According to a recent Knight/Gallup poll, most Americans (86%) say everyone should have access to local news even if they don’t pay for it. The trusted journalist Walter Cronkite once said, “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” On his first TV news broadcast in 1961, he encouraged viewers to check their local newspapers for more news. That was a time when all Americans had a local paper.
Newspapers and other media outlets are struggling, resulting in a devastating decline in local journalism across the country. Newspaper ownership is now highly consolidated –two-thirds of all daily papers are owned by just 25 companies nationally. Communities traditionally underserved by legacy local media outlets—communities of color, low-income communities and rural communities— are those most affected by the decline of local reporting, against the backdrop of longstanding inequities in access and representation, according to another new report from PEN America. And Nieman Reports finds when local journalism declines so does government transparency and accountability in local politics. As local news disappears, voter polarization increases while voter turnout and civic engagement decrease.
What can public media do in this challenging climate?
Last summer, I wrote about WGBH’s vision for local journalism. This week, we announced plans to open a Worcester news bureau in the spring of 2020, furthering our commitment to covering stories and listening to voices from communities across Massachusetts. With an on-the-ground presence there, we will be able to broaden our reach and engagement with the community and expand on our existing coverage, shining a spotlight on stories from the city of Worcester and the surrounding region.
Why did we choose Worcester? Audiences across Massachusetts will benefit from more in-depth stories and breaking news updates from the second most populous city in New England that has a significant impact on the economy and culture of our state. Worcester, known as the Heart of the Commonwealth, is known for its 9 colleges and universities, its high-quality health institutions and as one of the top ten emerging hubs for biotech and tech startups. It is also the state’s largest center for the arts outside Boston.
The Worcester bureau joins our 100-person multi-platform newsroom and our established bureau in Dorchester, Boston’s largest and one of its most diverse neighborhoods and our dedicated full-time reporter at the State House. Our studio at the Boston Public Library, in the heart of Copley Square, now features daily live programs, shaping local conversations and convening leading thinkers of our community. Earlier this year, our TV affiliate in Springfield, WGBY, joined together with New England Public Radio to form a robust new multi-platform public media organization called New England Public Media (NEPM), bringing greater awareness of issues facing western Massachusetts to audiences and policymakers in the Greater Boston region. Through our station WCAI, we are sharing important stories from southeastern Massachusetts, the Cape, Coast and Islands. And we are leading the way on local investigative reporting with our newest colleagues from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) who officially joined the WGBH family in July. FRONTLINE, our investigative journalism series, recently announced five local reporting partnerships as part of its Local Journalism Initiative.
This expansion is an investment in strengthening our commitment to local news and information as a public good. WGBH proudly presents news without paywalls, providing free information on wgbhnews.org and wgbh.org. We do not view listeners, readers and viewers of the news as consumers, we consider them as citizens and participants in civic life.
By connecting the Commonwealth, we are meeting information needs of communities who need regular coverage of their town’s city council, school committee, zoning board, transportation, K-12 and higher education, sports, and arts and entertainment. Our mission to serve our communities with news that is local, independent, inclusive and informative is more important than ever.
As we head into the 2020 election, it is vital that all citizens have access to information that will inform their decisions about the candidates, policy issues and ballot questions. WGBH will have reporters poised to cover these stories and we’ll be broadcasting live from Manchester, NH for the nation’s first primary in February. And WGBH News is proud to be hosting and producing the first 2020 Massachusetts US Senate primary debate between Senator Edward Markey and Democratic challengers Representative Joseph Kennedy III and attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan in our studios on February 18. The debate will also be carried by WGBY and WCAI connecting citizens across the Commonwealth, from the Cape and Islands to the Berkshires. This local coverage will serve as an important connector and source of information for national media outlets.
Mission-driven media in the public interest strengthens our communities and, therefore, our democracy.
-Jonathan Abbott, WGBH