Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

What we lose when we lose news | Editorial

The health of a new journalistic ecosystem has serious implications for our city and region. That’s not just philosophy; that’s reality.

Billy Penn atop City Hall is seen from the top floor of the Loews Hotel during a snowstorm.
Billy Penn atop City Hall is seen from the top floor of the Loews Hotel during a snowstorm.Read more / File Photograph

If you were reading this 10 years ago, you wouldn’t actually have been reading this.

Ten years ago, we would have remained silent over the news that a journalistic institution in this city was in peril.

But the recent news that Spirited Media, parent company of local news website Billy Penn, is seeking a buyer for its websites in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and has sold its Denver operation, is no cause for celebration for any of us. The business, started by Jim Brady in 2014, was an experiment in finding a way to provide news to a millennial audience.

Similar experiments have been taken up by many in this region (including us). The result has been the creation of a new journalistic ecosystem whose health has serious implications for our city and region. That’s not just philosophy, that’s reality.

Reductions in local news have very tangible impacts on cities. A 2011 study by University of Chicago and Harvard economists found that opening new newspapers increases voter participation in elections. Another study by economists from MIT and Stockholm University from 2010 found that members of Congress from districts that have less local news coverage don’t work as hard for their constituents, and those districts end up receiving less federal funding.

But the impact of a healthy news ecosystem doesn’t end with less federal funding. A recent study from the Brookings Institution looked at the effect of media coverage on municipal borrowing. Between 1996 and 2005, about 300 local newspapers closed nationally. Those municipalities saw an increase in the cost of borrowing. When there is a robust journalism market in a city, it is harder to mismanage funds — because the city will be called out for it.

Facing big business challenges, news organizations around the country have shuttered or decreased in size. That’s true in this region as well. In 2014, an early experiment in local news, AxisPhilly, shuttered. In 2015, Philadelphia City Paper ceased publication. Last summer, City and State PA closed. Last week, the free tabloid Metro laid off three of its last four Philadelphia news staffers.

These developments hurt us – not just for our own survival at the Inquirer, but for the survival of democracy and the free flow of information on which it depends. And local journalism in particular is important to the healthy functioning of a community.

According to Freedom House, a watchdog organization devoted to democracy, just 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press.

As journalism sustains political attacks and harsh business headwinds, there are a few bright spots. News organizations are stressing more collaboration, partnerships, and innovation. On Friday, the news organization NJ Spotlight announced it had been acquired by WNET. There are more models for supporting local news, including the philanthropy underlying the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Inquirer, and behind Spotlight PA, a new, statewide investigative newsroom based in Harrisburg. And we can rely on a steadfast commitment of organizations to keep trying to find the answer that keeps light shining on where we live for a long time to come.