The demise of local journalism has received no shortage of attention in recent years. Its effects on local government operations are, however, only beginning to be understood.
For example, in a 2021 survey of local governments, in collaboration with Professor Tom Ellington at Wesleyan College, CivicPulse assessed the presence of news reporters at local board meetings. The findings were sobering. At the time, our best estimate was that 45% of local governments did not have a single reporter attending their meetings.
In 2023, we teamed up with Tom Ellington again to conduct an identical survey to see whether things have improved at all as life has begun to return to “normal.” The picture that emerged is mixed (see below).
As you can see from the graph above, media coverage of local government meetings has rebounded somewhat from the pandemic, as the percentage of local officials who say that their meetings have no reporters presents has decreased from 45% in 2021 to 33% in 2023. Likewise, the share of local officials who said they had at least two reporters at meetings has grown substantially over that same period.
This suggests that some of bleak 2021 numbers may have been the result of temporary conditions during the height of the pandemic. For example, many local governments moved their board meetings to zoom rooms and other virtual environments, where it might have made it difficult for reporters to show up and ask questions. As more meetings have returned to in-person, perhaps this has facilitated easier coverage again by local reporters.
Nonetheless, this modest improvement should not overshadow the fact that, overall, local coverage of governing board meetings remains dismal. In particular, a third of local governments continue to have no reporters in attendance. A robust media has always been essential for a healthy democracy—it is essential for informing and educating the public in holding their leaders accountable—and more significant increase in these numbers will need to be seen before we can declare any kind of victory.
The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sample of over 500 elected policymakers from local governments (i.e., township, municipality, and county governments) with a population of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Professor Tom Ellington at Wesleyan College and was implemented by CivicPulse.
Below is the question wording for the survey item that was used:
In recent months, how many reporters have been present to provide news coverage at your governing board meetings?
More than 3
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse