Do We Need to Nationalize Local News Sites?

Local news websites face a dilemma. Readers value news, but it takes a lot of hard work from a lot of people to report that news.

The most immediate example of the funding problem facing local digital new is Gothamist. The New York City-based site disappeared from the internet three months ago. Gothamist’s billionaire owner Joe Ricketts shut down the site along with the local news sites DNAinfo shortly after the staff voted to unionize.

This week, a group of public radio stations, including WNYC in New York, WAMU in Washington DC and KPCC in California, bought Gothamist and affiliated sites like LAist and will resume publishing the sites in the spring. According to Wired, two anonymous donors contributed an undisclosed sum to acquire the brands. In addition to publishing the city-centric sites, the NPR stations will also maintain the archives of DNAinfo.

The sites will share resources with NPR, at least initially. Gothamist founder Jen Chung told Wired she didn’t know how big Gothamist’s reconstituted newsroom will be. It seems unlikely that the site would rehire the entire editorial team put out of work by its union-busting boss. Still, the acquisition by a nonprofit organization is an unambiguous good fortune for Gothamist.

But you know what would be better than being owned by a nonprofit? Being owned by the public.

I’ve seen firsthand how important local digital news sites like DNAinfo and Gothamist can be to communities. I was one of the first three editors hired for Patch, the local news start-up that grew into a national network after it was acquired by AOL. I ran three sites for Patch. I interacted with people in the communities I covered every single day. The job had a lot of downsides, but I saw firsthand how my work strengthened communities and made people’s lives better.

I saw the difference my stories made. I covered a town whose power was knocked out by a hurricane and I spent 20-hour days updating the site with vital information that people read on their cell phones. It was life and death information and its value should be obvious. But mundane, everyday stories had positive effects; knowing that a road in your town is closed from construction or that a government office is closed can save you from a lot of aggravation. And even the stuff that seems frivolous, like pictures of cute kids and stories on star athletes, made communities more connected. Towns stopped seeming like soulless strip malls sprinkled with of houses and started feeling like places people lived.

But as much as readers valued our content, advertising dollars were hard to come by. Patch was launched in the belief that local advertising was a great untapped resource for revenue and that Patch’s model of hyperlocal journalism could tap it. Unfortunately, as my former boss (and current Facebook friend) Anthony Duignan-Cabrera observed, geolocation services have basically made it easier for advertisers to get out their message without the need to be involved with local news or content sites.

Of course, geolocation services and the other stand-ins for local news can’t deliver the quality of news people want and need about their communities. Producing quality local journalism requires hard work and time. You need someone with a deep enough understanding of a community to make informed judgments about it.

Local news is something we value but can’t monetize. So let’s stop looking at it as a way to make money and start considering it as a utility. People want and deserve to know what’s happening in their towns and cities.

There are a lot of positives to publicly-held news sources. It would instantly create shovel-ready employment for hundreds of journalists across America. Quality of news would improve without a need for profit-driven clickbait or over-sensationalized news. Supplying a national network of reporters would mean huge windfalls for makers of cameras, laptop computers, pens and spiral notebooks.

Lack of access to quality journalism costs people more than they realize. Without transparency into the government, businesses and developers, quality of life suffers. Powerful forces invariably engage in bad behavior when they’re certain they’re not being watched.

But reporting doesn’t have to break Watergate to be great. We live in an incredibly atomized society. Local news creates an invaluable sense of shared experience and brings us closer together. It’s something that makes people feel like they belong. Let’s make it something that belongs to the people.