Civic Journalism: New and Improved Local News

Sadly, hundreds of newspapers and other local news sources have closed in the past couple of decades. The good news is that many communities are seeing the emergence of new sources of local news, and many of these new sources are focusing on the positive, not following the long-held news criteria of “if it bleeds, it leads.”

A year ago, a study by Northwestern University’s journalism school showed that 360 newspapers had closed in the two years since the start of the pandemic. This was on top of the many news sources that had shut down over the past couple of decades as costs rose and news increasingly migrated to free internet sources.

“Authentic sources of communication” is a critical ingredient of a community’s civic capital, as discussed in the Civic Index published by the National Civic League. Losing a community’s main source of news can lead to lower voter turnouts, fewer people running for office, more corruption, and less civic engagement in work to address important challenges.

Equally disturbing, though, has been the trend over the past several decades toward journalism focusing on conflict and negative images of each other. As a journalist writing about local television news in 1989 said, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Darryl Holliday’s recent article for the National Civic Review included a quote from civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis: “Who is deciding to cover shoplifting with ‘breaking news’ urgency but not air pollution, wage theft, and fraud that leaves people and their children homeless and in poverty?”

Fortunately, there is a building trend toward civic journalism, coverage of local news stories in a way that informs the public about important matters and encourages them to get involved. As presented by several authors in the most recent edition of the National Civic Review, linked in this newsletter, these stories promote and enhance civic engagement to address issues like poverty, education and health, not simply the latest negative news item.

One source of this trend is Solutions Journalism. Founded in 2013 by journalists David Bornstein, Courtney E. Martin, and Tina Rosenberg, Solutions Journalism is a network of journalists and news organizations around the world that generate stories about responses to social problems. The group’s website now has “over 15,200 solution stories produced by 8,700 journalists and 1,900 news outlets from 89 countries.”

Another global source of stories about solutions is Participedia, a wiki-style website that connects journalists and researchers worldwide to generate stories about civic solutions. With new funding from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Participedia now brings together 63 researchers from 22 universities and 21 organizations across 12 countries who have collectively generated over 2,400 stories. The National Civic League refines these types of stories further in our Promising Practices database, which contains examples of civic engagement to address key challenges.

As local news organizations have either closed, shrunk or reduced coverage of civic news, civic journalism organizations have emerged to fill the void. Some of the more prominent online publications are City Bureau in Chicago, Resolve Philly in Philadelphia and Model D in Detroit. These and other organizations are playing an important role in covering civic affairs in a way that is not only positive, but also encourages civic engagement by local residents.

The challenge for these and other new sources of local news is to better reflect the interests of their community in what gets covered. This relies partly on having a diverse set of journalists who are in touch with the community and its values, which is something that has been sorely lacking in local journalism, says Darryl Holliday, co-founder of Chicago’s City Bureau, in an article in this month’s National Civic Review, linked in this newsletter. Holliday points out that many local news sources are not representative of the community and sensationalize conflict rather than offering helpful civic information “in a way that supports collective action.”

The new crop of civic journalists will hopefully grow as a viable source of civic journalism and a new and improved way for people to see their community, as opposed to what often dominates local television news, social media and online sites like The goal, as David Bornstein from Solutions Journalism says, is to “help people see each other for who they really are, and not for these awful stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated by the old version of news.”

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