If you want to calculate how influential news and media are in our lives, just look at the 2016 election and the recent COVID-19 misinformation campaign. Every day, flashy covers and controversial headlines generate impressions (and social media shares) but result in communities left without authentic, rigorous journalism -- a pillar of our democracy.
After co-founding the Manhattan Times over two decades ago and continuously supporting The City and CPI, I find myself constantly grappling with how to get news to my local community while sustaining the companies financially. Even in the nonprofit news space, I have found it challenging to bring donors on board who truly understand what success looks like in this arena.
Local newspapers provide equitable access to information that communities need to make informed decisions. They surface issues that many residents may not be aware of and can drive the communities to push for change. Community newspapers can also serve locals with news in their native language, removing an enormous barrier to understanding.
Americans still mostly believe local news media are fulfilling their responsibilities to the community -- providing coverage to local issues through a lens that reflects the local perspectives. A recent study by the Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media, and Democracy initiative shows that 45% of Americans trust local news outlets, compared with just 31% trusting national outlets. It even showed that 61% of people believe their local news successfully educates others in their area.
But it’s more than providing local communities with reliable news coverage. Local coverage of community elections, school board decisions, and more are pillars of our American democracy. In New York, it’s hard to find a paper covering local elections in Spanish, which prevents many people from understanding the issues and can prevent them from voting. Without participation, our democracy cannot function. When we collectively stand behind local news outlets, we are standing up for civic involvement and change in our society.
Without these outlets, we can overlook what’s happening on the ground and fall into the trap of oversight. There’s no accountability if someone isn’t there to take note of it. Just consider when CPI’s investigative journalism in Puerto Rico revealed that the actual number of deaths after Hurricane Maria was 4,645 instead of the official government number of 64. This led to local mobilization within the diaspora to demand adequate disaster response and support to the island.
Between 2005-2020, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers disappeared, creating local news deserts. And, while many papers made the transition to online, they are having trouble sustaining themselves. Unfortunately, this opens the door for a model that values profit over product, relying heavily on clickable, bait-able content rather than good journalism. And while we may see a resurgence of subscribers to nonprofit news, we need to continue to bolster the industry to combat growing misinformation.
And this gives me hope. People crave trusted news sources, and I want to ensure that my community continues to have access to reliable information. Not just news about them, but news by them, and for them. Meaning journalists from the community, topics that really matter, and in a relatable delivery method.
As we saw with COVID-19, misinformation is highly impressionable, which is why The City prioritized providing factual, updated information about the spread of the virus. They even created “Remembering the New Yorkers We’ve Lost to COVID‑19” to provide a space for storytelling while humanizing a disease that took an enormous toll on our city.
If you’re a donor considering funding nonprofit news, I urge you to commit. Donors provide local news outlets with the resources to get information to their communities. While this process takes time and flexible funds, donor support ensures that people get accurate, relevant information about issues that affect their lives. I urge you to reconsider the “success” metrics to evaluate outlets – what they do for a community, rather than whether their posts go viral and earn advertising – and consider the community’s risk for not having this resource. I hope you will join me.