DULUTH — Two weeks ago, when Gov. Tim Walz added the Duluth News Tribune to his list of local newspapers in Minnesota he was making a point of visiting, he started the conversation with appreciation.
“Thank you during COVID for being trusted sources (of) reliable information for your readers,” he said. “This was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. It became pretty apparent five, six months in that there was skepticism, there was division. I think some of it, legitimately, (was about) the science that we were starting to see and understand. But a lot of it became more political, and what we saw (were) people … turning to trusted local sources to try and get their information. They were looking locally. They were listening to local voices."
Newspapers around the country recognized the urgency of the public-health emergency and provided free access on their websites to critical information. That continues, especially amongst local news outlets which faithfully have been serving their communities for generations.
Readers noticed. Readers responded.
“Americans turned en masse to local newspapers for trusted information about the virus, health care, testing and relief programs,” Brier Dudley, editor of the Seattle Times’ Save the Free Press Initiative, wrote in a recent column. “News outlets rose to the challenge of informing communities.”
Did they ever. In April 2020, a month or so into the shutdowns and fears, a Pew Research survey, as part of its American News Pathways project, found that more than 60% of Americans were following news about the outbreak as much locally as nationally. And 23% said they were paying more attention to local news, compared to just 15% who said they were more focused on national headlines.
“In the same survey, nearly half of U.S. adults (46%) named local news outlets as a major source for COVID-19 news — more than the share who named several other groups, including President Donald Trump and the coronavirus task force (31%),” the center reported last summer. “Americans also see local news outlets as more credible sources of COVID-19 information than the news media in general. In a survey conducted June 4-10 (2020), half of U.S. adults said their local news media get the facts right about the coronavirus outbreak almost all or most of the time, compared with 44% who said the same about the news media overall.”
Despite all that faith in local journalism, newspaper closures and the losses of local journalism jobs have surged in recent years. As Dudley pointed out and lamented, thousands of communities no longer have a local news outlet. The International Falls Journal — and not long before the “Daily Journal” — was among the latest to fold, in late June.
“Americans who primarily get news from social media are less knowledgeable, more likely to get facts wrong about the virus and more likely to have heard a conspiracy theory about the pandemic, Pew Research found last year,” Dudley wrote. “Fortunately, only about 18% of Americans ‘primarily’ get news from social media. …
“Bad information will always circulate on social media, like a virus that will keep mutating and spreading and never go away,” wrote Dudley. “To fix the knowledge crisis prolonging the pandemic, (President Joe) Biden should address (the) harm (that) digital platforms are causing to the nation’s news and information infrastructure.”
The president and Congress have two prime opportunities to do just that — now.
The bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act would provide tax credits to households that subscribe to local newspapers and to publishers that employ journalists pursuing and sharing truth and facts, according to Dudley.
And the Journalism and Competition Preservation Act — which has as one of its main sponsors U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — would enable small and large news outlets to negotiate content usage agreements with digital platforms like Google and Facebook.
Right now, those tech giants are getting rich republishing local content, while the local outlets are bearing all the costs of newsgathering without reaping the profits.
Perhaps never has the need to protect and preserve local news been more obvious than during the pandemic. Consumers of reliable news recognized that. Gov. Walz continues to see it. Now Congress and the president can do something about it.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.