Like a lot of folks, I have been thinking quite a bit lately about how to shore up our democracy. We voted in November, and that seems to have gone pretty well. Election deniers and conspiracy-mongers running in swing states lost. Common-sense candidates focused on kitchen table issues won. But after voting, what’s next? In this season of giving I have a modest suggestion: Support your local news organization.
I have spent most of my career focused on international news, covering stories such as the civil war in Congo and ethnic cleansing in Darfur. This kind of journalism is, of course, important. But like a lot of journalists of my generation, I started my career in local news, in my case as a reporter at The Times Union, assigned to cover a handful of communities along the Hudson River near Albany, New York. It was there that I first learned to overcome my fear of knocking on strangers’ doors, to make cold calls to politicians and business leaders, to talk to people living through the worst day of their lives.
The Times Union, which is owned by the Hearst Corp., has been through employee buyouts, as have many local papers, though it continues to break news, publish ambitious investigations and win awards. But the bigger picture for local journalism is catastrophic. Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative put out a report in June on the state of local news, and its findings were grim. Since 2005, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have closed. Those that survive have shed journalists at an alarming rate: There are roughly 60% fewer journalists working in newspapers today than in 2005.
There is significant evidence that the erosion of local journalism has accelerated some of the worst trends in our civic life. “In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout,” the Northwestern report said.
As local news gathering shrinks, people spend more time in places likely to deepen partisan divides: on social media, on platforms such as Nextdoor, or watching national cable television. A 2019 study in Scientific American found that voters in areas where local news outlets closed were less likely to vote a split ticket, a signal that points to deepening polarization in those communities.
“Local newspapers,” wrote the report’s authors, “serve as a central source of shared information, setting a common agenda. Readers of local newspapers feel more attached to their communities.”
Local reporting matters so much that one of my journalism heroes and the former editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, created and will lead a New York Times fellowship to help local reporters take on big, challenging investigations like the ones he deftly shepherded over his career.
Some of the most important and powerful examples of accountability journalism started as local stories. Watergate wasn’t a scoop by political reporters; it came from a couple of hungry metro beat reporters at The Washington Post. Local reporters at The Boston Globe broke wide open the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
These became national and global stories, immortalized by Hollywood movies. But every day, local journalists uncover news that really matters to their communities.
Take Greg Smith, a reporter for a local nonprofit news organization in New York called The City, which I have donated to. At 5 p.m. on the Friday before Labor Day, he got a text from a source at New York’s public housing authority. The drinking water in a large public housing complex in Manhattan had tested positive for arsenic, and city officials had known about it for two weeks. It was only after Smith asked the housing authority and City Hall for comment on his scoop that the city hustled to provide bottled water to the thousands of tenants living in the complex.
Getting immediate results like this is part of what drew Richard Kim to leave the high-powered world of national media to become editor-in-chief of The City. He had been the executive editor of HuffPost, and before that, of The Nation. He and I worked together when I was editor-in-chief of HuffPost, and we often bemoaned how hard it was to make a real and direct difference with our reporting.
“It has been particularly gratifying for me to do journalism every day where you put a story up and the outcome is produced, by that story, that day,” Richard told me. “We write about a subway station that is disgusting and hasn’t been cleaned, and it gets cleaned. We write about neighborhood playgrounds that are closed and then the mayor comes and opens them the next day.”
In my other hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota, a different kind of local news nonprofit has been making waves. Mukhtar Ibrahim, an immigrant from Somalia, founded Sahan Journal after working as a local journalist in the Twin Cities. In 2014, nine young men from the Somali community were charged with plotting to fight in Syria for the Islamic State group. Ibrahim was proud of his coverage of their trial, but wanted to go deeper.
“Newsrooms really invest in covering terrorism cases involving communities, but when things wrap up they just move on,” he said. That’s why he started Sahan Journal. “The idea is to provide real, comprehensive coverage of these communities so they feel seen and feel engaged in the civic process in Minnesota,” Ibrahim told me. “We’re trying to make these communities more informed and included.”
Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the United States, as well as large numbers of Hmong, Liberian and Ethiopian immigrants and refugees. Ibrahim saw a need for journalism for, by and about those communities.
Sahan Journal began publishing in the summer of 2019 and proved to be a vital source of news and information through not just the COVID crisis but also in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. That’s one reason I’ve donated to the project.
Ibrahim said he often hears news organizations complain that they can’t find reporters from diverse backgrounds, yet he never struggles to find talent drawn from the communities his newsroom serves.
“Our mission at Sahan Journal is to create a pipeline for young journalists of color and to be a place that has the resources that will allow them to grow and succeed,” he said.
One of these young talents is Hibah Ansari, a Pakistani American journalist who was born and raised in Wisconsin. She covers immigration, one of the most fraught stories in America today, and has been shaped by her own family’s experience, which included waves of migration — first her grandparents, from what was India to what became Pakistan, and then her parents’ journey to North America.
For a long time that kind of expertise, built on personal experience, has been coded in journalism as a kind of bias, a challenge to journalistic objectivity. Ansari said Sahan Journal aims to upend that notion.
“As journalists, we’ve been taught to trust these supposedly objective sources,” she said, referring to government, law enforcement and the like. “But what if we treat people who have been impacted by something as experts on their own lives? A different kind of journalism becomes possible.”
Those are two organizations in two places I’ve called home, and both would welcome your support. But I encourage you also to support the local organization that is doing great journalism in your community. There has been a tremendous flowering of innovation in local news nonprofits. New outlets are opening all the time. They rely on their communities to support them. The future of our democracy and the long-term health of our citizenry may well depend on it.
Lydia Polgreen is a columnist for The New York Times.