Local TV Journalists, Not Political Operatives, Must Fill the News Hole as Newspapers Die

Local newspaper
TV journalists have a role to play in filling the breach as local newspapers decline. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Consumers of online local news, caveat emptor! A lot of the news you’re reading might be partisan political messaging. Your local television station might be the only reliable source for news about your community.

Roughly 2,500 local and regional newspapers have closed since 2005. Some have survived by going digital. In a best-case scenario, the online version of a local newspaper can provide decent coverage of City Hall, local sports, business and human-interest stories. Just as often, however, local news coverage is thin and mixed into a hodgepodge of ads and paid content from special interests.

Silvia Elaluf Calderwood

Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood, Ph. D.

Adding to this confusing landscape is the commandeering of journalism by partisan political operatives. Axios recently published a story detailing how Democratic strategists have been working with writers to concoct what look like news stories and then publish the pieces on what look like local news sites. The real aim of the stories and the websites, however, is to promote Democrats and hammer away at Republicans.

As the midterm election season began to get underway last year, Axios reported how websites suddenly appeared in states with contests that might decide whether Democrats can hang onto their thin majorities in Congress. With ink-stained sounding banners such as the Milwaukee Metro Times, the Mecklenburg Herald and the Tri-City Record, these news sites are part of a network of over 50 locally branded news sites that are the creation of Democratic public-affairs gurus.  

The sites all have aggregated local news content and short pieces about local sports and community events. Mixed in are the stories that read like legitimate news articles and often involve factual reporting, but which are ultimately political advertising with the veneer of journalism.

The practice is not entirely new. Nor is it limited to Democrats. Republican media and campaign entrepreneurs have built Metric Media into a network of roughly 1,200 sites with old-school newspaper names like the Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. Metric Media boasts it publishes “over 5 million news articles every month.” A lot of these pieces are intended to smear Democrats and amplify GOP talking points.

With local print disappearing and deceptive websites proliferating, local television news needs to step and fill the news hole. Local newsrooms can rightfully claim to have held onto journalistic integrity and the trust of viewers. That is a good place to start.

Like print publications, television news operates with journalistic principles about facts, balance, and independence. Unlike the webmasters who operate in a murky stew of political advocacy and journalism, television reporters, anchors and producers must stand by their journalism and be accountable to their viewers. People still tune into and trust local television journalism. This past spring, a Gallup-John S. and James L. Knight Foundation survey found people have trust in local news coverage while skepticism is growing about national news media. 

There are investors in television stations who understand the value of local broadband news, such as Standard General’s Soo Kim, a strong proponent for authentic and in-depth reporting that reflects the priorities and voices of a local community. Local news is also good business, and leaders like Mr. Kim understand that the best way to attract and inform more viewers is to produce a high-quality product. By giving news operations more resources, Kim and other forward-thinking station owners can help usher in a renaissance in local journalism and citizen engagement, which is sorely needed in an ecosystem of misleading news slanted to suit political agendas. Standard Media is in the process of acquiring Tegna and its 64 stations in deal that will bring critical investment dollars to modernize local newsrooms across the country. The sooner the FCC approves this deal and allows it to proceed the better for anyone who cares about the future of local news.

Local newspapers once prided themselves on uncovering the truth, not their editorials. As these publications fade, the local television station is the only source of news on local government, economic issues, crime and community affairs. Executed well, television news can meet growing public demand for information, keep local political leaders accountable and strengthen the grass roots of democracy. In today’s untrustworthy media environment, it is all the more important for local television stations to provide citizens with well-reported and factual information about issues that affect them directly. Viewers want this. Kudos to station owners and operators who are committed to provided outstanding local news. ■

Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood, Ph.D. is an affiliated scholar at the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at the Florida International University. She has no relationship, financial or otherwise, with the parties mentioned in the article.