The Erosion of Local News is Real and Why You Should be Concerned

By: Christopher Ryan Crisanti

Prairie State Policy was founded on the premise that state and local government matters. With the public conversation more often than not titled toward national issues, the purpose of the blog is to try to shift that pendulum back and message why local and state issues are just, if not more, as important.

In other words, we should be paying more attention to what’s going on in our neighborhood just as much as what’s going on 700 miles away in Washington D.C. There is perhaps no better institution that services this need, while also connecting us to our community, than our local newspapers.

So when it was recently reported that nearly 40 journalists and columnists from The Chicago Tribune, including John Krass, Eric Zorn, Stetve Chapman and Mary Schmich, accepted buyouts after the newspaper was acquired by Alden Global Capital, the announcement implies a major turn for of local journalism.

The announcement mirrors a recent trend where billionaires and corporations have been buying newspapers despite their profitability. As these acquisitions continue, there is concern that the out-of-community corporate ownership has the potential to drift away from the local vibe and instead prioritize national news because those are the issues that make most people tick. Moreover, the consequences may run even deeper, as the impact could be detrimental for our communities and democracy.

First, local news is important because we deserve to know what’s going on in our communities because we pay to live in our communities. While property taxes have been surveyed to be among the least popular of taxes, they are nonetheless one of the most important because they are often the main source of revenue to help finance major public goods in our neighborhoods, such as our public schools. And the individuals who ultimately make the decisions on how your money is spent, our local mayors, trustees, village managers, and school board members, can only held in check by a local free press.

A free press helps hold our public institutions and officials accountable and there is no better example than right here in Chicago. How often have we seen yet another Chicago alderman under indictment? When this happens, the consequence that often goes overlooked is that of wasted tax money. From the scandal itself to use of the publically funded court system to suffice indictments and appeals, tax money is involved in all of it.

And don’t believe your community is immune because you’re not Chicago. In 2002, then Cicero Village President Betty Loren-Maltese was convicted for being linked in an organized crime scheme, which stole twelve million dollars from the town’s insurance fund. In 2015, Oak Forest deputy fire chief Charles Sopko and administrative assistant Michele Sopko were sentenced to eight years for stealing $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District.  The city of Harvey in 2017 defaulted on paying back the city of Chicago millions for water. A Cook County Judge asserted that the city used the funds on other expenses, such as credit card debt, department store purchases and a contribution to a college fund. Harvey was stripped control of its water fund and ordered to pay back the money plus late fee penalties.

While these are just a few examples, the one common denominator in these cases is that it took a free local press to investigate and inform the public of what was occurring to help channel reform.

But what happens when the public loses faith in our local newspapers? Unfortunately, this problem is a byproduct of an even larger one: public trust in our institutions has been eroding for decades. A Pew Research Center study shows that trust in government is at an all time low, with only 22 percent of people surveyed trusted government to do the right thing most of the time.

There is a similar correlation when it comes to the media. According to a 2018 study by the communication firm Edelman, only 36 percent of 33,000 people surveyed said they believed journalists were extremely or very credible. However, the good news is that nearly half of Americans trust local news “a great deal” or “quit a lot” compared to national news, according to a recent Knight Foundation study.

It goes without saying that the primary consequence of increase distrust in institutions and news organizations has lead to major division and skepticism of facts from fiction. With the growth of the 24-hour news cycle skewed toward the national conversation and rise of bots that artificially produce false news reports across social media, there is no reason to believe that this divisiveness won’t continue; especially if local reporting erodes.

Local newspapers for so long have been the glue that holds our communities together. Don’t let the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. Subscribe to your local newspaper, support local journalists, and help build stronger communities.

This column was also published in the Des Plaines Valley News.

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