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Divided We Fall

Why Local News Is So Important: Democracy Depends On It 

By Nancy Watzman

Special to the GPHN

Here’s some good news for a change: even in a time of extreme political polarization, people trust local news. 

A recent statewide survey by Corona Insights confirms that 84 percent of Coloradans are “somewhat confident” or “very confident” that their local news media will give them full, fair, and accurate information. This is consistent with national polling, which shows, in survey after survey, that people trust local news at a much higher rate they do national news sources.

Unfortunately there’s bad news, too. With the rise of social media, and the decline of advertising dollars that once filled coffers at local newspapers, we’re in danger of losing the very sources of trusted information that we need so badly.

Colorado is a case in point. A new report from Colorado Media Project, “Local News is a Public Good: Public pathways for Supporting Coloradans Civic News and Information Needs in the 21st Century,” documents the crisis in our state. Nearly one in five Colorado newspapers has closed since 2004. Between 2010 and 2018 the number of professional reporters declined by nearly 44 percent – from 1,010 to 570 reporters statewide. 

The Rocky Mountain News closed its doors a decade ago. Across the state, where small business owners still own nearly two-thirds of the state’s 151 newspapers, 44 are approaching retirement age and are looking to sell their papers and exit the business.

Why is local news so important here and now? What do we lose when longstanding dailies with proud traditions like the family-owned Grand Junction Sentinel and the Durango Herald cut down on publication days? When no one is on the city council and school board beats, and yet unvetted, extremist messages travel at the speed of Facebook and Twitter?

Local reporters are part of the fabric of our communities. People trust them because – as old-fashioned as this sounds – they know them. 

“[T]he likelihood of face-to-face encounters with people with whom we disagree combine to moderate strident political behavior,” writes Tim Marema, editor of Daily Yonder, whose motto is “keep it rural,” and which has chapters in Kentucky and Tennessee. “I have to think long and hard before starting a political argument with my community’s sole mechanic, lest I have to drive 15 miles to get an oil change.”

Veteran journalist, Knight chair, and CMP advisor Kathy Kiely says it this way: “When you’re part of a family, you’re entitled to dish out and you can expect to receive tough love. You can say and hear things from other family members that neither they nor you would tolerate from outsiders.”

When we lose local news voices, we lose the chance to have civil discussions about issues that affect all of us deeply, from potholes to school choice to tax policy. We lose the chance of teaching our young people how to listen, learn, and participate in our democracy in the communities where they live. 

This is why the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, after a yearlong examination of the problem of declining trust in media, stressed the importance of supporting local news as a key recommendation.

That doesn’t mean the answer lies in discarded business models. We need creative thinking and experimentation in this time of transition. In Colorado, we boast promising entrepreneurial efforts by existing news organizations. We also boast digital native upstarts that are injecting a spirit of innovation that can serve as an example to the nation. These range from the digital upstart the Colorado Sun, to Colorado Independent, and Chalkbeat Colorado, to hyperlocal sites such as the Longmont Observer and Boulder Beat.

But we also need the public to step up and take responsibility. It’s time to start the conversation in Colorado, and beyond, on possible pathways for the public to support local news – including the original reporting you read in the Greater Park Hill News every month.

Colorado Media Project’s new report outlines several possibilities, including creating a state fund to support local news akin to New Jersey’s new Civic Information Consortium, to streamlining the ability of local governments to create special districts that can fund local news. 

In our democracy, we the people have the power to create change. If we don’t, we can expect to see our state and country become more divided, and divided, we fall.

Park Hill resident Nancy Watzman is the director of the Colorado Media Project, and an avid reader of (and sometimes contributor to) the Greater Park Hill News. Read the just-released report and learn more about the Colorado Media Project at coloradomediaproject.com/public-good. 


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