The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified many problems in our country. One of the most glaring is the disappearance of local journalism. While people are increasingly turning to local journalists for information on how the pandemic is impacting their communities, advertisers are cutting their budgets to account for an economy in rapid decline. This means newspapers that were struggling to get by now face the prospect of being shuttered entirely.
I spent the last year in Iowa working as Iowa Communications Director for Pete Buttigieg, a role in which I worked closely with local journalists across the state. And I can tell you firsthand: the impact of losing local journalism would be devastating for our democracy and civil discourse for generations to come.
The reality is that what’s happening in your community will impact your daily life more than the president getting impeached. The decision your mayor or county supervisors make about keeping a restaurant open during the pandemic will affect your life more than what happens in the halls of Congress. But with the depletion of local journalism, local power brokers no longer will be held accountable to the people they serve.
Local journalism from Doug Burns and the Carroll Times Herald have broken hugely important local stories — like investigating a police officer who was having an inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl. You can’t get that kind of information from cable news.
Thorough reporting from Art Cullen and the Storm Lake Times documented how corporate agriculture interests essentially dictated Buena Vista County’s actions when it came to a pollution case. Art won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. And yet to keep their paper alive, he and his brother have had to spend as much time fundraising as writing.
Pat Rynard and the Iowa Starting Line team are closely documenting how the coronavirus is ripping through meatpacking plants across the state. And earlier this year, Barbara Rodriguez at the Des Moines Register uncovered some horrific experiments taking place at Glenwood Resource Center. Without local journalism, these stories go unnoticed and our communities are weakened.
On the campaign trail, while too many national reporters frantically tried to get Pete’s reaction to whatever Trump had said that day, local journalists asked the hard-hitting questions. Like how Pete planned to bring jobs back to rural Iowa towns that had seen populations decline and businesses shutter. Or how to square the consequences of corporate agriculture’s monopolies with the fact that they keep several rural Iowa towns running. Or about how to provide care to Iowa’s aging population in a way that doesn’t bankrupt Iowa families. They ask questions that matter to their communities, and hold politicians accountable for the solutions they’re offering.
And people still rely on local, print newspapers for information. While much of our country can easily access the Internet from our homes, many Americans can’t. In rural Iowa, access to broadband is still an issue. The local newspaper is often rural Iowans’ only source for local news.
Our campaign spent significant resources buying newspaper ads to alert the community whenever Pete was coming into town. And boy, did it work.
I will never forget when we bought a newspaper ad ahead of a town hall in Webster City. Only 30 people RSVP’d for the event online — but when we got into town, more than 250 people had sprawled out into the town square to see Pete. I surveyed the crowd to see how they’d learned about the event — about half said they saw it in the newspaper.
Pete started out with incredibly low name identification in Iowa. And sure, buying a lot of television ads helped bolster that. But I strongly believe that making time for pull-aside interviews with local press at every stop helped get Pete’s message out in the most accessible and authentic way.
Without help, local newspapers are going to disappear. I know it’s a hard time to spare any money. But if you can, local journalism should be at the top of your list. Subscribe to the Carroll Times Herald, The Storm Lake Times, the Iowa Starting Line, or whatever paper serves your community.
Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, says that “local newspapers are basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies.” Lord knows we need a healthier democracy right now. It’s time to support the local papers that make our communities — and our country — stronger.
Ben Halle served as Iowa Communications Director and national spokesman for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. He is a communications strategist originally from Champaign, Illinois.