By: Tom Ellington, Conor Ryan, and Nathan Lee
The demise of local journalism has received no shortage of attention in recent years. Newsroom jobs started disappearing as long ago as 1990, with the trend accelerating in the 21st century. In smaller communities in America, this has led to what some now refer to as local “news deserts.” Penelope Abernathy at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media showed that two hundred counties lack a single newspaper, and half of all counties have only one newspaper.
But the implications for local democracy may be still more grim. Even if a local newspaper exists, they may not have the staff to cover the activities of town, city, or county governing boards. In late 2021, CivicPulse conducted a representative national survey of 249 local policymakers to ask them the extent to which they received coverage from journalists in their board meetings. We found that 45 percent of local governing boards do not have a single reporter covering their meetings.
The results above paint a grim picture that was only worsened by the pandemic. Based on what survey respondents recalled from the months prior to the pandemic, our best estimate is that 38% of all local governments had no reporters at their meetings prior to March 2020. This percentage grew to 52% at the height of the pandemic, and then converged to 45% at the time of the survey (October 2021). In other words, our data suggests that media coverage of local governing board meetings was worsened by the pandemic and may never return to (its already low) pre-pandemic levels.
Unsurprisingly, this journalistic void is most pronounced for the local governments serving the smallest communities. There are 11,596 “general interest” local governments in the United States—meaning townships, counties, and municipalities— serving populations between one and five thousand. Of these, 50% receive no media coverage at their meetings. For the 7,945 local governments serving communities between five and fifty thousand, the percent without coverage is 41%. It is only for the smallest set of local governments—the 1,845 governments serving communities of 50,000 or more—where most can expect coverage (only 8% without coverage).
Journalism has long been recognized as part of the support infrastructure for democracy. In their role as watchdogs, reporters play an essential role in holding government officials accountable to their constituents. At a minimum, this watchdog role should entail regular coverage of governing board meetings. The implications for local democracy are especially grave when news organizations are unable to perform even the most basic journalistic functions, much less do investigative work.
The further erosion of local journalism during the pandemic does not provide reasons for optimism on this count. On the other hand, during the more than two years of the pandemic, Americans have become more aware of the importance of local government decisions and how they affect their lives. Perhaps this newfound appreciation for local government could provide a much-needed tailwind to support new models for reviving local media.
The research underlying this blog was built on data from a national random-sample survey of 249 local policymakers, fielded from September 2021 to November 2021. The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed by Dr. Tom Ellington and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.
Below is the key survey item used to generate the results:
How many reporters were present to provide news coverage at your governing board meetings during the following time periods?
In the months before the pandemic
During the most serious months of the pandemic
In recent months
Answer choices: 0, 1, 2, 3, more than 3
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse