By Jason Smith

Why is it so hard to have an informed citizenry in the US?  Long championed as pivotal to the functioning of the public sphere, news media (and the field of journalism in general) serve communities in their need to know the current state of affairs.  Yet local news media is in a state of flux.  At worst the number of newspapers covering local events are increasingly on the decline, and at best new websites offering local coverage are sporadic and struggle to maintain their operations.

If you take a look at the news media you find two big issues.  First, its in TROUBLE.  Meaning that supporting “good” journalism is hard to do without funds to pay reporters and invest in resources.  Second, its becoming a new medium for entertainment-type content.  Whereby the contributions of journalism as a field are continually being diminished as they become more catered to “infotainment” practices.

To bring this into better perspective, it was recently reported that parent-company Comcast has been pressuring CNBC to make budget cuts which would impact programming.

Although this is a muddled story, the role of advertising and entertainment on news production can be seen in a recent example by Nikki Usher looking at news blogs serving the LGBT communities.  As she comments, it would seem logical for advertisers to support online gay news sites (since the gay community has been specifically targeted in the past by advertisers), but this often is not the case: instead these sites are too politically and culturally specific in their content and are not “entertainment-focused enough” to entice advertisers to invest in them.  As Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism stated in their annual State of the Media report, “no one has yet cracked the code for how to produce local news effectively at a sustainable level.”

This brings up an interesting question: Can local news exist in the current economic environment?

Or perhaps we should ask: Does local news even matter?

I believe that by answering the second question it can inform how we approach the first, and by doing so, make a case for the value and need to invest in local news.

In a classic study by sociologist Morris Janowitz from the early 1950s on the role of the community press in an urban setting, he focused on communication being both product and shaper of its social environment – a reflection and determinate of social attitudes and interaction.  Community presses served neighborhood residents and their leaders as ways to inform and build social bonds.  But the most important aspect of these presses in Janowitz’s study was that agency held larger preference over structure – meaning that communities had the ability to act as “political organs” in relation to outside institutions.

Local news media are vital to community and shared consensus.  Although the ability to actively fund and sustain them is a current work in progress for those invested in news media production, many alternatives exist.  But in order to maintain a call for (re)investing in local news, it requires us to discover that it operates as a part of establishing a sociological imagination for individuals and collective groups – the ability to link personal concerns to the larger concerns of groups.

Jason Smith, PhD student in Public Sociology, George Mason University. His thesis work dealt with colorblind and color-conscious ideology in contemporary Hollywood films. Overarching research interests are issues of race/ethnicity, media representation, and media policy.

This article originally appeared in This Week In Sociology on Nov29, 2011

Hometown News, Why it Matters

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