Local news publishing is in steep decline, and that should worry us all—but particularly conservatives.
This may come as a surprise to those who assume that all news media are liberal, but if you live outside of a major city, think for a moment about your small- to mid-sized hometown newspaper, not The New York Times. This kind of journalism—local papers that are rooted in communities—is disappearing, and the places most at risk of losing their local news are places where a lot of conservatives happen to live.
COVID-19 has wrought havoc on newsrooms, and massive layoffs continue to occur at newspapers across the country. But even before the pandemic, the crisis in local journalism was well established. There are more than a few credible studies that have examined the situation, finding that the news media industry saw a 68 percent decrease in its primary source of revenue between 2008 and 2018, and that 47 percent of newsroom staff have been lost since 2004.
The causes of the decline are pretty straightforward. People still want local news. But most people now consume news primarily online, and the digital space is dominated by a handful of Big Tech companies who gobble up almost all of the advertising revenue. Equally important, online news consumption is subject to the vagaries of Big Tech algorithms, which decide what news people get to see and when.
Which local sources are most at risk? More than 200 U.S. counties have no local newspaper at all, and another 1,500 have only one local news source, most often a weekly newspaper. These "news deserts" are dominated by rural and suburban areas that have a high concentration of conservative voters.
Ohio's Highland County, where 76 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump in 2016, has only one newspaper, the Hillsboro Times-Gazette. The Hillsboro Times-Gazette is a strong conservative voice for the county and endorsed Trump in 2016, but it is subject to the same forces that have caused 138 local Ohio papers to close since 2004.
While some U.S. publishers can turn to readers for direct support, it is harder for papers like the Hillsboro Times-Gazette. In Highland County, 48 percent of households live in poverty or are struggling to make ends meet, according to a 2017 report from the United Way. People who can barely cover the essentials, such as rent and groceries, are unlikely to have the disposable income that would allow them to jump over paywalls.
The Bowling Green Daily News in Warren County, Kentucky, faces similar challenges. The county's only paper, The Bowling Green Daily News, not only serves to inform locals of the goings-on in their community, but also provides access to conservative voices and viewpoints that readers might not find in other regional publications. Unfortunately, 18 percent of county residents live below the poverty line, making it hard for the people who rely on The Bowling Green Daily News to make up for the revenue lost to Big Tech.
Local papers like these work to keep their communities informed, while also demonstrating an understanding of their readers' conservative viewpoints. That understanding is harder to come by as news deserts grow and local publishers struggle to stay afloat. There is no grand political conspiracy at work here; many of these communities are subject to a wide range of forces that are damaging to their economies, including deindustrialization and the migration of prosperity to coastal and suburban areas.
But the loss of local newspapers has two particular and profound effects. First, it tears at the fabric of communities, leaving the field wide open for political corruption and malfeasance of every form. Second, it ensures that the news people see is dominated by urban and coastal sources that have much less understanding of the people who live and work in rural and suburban communities. Google and Facebook may decide what news you see when you're online, but if there is no local news source to begin with, it won't matter how well their algorithms are attuned.
So how can we save local news? One easy way to ensure continued access is to subscribe to your local newspaper and, if possible, advertise there. But even that may not be enough. Some folks have advocated for direct government subsidies for news publishers. I personally don't believe that it's a good idea for the fourth estate to be on the government payroll. It certainly isn't a conservative idea.
I prefer a much less government-intensive solution: the Journalism Competition & Preservation Act, which wouldn't require the government to spend any tax dollars. The bill, with four Republican senators and three Democratic senators as co-sponsors, simply gives news publishers the ability to solve their own problems by giving them the right to work together to negotiate with Google and Facebook for a better deal for the use of their news content.
As legal expert Adam White of the American Enterprise Institute explained in the conservative publication National Review, antitrust law is designed to protect consumers from monopolistic power, and allowing newspaper publishers to band together to negotiate might be the best way to accomplish that goal.
It is currently impossible for any individual publisher to stand up to the tech giants. Since Facebook and Google benefit disproportionately from free local news content, they should have to negotiate like any other company for that deal, and return more of the value back to the people who deliver it in the first place. News consumers will then have continued access to the full variety of media sources they prefer.
But most important, my fellow conservatives should understand that local journalism is essential to having our voices heard—and if Congress refuses to act, the news sources that disappear first may well be the ones that most reflect our views.
Jason Chaffetz is the former Republican congressman for Utah's third congressional district.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.