Local to live, wire to wither

Americans need local news. Though the supply is dwindling, the demand is there. Without a strong local newspaper, news website, or television station, people will turn to less-regulated forums for information, like Facebook groups and NextDoor threads, full of partisan hate and misinformation.

There are few things that have a better effect on governance than a healthy, locally focused news environment: representatives bring back more money and vote the party line less often, businesses behave better, polarization decreases, turnout is higher, municipal finances are better, and pollution is reduced. In other words, reliable original news about a community improves that community.

So naturally, today’s local newspapers are filled with the opposite: Wire content about national politics. Not to be outdone, their websites are full of syndicated local stories from other areas, which can be confusing to readers. They endure as ghosts of their former selves.

In 2023, I predict that a major metropolitan daily will sever its ties with the major wire services and go local-only.

There is an enduring belief that a newspaper should inform its readers about the news of the world: a broad sweep of local and national politics, sports, entertainment, and culture, all arriving in a bundle on the doorstep before dawn. (It’s a romantic image for me too!) But there’s simply too much national news available today.

Local newspapers should stop filling their published product with non-local news and focus on what makes them unique, even if this breaks from the tradition of what many expect from a local newspaper or televised newscast. I recognize that these struggling local news sources will need more resources to do this, but they are not going to attract or retain subscribers by republishing stories about non-local topics.

The glut of national wire stories in today’s local newspapers is mostly explained by the economic crisis facing local news. As staffs are repeatedly cut, there are not enough reporters to fill a newspaper with original local content. Given that print advertising remains more profitable than digital for most newspapers, there is still plenty of incentive to publish a print edition. As subscription and per-issue prices increase, however, the remaining consumers open their local newspaper to see mostly national stories that are free to read online on other sites.

In ongoing research with Trusting News, my collaborators and I show that readers hold newsrooms accountable for perceived bias in the wire stories they run. The oversimplified headlines and snarky language common to national political opinion and analysis sticks out in many local newspapers, and readers often assume editors are running wire stories because they agree with them. It’s not clear enough to readers which stories are original and which come from the wires, and there is little evidence that the wire stories provide any value except increasing the page count.

Local media outlets’ remaining advantage in the information marketplace comes from reporting about their geographic area, and by filling their pages with national news, they are making the decision to unsubscribe easier for their remaining customers. A local news source cannot merely be a pale imitation of national news, or it will have no reason to exist.

Joshua P. Darr is an associate professor of political communication in the Manship School of Mass Communication and the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University.

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