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[Robert J. Fouser] The importance of local news

Below the Washington Post’s masthead sits the phrase “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The phrase appeared shortly after Donald Trump became president in 2017 in response to his attacks on the press. Critical media coverage causes Trump to lash out at the media by accusing it of spreading “fake news.”

The phrase is aimed at upholding freedom of the press amid unprecedented attempts by a president to influence media coverage. It also touches on another side to the news and democracy in America and elsewhere that often goes overlooked: local news.

In the 19th century in the US, most news was local news because limitations in communication made it difficult to get national, let alone international, news. Things began to change in the 20th century with improved communication and US involvement in two world wars. The spread of the radio in the 1920s and 1930s brought live news into homes in a way unimaginable to previous generations. Beginning in the 1950s, television brought images from around the nation and the world into millions of homes.

The collapse of local news coincided with the rise of the internet. Newspapers that had relied on paid subscriptions and advertising found themselves losing both. Subscriptions declined rapidly with the explosion in news sources online, and declining subscriptions caused a decline in advertising. To survive, local newspapers had to cut their staff, which hurt their ability to gather local news. 

As the situation worsened in the 2010s, many local newspapers went out of business or were reborn as small web-based operations, often as part of a larger news group that was no longer local.

Amid this turmoil, local investigative reporting suffered the most. Investigative reporting is time consuming because reporters need to spend time following leads, many of which lead nowhere. They need to talk to people and do research. They need courage because people who abuse power are bullies.

The decline of local investigative reporting is particularly troublesome because that type of reporting is critical to exposing abuses of power at the local level. Citizens need to hold their elected officials accountable, but they can only do so if they have enough information to do so.

Without much information on candidates, voters choose candidates primarily based on party affiliation. Presidential elections in the US have become highly polarized, which has energized the most partisan supporters of the two major political parties. Because of party loyalty -- and dislike of the other party -- these voters often blindly vote for candidates from their party.

Citizens who are less politically engaged, meanwhile, turn out more for major elections, such as a presidential or a midterm election. In the 2016 presidential election, voter turnout was 61 percent, which is similar to recent elections. In the 2018 midterm election, turnout was 49 percent, which marked a big jump from the 37 percent that voted in the 2014 midterm election.

Compared with other advanced democratic nations, these figures are low. In local elections, however, turnout is even lower, particularly when they are not scheduled with major elections. Low turnout and high partisan engagement mean that party loyalists decide most elections. This would be less of a problem if they were well informed, but the dearth of local news and nearly exclusive focus on national politics means that they are usually not well informed. In the end, politicians get a free pass.

Many localities with lopsided partisan majorities are poorly governed because citizens do not hold politicians accountable. They keep voting the party line in a vacuum of information. Aggressive media in large metropolitan areas help bring abuses of power to light, but this is more difficult in localities with little or no local news.

2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of local autonomy in South Korea. Local government in Korea provides important services and makes decisions about education, transportation, land use and social welfare that have a direct effect on the lives of citizens. It also implements many national policies on the local level.

National newspapers based in Seoul dominate the media, but regions and cities have a range of media outlets that cover local news. Because of their smaller size and, in some cases, close connections to local elites, investigative reporting on local issues is rare. Some media outlets base their articles on press releases from the local government.

Like their counterparts in the US, Korean citizens need aggressive local reporting to hold politicians accountable. Finding ways to invigorate local news is critical to maintaining the health of democracy in these troubled times.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.