Evidence of a crisis in local news is everywhere in this country, mostly in the negative space left by shrinking and closing local outlets. One in five local papers has closed down over the past 15 years. As alarming as those numbers are, at Outlier, we believe this crisis is both deeper and broader than the industry recognizes.

Local communities deserve a different model of local news. Those of us working in this ecosystem need to decide whether we want to serve the curiosity of elite audiences or the general public’s information needs. We have built Outlier Media in Detroit to do the latter, but in doing so, we have learned lessons we think can be used throughout local information ecosystems.

Legacy local media, along with many newer news organizations, have not sufficiently questioned whether people need their journalism more than they need information essential to their everyday lives. Income inequality tracks neatly onto information consumption patterns. People with less money have less time to navigate more challenges with higher stakes. Access to information doesn’t disrupt this pattern as much as it follows it, a so-called “third-level digital divide.”

The group of people for whom journalism is more important than information is relatively small. As income inequality grows, that group will shrink. The group of people who need better information to meet their challenges and achieve their goals is relatively large and will continue to grow in lockstep with worsening inequality. Still, efforts to shore up or rebuild local news often continue to ignore or marginalize people and communities who were also never truly contemplated by the institutions we are now losing.

Healthy civic life depends on journalism adapting to serve information needs first. That has been our focus since our inception. The events of the last few months, our collective experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the 2020 presidential election have further illuminated that large and pervasive information gaps are dangerous to individuals and communities.

Read the full article about the future of local news by Sarah Alvarez at NiemanLab.