The Need for Local News

Despite changing habits, communities should still foster residents’ desires to connect and contribute.
February 20, 2018 AT 11:00 AM
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.

There are more than a dozen diners and cafes in Fitchburg, the New England city of 40,000 in which I served as mayor from 2007 to 2015. No two orders of home fries are the same and locals know which one to go to and when to go there to get the local news. Since 1838, the other place to get the local news was the Fitchburg Sentinel, now the Sentinel & Enterprise newspaper.

There will always be a demand for coffee and news. But increasingly we are consuming both on the move and often around the clock. Habits are changing and traditions are being challenged. We want to know where our coffee beans come from and whether they were ethically sourced. On the other hand, most of us don’t know where our newspapers are being printed anymore. Beginning next month, the same will be true for the Sentinel & Enterprise.

The newspaper announced that it will close its physical office and for the first time in 180 years, it will operate virtually. It wasn’t that long ago that the publisher would host the monthly business breakfast meetings and the reporters did cool photo shoots on the roof to get the perfect downtown or July 4 fireworks shots. As the newspaper sold and merged over time, the publisher was eliminated, then the editor and now the office.

At the same time, the local Fitchburg Access TV’s few paid staff and army of volunteers started covering more local news. The news truck that is a fixture at the Thanksgiving and Friday night football games is now visible at other major events. Residents armed with video cameras and young talent from the local high schools and colleges interview people on the street, at civic events and public meetings. They travel too, going to other cities across the state to follow important meetings and award ceremonies.

Malden Access TV has a robust citizen journalist program, called the Neighborhood View, with its own website and frequently updated articles on local news, reviews and opinions on local issues. They encourage volunteers to use the tools they have, like mobile phones and social media.

Fitchburg’s dilemma is one common to communities across the country. Residents living in the shadow of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta launched an independent neighborhood newspaper to help redefine and reinvigorate the place they live. In Seattle and other cities, community-driven podcasts are providing a voice to neighborhoods, which help to fill voids left by the loss of conventional media outlets.

There is no doubt that society loses when there are fewer local newspapers and reporters, and less professional journalism and objectivity in general. However, it is heartening to know that the demand for local news still exists. Even if we are going to the drive-thru in the morning to get our coffee instead of talking to our neighbors in the local diner, the desire to connect and contribute is still there.