WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Recent cuts among the local news field across the country are prompting industry professionals to consider a concerning proposition; what happens if local news disappears altogether?
“So, humans are human,” says Phoebe Zerwick, director of Wake Forest University’s Journalism Program. “One of the things that’s kind of embedded in our DNA is this desire to tell stories and know what’s going on and to find out what happens.”
Before taking over the program at WFU, Zerwick worked at the Winston-Salem Journal, which was founded as an afternoon newspaper on April 3, 1897. During her time at the paper, she says it had five bureaus, including in the North Carolina mountains and state capitol.
“The reason I came to the Winston-Salem Journal from New York City as a young journalist was because North Carolina had a tradition of excellence in newspaper and excellence in journalism,” Zerwick adds. “The journal won a Pulitzer Prize in the early 70s for its environmental reporting.”
The paper also had reporters assigned to every news beat imaginable.
“Really important stories that could only be done about North Carolina, by journalists living and working in North Carolina,” Zerwick details. “That’s the point. So, when you lose local news the community in the state loses that watchdog function that journalism provides.”
When the recession hit, much of the revenue papers were seeing stopped as well, Zerwick says.
“Until recently, newspapers had way more and had a much richer staffing than television did,” she adds.
Now, according to the Winston-Salem Journal website, the paper employs six reporters across the business, sports, courts and news beats.
“I think it’s way smaller than a quarter of the size,” Zerwick says, referring to the number of reporters at the paper during her time there.
Melanie Sill is the executive director of the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University. She had previously worked as the top editor and an administrator for news at the Sacramento Bee, News & Observer and KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles.
“We grew, we hired people. We changed the coverage. We were increasing our investigative reporting,” Sill says. “So it was really a wonderful thing to work there in that time.”
Both attribute much of the industry’s decrease in revenue to the internet. Zerwick’s research shows, in recent years, more than 2,000 newspapers have made their final publications.
“That’s a lot, 2,000 newspapers,” she adds. “Newsroom employment has fallen since 2008, from 71,000 to 35,000.”
Sill says when the newspaper industry was so profitable, the only downside was it may have kept it from dealing with some changes and possibly made leaders more complacent.
Zerwick says in areas where there are no local newspapers, studies show a decrease in people running for office, an increase in mismanagement of local funds, more pollution and a loss of connection some feel with their community.
“Because in those communities, you had all these people who were trying to find things out and tell you what was happening,” Sill says. “So, that’s why I think of this as not an industry loss, but really a civic loss.”
In addition, the disappearance of local news outlets forces people living in affected areas to rely on social media to find out what is happening there.
“And there are endless studies that show that disinformation, untruth, erroneous information is spreading on social media,” Zerwick says.
Although many newspapers made the decision they could no longer function under their original models, there are some positive signs, with some people – such as nonprofits – working on other ways to support local news, and even some business communities partnering with philanthropists to buy or create papers less driven by profit.
“The question is, will you have accurate, reliable, trustworthy local news?” Sill asks. “That takes people who are skilled at the process of verifying things.”