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Column: Local papers form the foundation of the news pyramid
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

You probably learned about the food chain in school.

There are organisms like plants that produce their own food through photosynthesis. Then there are animals that eat the grass, like deer. Then there are consumers that eat the deer, like humans. But if you don’t have any grass, people won’t have any deer to eat.

Take enough pieces out of the food chain and it collapses.

That’s not entirely unlike the news environment. 

There are small local papers who stay on top of local news and produce stories every day. Then there are bigger papers or TV stations that watch what those local papers do and then feed on the information smaller guys provide. Beyond those big metro news outlets, you have the national outlets that swoop in for the big stories.

If you don’t have the small local papers, those up the food chain will have a much harder time.

In fact, “Losing the News,” a publication out of the Harvard Kennedy School, estimates as much as 85% of news eventually picked up by national outlets originated with local and state papers. 

Take for example the Hannah Truelove series our newsroom published this week.

I was metro editor at the time of her death and I remember how much her story affected the community. Our reporters covered the case when it happened and have covered it in years since as it remains unsolved. A few months ago, I realized it would be the 10-year anniversary of her death, and we began planning an anniversary series.

Our Gainesville newsroom has a full staff of four news reporters — we’re down one at the moment, so if you know anyone qualified, send them our way — and they’re tasked with covering all that’s going on in Hall County. The Times values investigative journalism, and our newsroom juggles daily stories with bigger projects. They published a series of stories about Truelove, including some in today’s edition.

If you watch TV news, you might have seen a story about Truelove’s case there, too. That story broadens the reach started by the local paper. With a greater reach, perhaps a tip will come in that will help investigators solve this 10-year-old cold case.

Our staff did the legwork. Many communities do not have local news outlets like The Times to do the legwork. 

You heard a little bit about news deserts earlier this month from our group editor, Nate McCullough.

There’s a 2022 State of Local News report out now from the Medill Local News Initiative, a team of experts assembled by Northwestern University that looks at the rise of news deserts. 

They found that a fifth of the United States population lives in a news desert or a community at risk of becoming one.

What happens in communities without a credible source of local news? The report’s executive summary states that “voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.” And don’t forget the rise of misinformation and disinformation.

Part of that media food chain I mentioned is those larger organizations, some of which produce the majority of investigative journalism that can prompt legislation and policies to correct problems on a bigger scale such as statewide and nationally, according to the report.

The media chain is like a pyramid built on a wide foundation of small papers, and when a local newspaper shutters its doors — which more than 360 did between the end of 2019, pre COVID-19, and May of this year — it’s not just the media food chain itself that collapses. 

I referenced our Hannah Truelove coverage as it’s taken much of our focus this week. While reporting that story, our crime reporter also was reporting about a soybean spill that killed fish in Flat Creek. Several state and even national outlets picked that one up as well. Norfolk Southern has been held responsible for cleaning up the spill, with other government and nonprofit agencies involved in the work as well.

Whether it’s increasing awareness of a cold case, an environmental issue or local school board or other government policies, local newspapers are a critical part of the ecosystem

Reliable sources of local information help consumers make informed decisions and learn about others in their communities. 

I don’t think it's a coincidence that our social fabric is fraying at the same time as local news has been in decline.

At the same time, I’m always reminded when I read studies like this one of how fortunate our community is to have a local paper invested in journalism — not serving the interests of hedge fund managers or stockholders but serving the needs of our community. Y’all make that work possible.

Shannon Casas is director of audience for Metro Market Media, parent company of The Times. She is a North Hall resident.