We Need Local Newsrooms That Serve Diverse Audiences For Our Democracy To Survive

When I travel to a new city for work, I often check headlines and local news coverage. It’s part of the job, after all, as a journalism funder. During a recent trip to a large Northeast city, I reviewed several local news homepages – public media, the city’s largest newspaper, television stations, a radio station and, of course, a few independent local news sites. I saw a City Council story, an investigation on police misconduct, and particularly on the local TV news sites, far too many crime stories. There definitely wasn’t enough coverage about schools or transportation or upcoming cultural events.

This is unfortunately all too common. Crime is an important issue, but it often is vastly over-covered because it’s an easy (and cheap) target for newsrooms with declining revenue and shrinking reporting staff. Crime is covered in a “this happened” way, rather than through a solutions-oriented “what might we do about this” lens. A lot more than crime happens in our cities.

This steady decline of accessible and reliable local news coverage is unmistakably detrimental to the nation. For local communities to function effectively, residents must have fact-based, accurate information about community topics like local government, housing, healthcare, and education. 

How we inform ourselves no longer matches how our democracy is structured. We are governed locally and we live locally, but all too often, we are informed nationally. The U.S. has lost close to 2,500 local newspapers since 2005. So what, you say? What does that mean for our cities, towns and daily routines?

Those newspapers employed the journalists and reporters who informed us about school board meetings, local arts events, public safety, voting and local elections. Without them, many local communities are left to rely on national news – with its all-too-frequent argumentative talking heads – while most of the decisions and policies that impact our daily lives are made locally. 

This gap has been especially destructive to Black Americans’ relationship with the media.

Representation matters, and when it comes to coverage of race and racial inequality, nearly 70 percent say it’s important for that work to come from a Black journalist.

A new study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Black Americans say media coverage of Black people is more negative than other racial and ethnic groups, and almost 60 percent feel coverage of Black communities is incomplete. Representation matters, and when it comes to coverage of race and racial inequality, nearly 70 percent say it’s important for that work to come from a Black journalist.

At Knight Foundation, none of this is surprising, it’s consistent with the research and community feedback we’ve been seeing for years, as we’ve examined what can be done to address the negative experience that Black Americans have with news. 

Knight has spent decades investing in programs and resources to help foster an informed and engaged citizenry. Much of this work has championed great journalism while constantly adapting to changing times.

This means we’ve long supported local news publishers in order to help them compete in the news market. It’s not surprising that we’ve seen Black-led local news outlets help chart a new path for the future of local news. 

When Knight evaluates applicants, we inquire about diversity.  We ask about the diversity of boards, staff, and leadership. That allows us to make a determination of how well they can meet the needs of the audiences and communities they seek to serve.

More diverse staffs produce a wider range of stories and perspectives – an imperative for the longevity of any media platform. This better representation allows diverse newsrooms to build audience trust – and even make news organizations more sustainable.

Knight has invested more than $3 million in the Knight x LMA BloomLab, which has benefitted nearly 30 traditional and independent Black publishers as they work to transform to a digital future. This program delivers direct funding to publishers to strengthen their technology and increase their revenues. And it’s working: BloomLab newsrooms reported an average of 19.8 percent growth in total revenue from 2021 through 2022.

Knight also invested in Capital B, a nonprofit news organization with newsrooms in Atlanta – and, coming soon, Gary, Ind. – that centers Black voices and audiences. Our support also extends to Historic Black Colleges and Universities (there are endowed Knight chairs at FAMU and Howard). We’ve invested in the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, which operates initiatives that focus on Black- and Latin-led news organizations. 

It’s this progress, and the increasing number of bright spots in the local media landscape across the country – many of them Black-owned outlets and others committed to diverse hiring and storytelling – that has helped lead to Press Forward, a new collaborative initiative seeking to build on years worth of work and investments.

Press Forward is strategically designed to create a multiplier effect within the funding ecosystem. By attracting new funders and promoting collaboration, our goal is to amplify the impact of our investments. Press Forward launched with over 20 funders and more than $500 million committed to funding local news over the next five years. And we’re still looking for more funders committed to local journalism and informed communities.

But Press Forward is not solely about financial support; it is about championing long-lasting change. And that means making sure that important voices like Outlier Media, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Sahan Journal and countless others have the tools they need to continue their growth and do the important work of informing communities.

A healthy and functioning democracy requires all communities to have reliable access to news and information, especially those who have historically been marginalized. 

After decades of decline, there is finally a sense of urgency to ensure this momentum is not squandered. We must capitalize on this moment and continue to support the visionary outlets and journalists committed to undertaking work that was previously – and tragically – overlooked and ignored. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Karen Rundlet is the Senior Director of Journalism at the Knight Foundation 

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