. Some invite the reader to reflect on the value of local news or on the changing role of local news outlets. Other contributions probe threats to local news, ranging from market forces to changing audiences. Some papers use technology to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities in the local news ecosystem, others warn us about relying too much on some technologies, such as social media platforms, as a way to make up for the inadequacies of local news ecosystems.