If you live in a small rural township such as Slippery Rock, odds are you have experienced something called a “news desert.”
News deserts are casualties of an outdated journalism business model exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The journalism business model traditionally works by selling advertising space in the printed paper or online to local businesses. If those businesses see an increased number of customers after their increased exposure, they buy more ad space and the cycle continues.
However, businesses have realized that newspapers are no longer where the majority of their audience is and instead started to focus their advertising on television then social media. These platforms also offer audiences more interactivity and offer the businesses immediate feedback, which allows them to more quickly enhance the customer experience.
The combination of dwindling advertising funds and general readership for print and online media, aside from social media, has caused local newspapers to sputter out. The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, estimates more than 65 million Americans live in counties with one or zero local newspapers.
Why Local News Matters
Local news has been overshadowed by national outlets and news giants since the 2016 presidential election. Media corporations like Fox, CNN and MSNBC consistently get the highest ratings but are often the least trusted types of networks.
Despite journalists being trained to keep their sources at arms length so they can remain objective in their reporting, executives from those media organizations have close relationships with government officials, or at least operate in the same spheres. That poses the question are these the best journalists to hold these organizations accountable?
Local journalism is usually more accurate and relevant to an individual’s daily life. While national news outlets are serving a broader target audience, and often use agenda-setting techniques, local outlets are embedded into their community and use the public conversation to set their news agenda.
Local governments are also healthier when they have healthy local journalism to facilitate communication between them and the public. Residents often do not have the time or desire to attend government meetings when the majority of issues do not affect them, but they do want to know what happened and if there was drama. Residents also want their local government to be honest, transparent and productive. Corruption can occur at any level of government, and it is much easier to cover it up when no one is looking.
For new political candidates in smaller communities trying to make a name for themselves, local journalism also gives them an audience who has a likely chance of caring about the issues close to their campaign.
Creating an account on X, formerly known as Twitter, like most people trying to gain a following would connect them with younger demographics and audiences who are less receptive to their message and do not identify with their goals.
Starting by introducing themselves via local newspaper would prevent the candidate from building an audience from scratch and get their message to the people most affected.
The Taxed Alternative
The ads-driven journalism business model will most likely not be what propels local journalism into the future, and funding can be difficult to secure for outlets attempting to go nonprofit.
While most agree that fair and balanced local journalism is essential to community engagement and democracy, news outlets have discovered people are usually not willing to pay for it.
In the United Kingdom, journalism is government-funded, but that opens plenty of doors to government censorship and retaliation in the United States. Alternatively, local journalism could be funded through taxpayer dollars.
For people living in rural communities with news deserts, some moved there to get away from large taxes and abundant safety nets they may deem unnecessary. However, local journalism is a public service used to keep the community informed. If the community funds the news, then the news needs to make sure they are covering issues the community cares about. That is why The Rocket staff strives to cover issues close to both the Slippery Rock community and the university.
Journalism funded by local taxes could also increase community engagement because if the public pays for a service, they will be more likely to seek it out and use it. Regardless of how journalism continues to evolve, the need for reliable community reporting is clear.