clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why THE CITY is Here

Local reporting is the critical link between the policies, spending and other actions of local government, the private sector and citizens. Without this reporting, accountability disappears, citizens disconnect and democracy fails.

“Eyes on the Street - Renewing Philanthropy’s Commitment to Local Journalism,” authored by Charles H. Revson Foundation President Julie Sandorf, was published by the Stanford Social Research Institute in November 2019. Sandorf explains that the decline of local coverage leads to chronic civic problems, including unchecked corruption and fiscal mismanagement.

Recent studies have established that:

THE CITY was founded to respond to the crisis in local news across New York’s five boroughs. The closure of multiple local news platforms combined with the dramatic downsizing of many other reporting teams has had a catastrophic impact on broad, consistent reporting on local affairs in the nation’s largest city. At a time when New York City’s population (9 million) and budget ($88 billion) are larger than ever, the number of local reporters has plummeted.

Local reporting is more important than ever for New York City as it faces the daunting challenges of recovery from the coronavirus crisis, police-community tensions and the November 2021 elections, which will fill nearly every major city and borough office. No matter what you think is New York’s most important priority or pressing need, it will not be fully or effectively addressed without local reporting.

‘News Deserts’ have appeared across the country...

From 2004 to the end of 2019, 25% of all metro and community newspapers in the United States have closed or merged, leaving a patchwork of “news deserts” across the country. Today, there are 6,700 newspapers, down from almost 9,000 in 2004. More than 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies or nondailies have closed, and more than 200 counties have no local newspaper. Nearly 60% of all newspaper jobs have been eliminated since 1990 – more than in the steel or coal industries, where national narratives of decline are well known. A June 2020 survey of newsrooms across the United States found the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the losses — more than 11,000 jobs were cut in the first six months of the year, up 170% from the same period in 2019.

...and New York City is one of the worst

New York City has become one of the country’s worst news deserts. “What had been a crisis has become an emergency, akin to a health epidemic, and time is not on our side,” Kyle Pope, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote of New York City’s local news ecosystem in 2018.

In a 2017 article entitled “In New York City, Local Coverage Declines - and Takes Accountability With It,” Daily Beast reporter Paul Moses recounted his conversation with Steve Waldman, author of the 2011 FCC report “The Information Needs of Communities.” Moses reported, “...the situation has mostly worsened since then. ‘The collapse of local reporting is a crisis,’ he told me. ‘It’s a crisis in the country, and it’s a crisis locally.’ New York presents ‘a very strange situation,’ he added. ‘The media capital of the country is not set up to cover New York City very well, especially Brooklyn and Queens.’”

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University assessed the state of local news in New York in early 2020, examining whether New York qualified as a news desert. After interviewing dozens of experts, the broad consensus was that while the city’s size and diversity make it hard to characterize its media ecosystem, there has been a frightening decline in the city’s news coverage. The report highlighted topical news deserts, with the most serious gaps in reporting on important areas such as courts, hospitals and healthcare. As citywide publications have shifted from geographic to thematic beats, the patchwork of community and ethnic media organizations that remains leaves many areas underserved.

Another recent survey by News Revenue Hub found multiple “hyperlocal news deserts” throughout New York City, leaving many neighborhoods uncovered. They discovered that many of the city’s local news outlets, “focus on particular issues or topics or publish infrequently” and that “the quality of the reporting also ranges widely.” They also found that “bloggers have taken the place of trained journalists to fill audiences’ needs for local news,” with “no professional training or staff.” They concluded that, “This was unexpected and may represent a state-of-the-news landscape in which would-be bloggers or intentionally small, mom-and-pop-style outlets have been raised to the main stage of local news because of a lack of other options. These would be supplemental news sources under better conditions.”

Drivers of New York City’s Growing Local News Gap

The growing local news gap in New York City is the result of three concurrent factors: 1) an insufficient number of reporters dedicated to covering local news across the five boroughs; 2) the shift of local advertising revenue from news to search and social media platforms; and 3) a shift in focus of formerly New York City-focused news platforms from local news to national/global news.

New York City has lost more than 125 local journalists in the last five years from just the combination of layoffs or closures at The New York Times (40), Daily News (45), the Village Voice (18), and DNAinfo (27). Smaller outlets have also been affected. After the sale of amNewYork to Schneps Media, 9 of 16 newsroom employees were laid off, and the Brooklyn Eagle laid off 4 of its reporters in early 2020, including its editor and managing editor. The Daily News no longer employs a single beat reporter covering boroughs outside Manhattan and The Wall Street Journal cancelled its standalone Greater New York section in 2016.

The primary cause of these layoffs is that the advertising revenue that supported local news platforms is now being captured by search and social media. “While Google and Facebook have siphoned ad dollars away from all publishers, local news publishers have been the hardest hit,” The Wall Street Journal recently reported. “The tech giants suck up 77% of the digital advertising revenue in local markets, compared to 58% on a national level, according to estimates from Borrell Associates and eMarketer.” Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that fewer than 15% of respondents to their poll had paid or given money to any local news source in 2018. In part, this is because of a major gap in public understanding — about 7 in 10 Americans think their local news media are doing well financially.

The coronavirus crisis has only added to the challenges facing New York’s local news organizations as it has decimated any remaining advertising revenue. In April, Tribune Publishing, which publishes the Daily News, announced that many employees would be required to take three weeks of furloughs over the next three months. The same month, the New York Post announced furloughs, layoffs and a hiring freeze.

The diminished local news ecosystem has coincided with the emergence of local news aggregators — such as Empire Report — that have no reporters or original reporting. These local news aggregators are often mischaracterized as evidence of the health of the local news ecosystem while they are actually obscuring the precipitous decline in original local news reporting and dedicated local reporters.

Finally, the major New York City-based news platforms have turned their attention to national and global news, reflecting their strategic focus on growth of national and global advertising and subscription revenue.

A survey of The New York Times’ Metro Section (once its own standalone section but later folded into the main paper) documented a reduction in local stories per week from 153 in 2001 to 48 in 2017. The Times’ Executive Editor Dean Baquet explicitly stated that the paper will run less “incremental New York news coverage,” and that it needs to find out what “makes sense given that fewer than half of our readers live in New York.” In March 2020, as the coronavirus ravaged New York, The Times completely cut the New York heading from the paper, moving local coverage into a larger section about the virus outbreak.

On a May 2020 NY1 program about journalism during the coronavirus pandemic, anchor Pat Kiernan spoke with Clifford Levy, associate managing editor and Metro editor at The New York Times, about the challenges facing local news organizations like the Daily News and the New York Post, which have been less successful than The Times in moving readers to a subscription model.

Levy called local journalism a “pillar of our democracy.” He noted that he’s a donor to THE CITY — and even showed off his CITY coffee mug. “The Times, broadly speaking, is encouraging people to subscribe to their local newspaper,” he said. “It’s incredibly important for the future of our democracy.”