Growing realization: Representative news and information is the heart of healthy communities.
RICHMOND, Va. — Indiana looks to Ohio and Texas. Virginia looks to Indiana, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Texas. This cross-pollination is how movements begin.
It may be how the American experiment succeeds.
The Commonwealth of Virginia s the latest state to warn residents about the threat of rapidly disappearing local news. Virginia has lost about 45 weeklies and two dailies since 2005, with a spike in closures during the pandemic, according to Virginia’s Foothills Forum. The Forum is among the emerging nonprofit news organizations that will ultimately replace for-profit outlets as market forces unflinchingly scatter their remnants.
This news and information vacuum means Virginians know less about each other, and officials misuse power with little fear of exposure. It also means public officials, philanthropists, and community leaders must address people’s misplaced beliefs and assumptions to effectively address education, healthcare, poverty, and other quality-of-life issues.
The stark decline in local news coincides with the most rapid demographic changes in the nation’s history. The world has never known a multiracial democracy such as we are building today in the United States, even as we contend with breakdowns in the norms of national, state, and local governance.
People are willing to believe the worst about institutions and each other. They have no opportunity to forge understandings as spaces for discerning truth and building consensus disappear. Communities are less safe, less healthy, and less tolerant.
Virginia is no stranger to mistrust. In 2017, hundreds of white nationalists marched across the University of Virginia campus chanting and carrying torches. The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville resulted in a death and multiple injuries as a car plowed through counter-demonstrators. Working to bridge the racial chasm is Charlottesville Tomorrow, led by Angilee Shah. Locals formed the nonprofit to serve Charlottesville residents, especially those who don’t see themselves reflected in news coverage because they are Black or brown, immigrants, or earn low wages.
Virginians want to build a statewide news network. Last week, we participated in a two-day Local News Summit hosted by Virginia Humanities, a statewide council advocating for the classics, the fine arts, languages, philosophy, and similar disciplines, and the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia. Among the participants were leaders in academia, business, the humanities, journalism, philanthropy, and public policy, all unsettled by the prospect of living in a society where people cannot easily find out what’s happening in their communities, courthouses, neighborhoods, and schools.
In the lead-up to the Virginia event, Foothills Forum had commissioned a former White House correspondent for The Associated Press, Christopher Connell, to document the crisis — a county without a newspaper, a newspaper without reporters. Everyone knows these blank spaces will be filled with misinformation and mistrust. As we work to restore confidence — in one another and in our shared ability to address future challenges — we recognize journalism is a means and not an end.
Members of the Virginia event’s organizing committee wanted to hear about the Indiana Local News Initiative, supported by the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy trying to develop sustainable models for local news. Models, not model, because no one size will fit every community.
In Indiana, Karen Ferguson Fuson is artfully leading an effort to restore — and go beyond — what’s been lost. Capital B is coming to the predominately Black community of Gary later this year to report the news. Public News Service has created a free statewide radio report to serve rural Hoosiers. Franklin College’s student-led Statehouse File has lowered its paywall and deepened ties with The Indiana Citizen, another new nonprofit. The Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s Black-owned newspaper, is enhancing its staff. And a 25-person, yet-to-be-named central Indiana newsroom is in the works. Other partners include IndyStar, the Indiana Capital Chronicle, WFYI Public Media, Chalkbeat Indiana, the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University Bloomington, Black-owned Circle City Broadcasting and WISH-TV, and the Hoosier State Press Association.
Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the Indianapolis Foundation, The Herbert Simon Family Foundation, and The Joyce Foundation have come forward, along with individual donors. More support will be necessary to realize success.
Indiana is ready to launch a branch of the City Bureau’s people-powered Documenters Network. It’s like the rollout of Signal Cleveland, an ambitious effort to replenish local news in Northeast Ohio that Indiana is learning from. Indiana is AJP’s first statewide project, and Lumina Foundation, where I work, is participating, thanks to the leadership of our community-focused president and CEO, Jamie Merisotis. Lumina gained experience in local news working with The Texas Tribune and other place-based newsrooms.
What emerges could be better than Indiana ever had. It will speak not only to people like me, as has been the media tradition, but also to people who look, believe, and act nothing like me and yet want — and need — to know their communities and neighbors better. It’s not about saving journalism for journalism’s sake.
In Virginia, the emergent news and information ecosystem was on full display. Valerie Popp, PhD, told us about Informed NJ, an initiative of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and Journalism + Design at The New School, which offers tuition-free noncredit certificates through community colleges for journalism, storytelling, and media literacy to empower the Garden State’s population. We heard from Lizzy Hazeltine of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund about the importance of nonprofit intermediary organizations in seeding statewide coverage. Democracy Fund supports her important work through Public Square, where Angelica Das is working to address longstanding inequities in who and what gets covered. Tracie Powell of The Pivot Fund emphasized the importance of ensuring more emerging news and information is produced by and for people of color.
Other speakers included Evan Smith, co-founder of The Texas Tribune, Sarabeth Berman of the American Journalism Project, and representatives of Rebuild Local News, the American Press Institute, the Local Journalism Initiative of Delaware, the Institute for Nonprofit News, the National Trust for Local News, the Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship Institute at Syracuse University, Trusting News, and the News Literacy Project.
Outside the Washington metro area, where 36 percent of the state’s 8.7 million residents live, Virginia has “news deserts” between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Coast. Everyone present agreed we need local news and information we can trust to govern ourselves and resist the forces that sow division for their own selfish aims. No one has an easy solution, but the problem is the same everywhere.
What we know: Trust flows from credibility. Credibility from accuracy, fairness, and context, possibly only by listening to people who don’t often have their stories told. These values are the movement’s lifeblood, its beating heart. Their adoption is essential to nursing our communities and society back to health.
Kevin Corcoran spent 20 years reporting on state and federal courts, public corruption, and state government. He is a strategy director for Lumina Foundation, which supports the Indiana Local News Initiative.