Local news outlets in Oregon have shrunk or disappeared altogether in recent years, leaving some communities without any source of local news. And misinformation and disinformation are on the rise. A new journalism study out of the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center says large-scale interventions are called for to create a stronger “civic information infrastructure.” We talk with the lead author Regina Lawrence about some of the innovations and interventions happening in the state and elsewhere.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to the state of local news in Oregon - it’s a subject of a new report by researchers at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and communication. ‘The evidence is increasingly clear,’ the authors write, ‘that the civic health of communities is tied to the fate of local news.’ At the same time, they found that the number of news outlets is declining. News audiences are shrinking, and misinformation is on the rise. For a deeper dive into what’s happening now and some possible solutions, I’m joined by Regina Lawrence who is the research director in the UO Agora Journalism Center and the lead author of this report. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Regina Lawrence: Hi Dave. Thank you for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. I want to start with the biggest picture here because when, as journalists, we talk about the decline of journalism outlets or the loss of journalism jobs. I always fear that it’s going to come across as self-centered in some way or navel-gazey. So what is at stake in this conversation?
Lawrence: I’m so glad you asked because I share that concern and I think journalists have known for a long time, or believed anyway, that their work is important to the life of the communities that they serve. But it was really only recently that we started to see a mounting pile of empirical evidence by political scientists, journalism and communication researchers and others that shows evidence for the relationship between the health of local news and the health of communities. Now we know, for example, that when communities lack robust local news, they also tend to have lower rates of civic engagement and voting. They have higher rates of polarization and corruption, both in business and in government, are more likely. And there’s also a diminished sense of community connection.
Miller: Let’s turn to some of the specifics, then, in this report we can circle back to some of those issues you just talked about. You use a phrase in the report that I don’t think I’ve encountered before: “Civic information infrastructure.” Is that different from local news?
Lawrence: We use that term really deliberately for a couple of reasons. First of all, it gets us thinking beyond just what’s happening with an individual news outlet and gets us thinking about the system of news organizations and other organizations like civic and community organizations that together contribute to how informed communities can be. So the notion of civic infrastructure gets us thinking about news provision as a system. And just like roads, clean water, schools and libraries, these are systems that determine, to some extent, the civic health of communities. And so those systems also then require investment. You have to sort of invest at scale to improve not just the amount of local news that’s being produced but also the quality of local news.
Miller: It’s interesting because unlike those examples you just came up with, like the kind of the physical infrastructure that we might think of as part of civic life of roads or or bridges or libraries, with news it’s a real combination of for profit and nonprofit as opposed to all being the public sector infrastructure. How does that impact everything we’re gonna be talking about?
Lawrence: Yes, that’s incredibly important and you’re right. In fact, I would say that that’s one thing that makes the US news and information ecosystem so promising and potentially robust is that we have so many forms of media, everything from public radio, like you and I are talking on today, to purely private. And increasingly we see the growth of independent nonprofit news outlets as well which are really on the rise around the country. So it is important to remember that that’s actually a strength of the US media system and it’s something that kind of creates the diversity of the types of news that we can get.
Miller: A big part of the work in this report was to think and look geographically at the state. What kinds of differences did you find when you mapped the news outlet options around the state?
Lawrence: One thing we found is that Oregonians are really unequally served just in terms of even having local news outlets available. We found eight counties in Oregon that really only have one or two local news outlets and other parts, like obviously sort of up and down the I-5 corridor and Portland area and certain other well populated areas of the state, we have a relative wealth of news outlets, although many of those are challenged as well. It’s important to remember when we talk about the health of local news systems, we’re not just talking about the literal loss of news outlets when they closed, but we’re also talking about things like consolidation, getting bought up and becoming part of larger conglomerate chains, and we’re talking about the shrinkage of budgets and people in newsrooms. That’s all happening, but it’s happening more dramatically in especially rural and less populated areas of Oregon where you have really vast geographic regions that are fairly sparsely populated. And there’s just a real challenge there for access to local news.
Miller: Were you able to put numbers in the decline of the number of journalism outlets or journalism jobs over the last 10 or 20 years?
Lawrence: Yes. So the question of decline over time is so important to be able to answer. Our report is the first effort that we know of to systematically across the whole state just simply to count and map outlets that are producing on a regular basis original reporting about state or local affairs, civic affairs, public affairs. And so in a way this report is a starting place. It’s a snapshot. It’s a baseline. And we want to be able to track over time to see how much those numbers are going up or going down. We can piece together from some previous data collection efforts and know with certainty that things have been shrinking here in Oregon. We know from the News Deserts Project for example—that was run for many years out of the University of North Carolina–that Oregon lost newspapers over the last couple of decades. There’s an Oregon organization called the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism (FORJ) that has also done some counting and mapping, and they found a few years ago that more than 50% of Oregon’s incorporated cities lack a local news source to report on community and business activities. So we can kind of piece together these previous data collection efforts and then this report can serve as a baseline to track what happens with local news in Oregon from here on out.
Miller: If less local news is being produced in a given area, do people who live there just take in less news or do they have their overall news diet, on average, stay the same but just turn to say national sources?
Lawrence: I can’t answer that question specifically with regard to Oregon because we haven’t collected that kind of data here in Oregon, but studies that have been done nationally suggest that, at least to some extent, when local news decline –either because now newsrooms close or they’re just producing less truly local news–one thing that happens is that the news gap tends to get filled with more national news because people turn to either the evening broadcast shows or national news outlets or social media certainly that may be focused heavily on the national political picture. And then interestingly, here’s what we know now from several different studies, what happens along with that as national news fills the local news gap, we see rising levels of political polarization at the local level and we see declining levels of engagement in local community and local elections. So that’s pretty concerning.
Miller: What is the mechanism that you’re assuming– where studies have shown–that directly connects a drop in local news to a rise in corruption, both in the public and private sectors? Is it as simple as with fewer watch dogs that bad actors have more free reign or is it more complicated than that?
Lawrence: Here’s one place where the story might be pretty simple as you said. Fewer eyes watching simply enables and encourages different kinds of behavior. When you don’t have reporters at city council meetings, when you don’t have reporters doing investigative work on businesses and corporations, literally the lack of eyes can kind of encourage more corrupt behavior. This is one place where actually the relationship between the health of local news and the health of local communities is pretty simple and straightforward.
Miller: I want to go back to that phrase that we talked about at the beginning, “civic information infrastructure,” because in the context of Oregon’s system and the kind of West Coast system of direct democracy where citizens vote on various ballot measures to enshrine laws or change the constitution, it seems particularly important. What would direct democracy look like without robust local news?
Lawrence: Wow, what a great question. A hallmark of that progressive era around the turn of the previous century, when a lot of reforms like Oregon’s ballot initiative system were formed, and those efforts always relied implicitly on this notion was that the public would be well-informed and could think independently about the issues. The whole point of direct democracy is in a sense to get the representatives out of the way, kind of move the parties aside and let people just decide directly, and that really depends on a well-informed public. So there is a pretty clear line you could draw between the robustness and accessibility of good quality local news and the quality of decision making that voters can make in a direct democracy system.
Miller: How many of the issues that we’re talking about here, in terms of the decline of local news, can be tied to the fact that younger generations increasingly have learned or have been taught that they don’t need to pay for news?
Lawrence: That’s an interesting part of it. And I would say also it doesn’t appear to just be young people. There’s been some research that suggests that, for example, a lot of news audiences don’t really understand the financial difficulties, even the financial crisis that local news organizations are finding themselves in today. And so people literally think that the news media are doing just fine. And part of this is sort of confusion about what we mean when we talk about news, what do we mean when we talk about the media? So sometimes these survey questions asked people about the news or the media and we know that actually what people tend to think of, unless they’re specifically asked about local news, they tend to think about..
Miller: The New York Times or Fox News.
Lawrence: Yes or especially cable news, interestingly. If you ask people about the media, they tend to think about cable news and these days of course they’re thinking about more like online sites and social media and all of that. And so there’s a lot of confusion out there among people and they think about those much bigger organizations and they think that the news media are doing just fine, but that’s not the case for so many local newsrooms.
Miller: What about the question of trust, how does that play into this issue? And can there be robust local news if a lot of people in any given area don’t trust the local news sources?
Lawrence: Yeah, that’s such an important question. And actually here’s one place where it gets a little bit more complicated because that goes both ways. How can there be robust, effective news and information if people don’t trust the sources that are providing it? But also, it’s not just a question of why don’t they trust us and people just need to come back to traditional news. I also think based on a lot of research and work with news organizations around the country over the years that there’s a lot that news organizations are trying to do differently as well so that they can be more engaging. They can put themselves forward as more trustworthy public servants, if you will, of the local community. And that really takes some work that takes some listening and conversation and it takes some transparency around how journalists do the work that they do.
Miller: So let’s turn to some solutions. Going back to your sort of ecosystem or infrastructure notion, this metaphor, what role could non journalistic organizations play in what we’re talking about?
Lawrence: There’s a lot of that good work going on. There are journalism support organizations. Of course, many of us are so familiar with the big organizations like the Knight Foundation that you hear named sometimes and they’re doing a lot of important work. We also find that they may not be as involved in smaller states like Oregon that are sometimes a little bit off the radar of the national organizations. So it’s also important that there are some smaller journalism support organizations like FORJ that I already mentioned, like the Institute for Nonprofit News, or Local Independent Online News (LION), which is an organization of online news entities, and other smaller organizations that are trying to do a lot to provide newsrooms with tool kits and resources and consulting so they can bring their business models more into a survivable or sustainable mode, for example.
One thing we found though is that as we also did a number of interviews with journalists around the state and we found that a lot of times these smaller newsrooms - because we’re talking in Oregon, we’re talking a number of newsrooms around the state that are run by a handful of people, maybe only one or two people sometimes working entirely as volunteers - in that case they have a lot of extra time and bandwidth to kind of learn from all of those resources and tool kits. So those support organizations are really important but there’s still a gap between what they’re doing and what is needed at the infrastructure level.
Miller: This may be where different kinds of partnerships come in, which is also something that you dig into in the report. What are examples of successful partnerships?
Lawrence: Oregon has actually seen some really interesting collaborative journalism happening over the last few years in particular. Collaborations among newsrooms are really important because when everybody’s resources are shrinking at the newsroom level, then working together to produce journalism is a way to leverage those collective resources. A couple of recent examples here in Oregon have been, for example, the “Breaking the Silence” collaborative in 2019, which I think OPB participated in. That was a sort of a multifaceted look at the challenges of death by suicide here in Oregon. There was the Oregon Media Collaborative, which the Agora Journalism Center helped to facilitate this spring, which involved over 60 newsrooms around the state working together to provide a neutral side by side comparison of all those candidates we had back in the primary season this year.
Miller: Regina Lawrence, thanks very much for joining us.
Lawrence: Thank you for having me.
Miller: Regina Lawrence is the research director of the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center and lead author of this new report. It’s called “Assessing Oregon’s Local News and Information Ecosystem.”
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