What we talk about when we talk about local
How we can make cities better by making local news better
Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted some way to affect all the world’s problems. As cheesy as it is, I want people to be happy. However, I quickly realized I lack the time and capacity to personally make that kind of difference. If you’re a public servant, placemaker, co-creator, civic leader, organizer, artist, urbanist or activist, you may sympathize. By necessity, I assumed it’d only happen if I were granted three wishes, the first of which would be for infinite wishes because mama didn’t raise no fool. Eventually, I figured out that community and journalism could affect that broad change.
I have a lot of ideas. They often end up arranged in threes. I’m going to share three of those triptych theories here. This is my Theory of Being Local:
- Whatever a city faces, it’s easier to tackle when more people are invested in its future.
- Our lives are better when we are those people.
- Small changes in our behavior, like cultivating a pro-local bias, can make a significant impact on our communities.
For example, small changes could inject almost $139 million a year in the economy of Akron, Ohio, the city my family and I now call home. We just need to encourage residents to become 10 percent more local, shifting just 10 percent of what they already spend on food, alcohol and entertainment to local restaurants, businesses, artists and makers instead of national chains, big box stores and online retailers.
This #ShopLocal gesture can make you happier by increasing what social scientists call place attachment. As you financially support your neighbors and boost the local tax base, which is how we fill potholes, equip firefighters and educate children, you’re also contributing to and connecting with the people and places that make your city unique. Each step through this virtuous cycle amplifies and reinforces the next.
Now, imagine a city where that’s true for tens of thousands more people. Voila! The potential and power of being local.
But who takes on the responsibility of fostering a culture of contribution and engagement when all the charitable and civic groups are already maxed out on their missions? The answer should be local news. Here’s why:
- When social cohesion — our willingness to cooperate — is low, cities and towns struggle more to tackle the specific challenges they face.
- When the civic narrative of a place is negative, civic engagement decreases, which accelerates mistrust, isolation and loneliness.
- When local news fails or disappears, the civic narrative suffers, which discourages participation in civic life.
That’s my theory of change in a nutshell: By improving local news, we can strengthen the civic narrative to encourage more civic engagement and increase social capital, which helps cities tackle the problems they face.
First, we have to reclaim local news. If you’re a regular ol’ non-journalist, you may not know local news is dying. I’d argue what’s dying is the news as we’ve known it — legacy local news — and that local journalism is more exciting than ever. (Examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) There is some overlap, but it’s dangerous to assume they’re the same. Legacy local news and local journalism are not synonymous.
Another dozen journalists have lost their jobs at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, leaving 33 in a newsroom that once employed 340. A similar culling has decimated the Akron Beacon Journal, where John S. and James L. Knight began their beloved local news chain. This didn’t happen because Akron and Cleveland are Rust Belt cities on the decline. They aren’t declining.
San Jose and Denver have exploded in population and wealth over the last 20 years, but the newsrooms at the Mercury News and the Denver Post have been butchered for the same reason as the Plain Dealer and the Beacon Journal. They didn’t make enough money for the company. I often hear that quality journalism is expensive, but that’s only true if you’re trying to use it to make buckets of money. As a public service, it’s an incredible bargain.
We need to pick a path, and I’m suggesting we take the one less traveled. That means challenging three key assumptions:
- How we fund the work: If we believe our journalism is a public service, we should free it from the burden of funding our operations.
- Who gets to participate: If we believe journalism is essential to democracy, we should practice it in our work and its governance.
- What we’re all about: If we believe journalism matters, we should make it our primary mission to help people care about where they live.
This thinking led me to explore cooperatives, mission-oriented businesses that are equally owned and democratically managed. One member, one vote. Your wealth, or lack of it, doesn’t affect how much of a voice you get. I believe local journalism can flourish as community-owned local news co-ops, which belong to and are managed by the people who use and produce the work.
In my first post as a JSK Journalism Fellow, I mentioned my print and online publication, The Devil Strip, will become a co-op this fall. Now we’re getting help from the Membership Puzzle Project with $30,000 from their Membership in News Fund, insights from their research and coaching from Alec Saelens, a co-founder of the Bristol Cable, a local news co-op in Britain.
As a co-op, we’ll keep selling ads to local entrepreneurs and nonprofits, but memberships will become the core of our business. Instead of a paywall or charging for the magazine, our stories will remain free. Membership will be flexible. If, like public radio, you want to support our journalism for intrinsic reasons, we’ll take it. For those who want to get more involved in civic life, we’ll offer our members opportunities to share our access to partners throughout the city. And, we’ll continue to create more roles for the public to participate in our work.
To date, more than 150 members of the community — mostly non-traditional journalists — have shared their writing, photography, art, research and hard work so we can share stories about the people who make Akron so damn unique. Our contributors make The Devil Strip unique.
There’s tremendous power in showing people, not telling them, that the place where they live is worth their time, energy, talent, money and creativity, and then providing ways they can actually invest themselves. We can show residents that the challenges we face are reasons to come together, not excuses to give up, without giving up hard news, accountability reporting and investigative journalism. Local news, for good or ill, whether or not we like it, whether we acknowledge it or not, shapes the stories we tell ourselves about our cities and our neighbors, and that guides how much we care about both.
If we want to make a difference where we live, this is where we should start.
Chris Horne is the publisher of The Devil Strip and a 2019 JSK Journalism Fellow. He’s writing a book for Belt Publishing, “Let’s End the News as We Know It,” about reclaiming local news for the communities we serve. You can tell him to mind his own business at firstname.lastname@example.org.