New PEN America Report Shows Local Watchdog Journalism Faces a Crisis Moment
Organization calls for new infusion of public dollars, increased philanthropic support for supporting local investigative reporting
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) — The literary and free expression organization PEN America today released a report sounding the alarm about the decimation of local news across the country, calling for a major new infusion of public and private investments to support local journalism. The report, Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions, outlines how accurate, fact-based reporting is more essential than ever – but is under unprecedented pressure.
“The crisis facing local news is existential. The collapse of media outlets and the slashing of newsrooms are starving communities of the stories and the scrutiny that are vital for an informed citizenry, an accountable government, and a healthy civic life,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “At a time of political turmoil and technological upheaval, this hollowing out of our national news infrastructure is often overlooked, yet represents as grave a challenge to democracy as virtually any other. In response, we need to think broad and big, putting all options on the table and mobilizing the full weight of our government and civil society to sustain and reinvent this vital information lifeline.”
The report shows how the industry has lost $35 billion in ad revenue, sparking a 47 percent reduction of newspaper staff. It explains that bolstering local reporting will require a significant investment from both the private and public sectors. Losing the News examines how new revenue streams, collaboration models, and nonprofit approaches are helping chart a path forward, but that alone each is insufficient in revitalizing local investigative journalism.
In particular, PEN America recommends:
- A major investment of public funding that rejuvenates local watchdog journalism while also maintaining the editorial independence crucial to a robust and free press — either by revamping existing public funding mechanisms through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or creating a new national endowment for journalism;
- A dramatic expansion in philanthropic giving, from hundreds of millions annually to several billion; this influx of funding should prioritize local outlets, broaden geographic reach, and promote racial and economic diversity;
- Rolling back recent FCC decisions that enable media consolidation and cost-cutting and by clarifying and enforcing the requirement that media broadcasters produce programming that serves the public interest;
- A tax on platforms like Facebook and Google to fund local watchdog reporting, accounting for the fact that digital platforms often share and publish local news content without compensating local news outlets fairly;
- A new congressional commission on public support for local news to develop concrete recommendations for how the government can better support a free and independent local press (akin to the Carnegie Commission that established the current-day public broadcasting system).
Drawing on dozens of interviews and a comprehensive analysis of emerging and existing research, PEN America’s new report finds that while some major national outlets are surviving and even thriving, local outlets are facing near-extinction. Since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers, a fifth of the national total, have vanished. Over 200 counties with more than 3 million people have no local newspaper. The report finds that communities traditionally underserved by legacy local media – communities of color, low-income communities, and rural communities – are those most affected by the decline of local reporting.
“At a moment when faith in journalism is faltering, it’s important that Americans are more inclined to trust local news sources. And yet public polling shows much of the public is unaware that their local outlets are at risk,” said Viktorya Vilk, manager of special projects at PEN America and one of the principal authors of the report. “Trusted local sources of information and robust watchdog journalism are keystones in a functioning democracy. Tackling the local news crisis presents an opportunity to address systemic inequities in representation and coverage, ensuring that local media better represent, reflect, and serve all Americans. We hope this report marks a turning point — a clarion call that the time to revitalize local journalism is now.”
The report features three case studies written by journalists based in North Carolina, Michigan, and Colorado. These case studies explore how the shuttering of local news outlets has led to lower levels of government accountability, high potential for corruption, lower levels of public awareness, and pressure on local outlets that have been bought out and squeezed by corporate raiders to pursue bottom lines over truth telling.
“Without local news, we will have no community in America. Increasingly, too many of our towns and cities have no remaining sources for the information that keeps them healthy and politically viable. These growing deserts in the local news landscape undermine political participation and accountability, and lead to greater isolation and disconnection,” said Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize-winner writer and a board member of PEN America. “In my hometown state, Wisconsin, the breakdown in social cohesion and civility is palpable – and it’s been clear to me for some time that the crisis in local reporting and local journalism has played a part in the growing polarization. Solving this crisis is essential for the health of our republic, and is among the greatest challenges to free and meaningful speech in our generation.”
Download a copy of PEN America’s report; read the three case studies featuring how the local news crisis is playing out in three core communities; read Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ayad Akhtar’s essay on how the extinction of investigative journalism threatens democracy; and see more about how PEN America believes a free, robust press is core to free expression in the U.S. and globally.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, [email protected], +1 202 309 8892