As digital media and online news sources have grown in popularity, local newspapers have become less of a cultural staple. On the evening of April 1, I attended a panel on the future of local news, co-hosted by Knox Pages and Kenyon’s Office for Community Partnerships. Mount Vernon Mayor Matt Starr moderated a discussion between Collegian Editor-In-Chief Mae Hunt ’21, President of Knox Pages Jay Allred, Todd Franko of Report for America and Grant Pepper, a reporter at Knox Pages. What emerged from the conversation didn’t reflect the perception that local news is antiquated, and it certainly didn’t leave anyone thinking that the enterprise is doomed. Instead, the speakers and Mayor Starr affirmed that local news still makes a difference, and we cannot let it become a thing of the past.
This idea is comforting. It’s also a call to action. Nothing survives without changing, and nothing changes without new people and ideas. In the panel, Pepper represented the heroes of this narrative: young reporters who choose to start their careers writing for local newspapers, and dedicate themselves to doing it well. Kenyon is widely known as a writers’ college. The Collegian prides itself on shaping alumni who go on to write brilliantly for major publications, like The Hill and The New York Times. But there’s honor in local journalism, too, and it’s a remarkable way for journalists to make a direct impact by serving their own communities.
It’s no secret that our country is deeply divided. The United States is riddled with concentrated battles over sprawling issues. The rights of transgender youth are being taken away in Arkansas and are under attack across the nation. In Minnesota, a 20-year-old Black man was murdered by police less than 10 miles away from the ongoing trial of the former officer who murdered George Floyd. And in Georgia, voter suppression is on the rise with a restrictive new voting law. Local news outlets, with strong staff and loyal readership, could be instrumental in documenting this pivotal moment in our country’s history.
We live in an age of misinformation and conspiracy theories, exacerbated by social media. Focusing on local news sources, which have the trust of their community members, could ameliorate the conditions which led to the QAnon-fueled Jan. 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol. Americans who no longer trust major news outlets will trust local reporters when they report on current events — national, international and local. Those who get their news from Facebook, or notoriously unreliable sources like Fox News, also stand to benefit from reading trustworthy local news sources. A hundred small-town newspapers calling for their residents to get vaccinated, and providing a complete explanation of why, may be the most effective way to convince all Americans that the light at the end of the COVID-induced tunnel isn’t a hoax, or a threat.
Small-town newspapers have the power to zero in on local issues. The narrow scope local reporters have to work with is a privilege. The Washington Post and the Times can print the Pentagon Papers, but neither is likely to rescue a beloved neighborhood park, or document the daily life of a rural community for posterity. Good journalism and watchdog reporting are necessary on the micro and macro levels of society. The battle for the safety of transgender and gender non-conforming children in Arkansas, and the Republican attacks on voting rights in Georgia, are national news stories. But they emerge out of communities, and the perspective of local news matters to the overarching narrative. Local papers are close to these issues, more accessible and uniquely positioned to connect community members with issues that affect them.
It’s not hard to support local news. Organizations like Report For America, a national program which places journalists into local newsrooms to cover underreported topics, are a step in the right direction. Local reporting strengthens communities, builds careers and changes the way our country is run on the granular level. Treating local news as something we can reimagine for our moment in time, instead of something we’ve already left behind, is one of the best things we can do for our country and communities.
Grace Goldstein ’24 is a columnist at the Collegian. She is an undeclared major from New York, N.Y. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.