explainer: Is local news still relevant in the 21st century?

June 29, 2022
Local news has faced multiple serious challenges over the years. But why is it so important? And how does the presence of local news actually impact everyday people? To find out, I interviewed Hans Meyer, a journalism professor at Ohio University with decades of expertise in building community through local journalism.



When I was a junior in college studying journalism, I was faced with the age old problem of finding an internship. At the time, my dream job was to work somewhere like the New York Times or CNN. They were big and flashy and had millions of eyeballs. I didn’t even care what I would report on for them –– being a journalist in national, legacy media would be enough. I would have arrived.

But, in the end, I actually landed my internship at a rural newspaper in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Now, you can be forgiven for not knowing about Shawnee, population 31,361. But it is the birthplace of arguably two staples of American culture: Brad Pitt and (my personal favorite) a 1950s style drive through burger joint called Sonic Drive-In.

What followed was a summer of the best milkshakes I have perhaps ever consumed and a growing appreciation for tiny local newspapers. I worked alongside three other reporters and an editor in a newsroom that once bustled with three times as many employees. Black and white photographs of county fairs and local children covered the old, wood-paneled walls of the newsroom, a testament to times gone by. My editor, Kim, explained that these were taken by the staff photographer back in the paper’s heyday. Now, everyone was their own photographer and the old darkroom was used as a lunchroom.

Although the staff had been whittled down by economic woes and the paper been taken over by the newspaper chain Gatehouse –– a word which colleagues often said like it was a swear –– it still had spirit. When I wrote stories about the community, people paid attention. They read their local paper because it was a reflection of them, and they called me to suggest stories, too. Although some of the suggestions were that their neighbor’s out of control dog had bitten them, which I had to explain maybe wasn’t a story for this newspaper, it was tangible that readers cared. That this paper, although it seemed to be hanging on by a thread, was vital for the community it served.

Community news is way more impactful than most people realize, says Hans Meyer, who is a professor at Ohio University who has studied local journalism for years. Meyer started working at a community paper in the 90s for reasons similar to mine.


You know, honestly, I mean, if I look back on, you know, myself as an undergraduate and where I wanted to go with my journalism career, you know, it wasn't in community journalism. You know, honestly, out of college, I applied it a lot of magazines. I interned for a magazine in New York City. And so that's where I really wanted to go. But, you know, at that time, I mean, I just was not finding anything. It took me actually about a year of applying before I accepted my first position in journalism. And it was at a community paper and it was, you know, I mean, in hindsight now, I think it was the best thing ever for me. But, you know, at the time it felt like I was kind of settling maybe a little bit.


But he soon realized the power of community news.


And just in those first few months, you know, working as a community reporter, I saw that that's where that impact was greatest. I thought, you know, I was oftentimes the only person covering a city council meeting or a school board meeting. You know, I saw, you know, good city governments that tried to inform their citizenry and I saw bad ones that tried to hide things from their citizenry. And without journalists in the room, they never would have known, you know?


But that’s just two people’s experience. Which brings us to a question: Why is local journalism actually important and worth saving?

There is some interesting research on how local news impacts local and national democracy. One study from last year by Daniel J. Moskowitz¹, for example, takes a look at election nationalization. Nationalization is basically when state and local elections become tied to national ones, meaning the fate of a community often depends more on what’s happening in Washington, D.C., than the actual issues that community is wrestling with.

Moskowitz found that people with more access to local news coverage about local politicians are more likely to be split ticket voters. Whereas, people who aren’t given to relevant local news coverage? They’re more likely to vote down the ballot –– applying what Moskowitz calls their “national, partisan judgment” to local elections.

This is just one example of how local news plays vital role in local democracies. And without it, people can become more divided and polarized.

But here’s something Meyer and I both find really cool. Beyond just informing people’s decisions, local news can make people care. Both about big issues facing their communities, and about each other.


You know, one one theory that I've used quite often is, you know, Bandura as idea of this social cognitive theory, which kind of grew out of his idea of social learning theory. And it's basically, you know, it's. Just kind of sum up this theory in just a short sentence. I mean, we learn, you know, there's so much that we experience in life that we can't learn it all. We have to learn vicariously through something. You know, the media can be a great source of that, but even in that sense, we only learn from things that we find that relate to us or that have an impact on us. And so, you know, the more that media can connect us to people that are like us, you know, whether in the same community or whether that have the same interests or the same background, you know, or even like the same challenges and problems, you know.


Meyer is talking about how local news can connect people to each other. But there are also some cool studies that show it has the potential to connect people to the environment.

There’s this theory called place attachment, which is exactly what it sounds like. People have a special bond to the place they are from. Two researchers from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Leila Scannell and Robert Gifford, set out to see what this means for climate change.² They found that locally-framed messages about the climate were more likely to engage people than globally-framed ones. And people with stronger place attachment were also more likely to care about the climate.

And where does local framing come from? It’s mostly found in local news. This makes me think that one solution to growing climate anxiety and polarization is give people information about things they do have control over. Their local governments, their communities, their surroundings and local environments.

And people aren’t just anxious about the climate, right? Headline anxiety, although not a diagnosable disorder, is something a lot of people suffer from.


And so, you know, the more that media can connect us to people that are like us, you know, whether in the same community or whether that have the same interests or the same background, you know, or even like the same challenges and problems, you know. I mean, a lot of right signs of like diversity efforts. You know, if if we can present people that are different from us, you know, physically, but same same as us as far as, you know, how they interact with their families or how they deal with the challenges of life.


Sounds great, right? So what’s stopping local news? This could be a whole different episode in itself. Since the 2000s, the newspaper industry as a whole has been hit hard. People aren’t subscribing like they used to, and the internet is one reason. Many, many papers also face the problem that my workplace did: national newspaper chains are buying them up, laying people off and squeezing them for profits.

There are myriad problems, but also just as many solutions. There’s nonprofit news, there are initiatives from ProPublica³ to provide resources to local newsrooms. There’s Report for America⁴, which sends early-career journalists to local news organizations to report on specialized topics. One thing is clear. In the future, we must dramatically reimagine the news model and recognize the importance of being connected to our communities.


  1. Moskowitz, D. J. (2021). Local news, information, and the nationalization of U.S. elections. American Political Science Review, 115(1), 114–129. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055420000829
  2. Scannell, L., & Gifford, R. (2010). Defining place attachment: A tripartite organizing framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.09.006
  3. https://www.propublica.org/local-reporting-network
  4. https://www.reportforamerica.org/
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