By Preston Fore
Over the past several months, several bills have been introduced to Congress with the goal of supporting local news. The Rebuild Local News coalition is one example of the collaboration between thousands of newsrooms and journalism organizations who are lobbying for local news support.
Andrea Lorenz Nenque, a Roy H. Park doctoral fellow at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, spoke to RLN’s founder and chair in her post for CISLM’s blog about the growing optimism for local news due to recent Congressional activity.
CISLM’s Preston Fore sat down with Nenque to talk about her writing, research, and interests in local news.
Preston Fore: Why have you been interested in local news, and what has driven that passion for you?
Andrea Lorenz Nenque: I was a local news reporter (in Missouri and Texas) about 15 years ago and I watched as employment opportunities dried up right around the recession.
It didn’t seem like newspapers were innovating as much as they should have with technology, the internet and social media.
I then taught journalism at the high school and community college level, with the idea that people who were in journalism didn’t have the answers. So, it’s going to be new people that would provide the answers who weren’t set in the ways of: this is how it’s always been done.
Later on, I worked for local political candidates. I was kind of surprised at the lack of coverage they were getting; it was a huge decline from when I covered local government and politics. So, when I came (to UNC) to get my PhD, that’s one of the areas that I’m interested in: how local news contributes to democracy and how that works with local elections and local government. I believe that (local news) is important for democracy, but not necessarily how it’s done now, or how it’s always been done. I think that I’m interested in it because this is a unique time; we have an opportunity to create something better.
Fore: How did you get involved with looking at local news bills that are circulating around Congress, and why are they important?
Nenque: I think they’re important because there seems to be a lot of interest in local news at the Congressional level, spurred on by lobbying groups. The news industry has several lobbying groups that cover different kinds of outlets: for-profit, nonprofit, corporations, independents.
And I think that there’s been more advocacy than has been done in the past, and so there seems to be more movement. Although, I have wondered whether that could happen if you don’t have this social movement among people pushing for it.
… Pew (Research Center) has done studies that show that people think local news is doing just fine, their own local news outlets are performing just fine financially. That’s what people believe, even though that’s not the case. So, I don’t know that people understand what the problem is.
It’s hard to quantify and qualify that. That’s been a struggle and focus of my research: how do you show that the effects of local news loss on democracy? I mean, a lot of research has been able to do so with different techniques, but how do you show it’s not there?
Some lobbyists have said, yes, people need to call their Congress people and tell them that they’re worried about this, that they want local news to survive. And that’s important for democracy.
Fore: Many bills regarding local news have been introduced to Congress, not just in this session, but previous ones as well. However, not many have had much activity. In your research, have you figured out like why that’s the case, especially when there are often dozens of co-sponsors from both political parties?
Nenque: I think a big reason is that the Senate flipped, and so the people who are heads of the committees are now Democrats. Based on the rhetoric that former President Trump and Republican Congresspeople share, that you hear publicly about the media being the enemy and not doing a good job and so forth — I would imagine that has a lot to do with it, too.
Fore: Do you think there’s more optimism and hope for local news now?
Nenque: Well, on one hand, if you’re looking at newspapers, research has found, that they are a keystone medium in that they have traditionally provided the bulk of local news, even if someone doesn’t read the newspaper. The community sort of uses the newspaper reporting as a standing off point. If a newspaper goes down, then you would assume that these other entities aren’t able to report the news. So, that is depressing.
I really think that (support for local news) it has to be looked at as a local news ecosystem. So, if a newspaper dies, where else are people getting their information from? Like, where do they get information on their candidates on their local government?
…There’s a lot of organizations and groups and people trying to start new outlets and people still wanting to become journalists. I just don’t think that (through) the big corporations and the hedge funds — the way it’s been done — is the way to do it, and I don’t think that’s the way to save it. If we are only propping up the largest corporations, and they’re going to continue to do what they’ve done, I don’t I don’t have hope for it. But my hope is, is that there’s enough people that are fighting for something different.
Fore: If you could tell someone on the street who is clueless about local news — maybe they don’t care about it or they don’t think it’s important — about the state of local news and why it’s important for democracy, what would you tell them?
Nenque: Research has shown that when local newspapers close or local news declines, there are fewer people running for office, there are fewer challengers in office, and people are more likely to vote for one political party versus a split ticket ballot in those communities.
People are also more likely to be involved in their local community when there’s media, although, I think that it’s something that you don’t miss until it’s gone. I’ve seen that within communities where people are like, well, what happened? You also lose that sort of first record of history that local news used to provide.