My neighborhood is in an uproar. The state government is planning to widen a major highway that takes traffic from downtown D.C. and the Beltway to the northern suburbs. One option being considered is to widen the highway to 16 lanes, which could mean taking nearby homes by eminent domain.
I first heard about this when a local city council member posted on the Next Door website. There was nothing in the local newspaper about it. That’s because there is no local newspaper. The Gazette, which had covered local news in the D.C. suburbs for almost 60 years, closed in 2015.
Local news is dead in my community, in most communities, leaving us with only online postings by individuals about what’s going on. In some cases, like my city council member, posts are factually accurate, informative and useful. Other postings, by ill-informed citizens or those with an ax to grind, are not. There is no intermediary to filter out bad information and ensure accuracy. There is no one alerting citizens about how local issues may affect them. That absence tempts politicians to act in their own interests rather than citizens’. Some in my neighborhood suspect that state government officials were trying to get this highway expansion approved before citizens realized the negative impacts.
That’s what happens when there is no local watchdog. There are no reporters attending city, county and sometimes even state government meetings. No one is digging into the backgrounds of and campaign contributions to officials. “The watchmen no longer exist,” Christopher B. Daly, author of history of American journalism, wrote in The Washington Post. “It would be a great time to be a corrupt governor, mayor or judge, because no one is looking.”
Meanwhile government officials at both the national and local levels are moving to keep the press out of what should be open deliberations. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency banned reporters from CNN, the Associated press and a trade publication from attending a public meeting on water contamination. In Oregon, a reporter from a local online news site was threatened with arrest if he didn’t leave a city council meeting. In Arizona, a Republican candidate for senator kicked a reporter out of a meeting with the local Chamber of Commerce.
My local Gazette did a great job covering local political races. Particularly valuable was an election preview section it published that outlined each candidate and their platform. Without that, how many citizens will go to the trouble of reviewing each candidate? And without knowing where each stands, there is less reason to vote. I’m not proud of it, but I personally feel less invested in local elections because I am so ill-informed about them. Apparently, I’m not alone. A Brookings Institution report found that voters were less likely to vote in congressional races that receive little news coverage.
Nonprofit organizations like ProPublica are trying to support local journalism, but it’s not enough. Don Day, a veteran journalist and 2018 Stanford John S. Knight Fellow, recently published an interesting proposal to support community journalism the way Andrew Carnegie supported literacy. The 19th-century industrialist used his fortune to establish free public libraries in communities across the United States. Those libraries are a lasting public good that have served towns, large and small – but particularly small – well. The Carnegie library in my home town of 4,000 people in rural Kansas was a jewel. Why can’t today’s technology billionaires do something similar to fund local news? After all, the people who have profited the most from the internet – the technology that is killing journalism – owe us at least that much.