The Value of Local Journalism to the Ecology of Democracy

In an era of shrinking budgets and a splintered, distracted, mostly absent mass of readers and/or viewers, many journalists have concluded that Americans are apathetic citizens, unwilling to “eat their broccoli” and do the work needed to “stay informed.” Thus, all kinds of media organizations have scrambled, even as they slashed staff, to “interact” more, to provide ever-expanding opportunities for people to comment on stories and get in touch with writers and editors. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such actions, and they can do some good. But, according to The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future, this view misses what is really happening.

The problem is not that Americans don’t want their broccoli. The problem is that, too often, what journalists are offering isn’t food at all, not as citizens see it. Journalism, all too frequently, is serving up what professionals in government, academia, the media, etc., think that citizens want. Unfortunately, it’s full of conflict and narrowly focused issues.

What many journalists don’t yet see—although a few have begun to recognize it—is that people see public life, and the problems of democracy, very differently. Often, journalists’ views of a problem are shaped by the thinking of politicians, pollsters, and other professionals. Where they see binary issues, citizens see complexity. Where they see a largely linear process in which interest groups apply pressure and politicians and policy professionals react, citizens see a multi-faceted dynamic that incorporates many different actors and myriad, subtle ways of acting.

Crime, for instance, is not just about police presence or increasing prison terms, although each would be a possible way to approach the problem. Citizens want to know why their community is less safe: Why are young people turning to crime? Does this mean there aren’t enough jobs? What role could faith-based organizations play?

The Ecology of Democracy suggests that journalists could start with a question like, “What do readers and viewers need to know in order to do the work involved in solving common problems?”

When journalists begin from that starting point (and that new perspective alone could produce significantly different coverage), they might also keep in mind two other different ways of looking at their readers/viewers.

First, as they cover community problems and the efforts to solve them, they could think long-term, and instill more patience both in their coverage and in the public’s discussions of an issue. Solutions are rarely found overnight; people may stop and start several times before they get an initiative rolling. Speaking of a town where a project addressing the slumping local economy didn’t work, The Ecology of Democracy points out, “Success wasn’t as important as the lessons that could be used in future efforts.”

This is where local journalism can be of immense value to a community. When the press declares that a project has succeeded or failed, often based on professional evaluation or political whim, people have a harder time figuring out what to do next. When a more patient tone is adopted and a horizon other than the next election is recognized, it is reflected back to those who are doing the work, and those who could join in that work. This feedback loop has the potential to benefit both the media organization and the public, forming a deeper, richer bond than that of customer/voter/reader.

Second, the news media could broaden its definition of leadership.

“Resilient, problem solving communities make leadership everybody’s business, not just the business of a few, and they don’t equate leadership exclusively with positions of authority,” according to The Ecology of Democracy. “Leadership and citizenship need to become synonymous.”

Imagine a news story that treats neighbors coming together to solve a problem with the same gravity and tone as a city council meeting. Think of a reporter’s Rolodex filled with the names and numbers of people from across the community (there are such reporters, but there could be more). The result would be a news report that depicts the full range of political activity and public life in that city’s neighborhoods.

In summary, incremental changes in the way journalists cover their communities can have significant effects over time. Those effects can include, not insignificantly, an improvement to the bottom line for a newspaper, radio station, or television station. More importantly, they can mean a more vibrant public life, more meaningful roles for journalists and citizens, and, most of all, progress for their communities.

Tony Wharton is a journalist with 30 years’ experience in newspapers and freelance writing. 
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