Demise of local journalism contributes to demise of democracy

Local media remains a widely trusted news source.
Published: Jun. 5, 2023 at 10:54 AM MDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - For decades journalists have been known as the “watchdogs” of government. Following political prospects along the campaign trail and alongside their supporters on election night, journalists show the public the real politicians. However, local journalism is under its own deadline to stay afloat and remain the watchdogs as newsroom staff is cut.

As Deb Holland sits back in a wooden chair, she reminisces on her journalism career that began in 1982 with a former newspaper— the Meade County Times. “I can remember several times when people had the newspaper tucked under their arm when they went to vote. They had already circled who they were going to vote for or how they were going to vote on an issue,” recalled the longtime Black Hills journalist.

However, newsrooms have changed. Staffing has been cut in half and the reporters left behind are taking on more; like taking pictures and filming videos, in addition to writing the copy. Then there are added social media needs.

A study published in the Urban Review states that staffing cuts contribute to less competitive political races that are “less likely to be challenged and held accountable,” and uninformed citizens.

Another question waves in the air, what about a community without a local newspaper? The study previously referenced mentions that without a local newspaper, voter turnout declines, and the competition disappears.

The Meade County Times based out of Sturgis closed in 2017. Now, just six years later, the Meade School District had no one step forward to run for an open school board seat. Instead, the district asked for applications to appoint a person.

Holland also worked at the Rapid City Journal and Black Hills Pioneer. While covering local elections, she says the media shares everything about a candidate, not just what the candidate can control. “They can say anything in an ad, either in a video, or in a newspaper or in a flyer they give to you. When they’re put up against the other candidates, in what we call the battle pages, before the election you’re going to see everything, all of the blemishes,” says Holland.

Former Rapid City Councilwoman Darla Drew-Lerdal agrees. “Even an ad on television, you can say whatever you want to on television you can do whatever you want to. You’re paying for that, but as media, your responsibility is to tell me what they are, without them paying you to say what they are,” Drew-Lerdal explained.

In the “battle pages” pressing candidates’ opinions right next to each other, Drew-Lerdal took time to craft the best answer. “People that vote read that, so, of course, I am going to give that my time, give that my thought, and put my best point’s forward,” she said.

The issue as Drew-Lerdal points out-- “people that vote read that,”-- informed voters headed to the ballot box. However, without coverage of candidates, constituents are not fully informed, and the Urban Review study suggests voter turnout reflects that.

The Kadoka Press published its last edition in April 2022. Voter turnout in Jackson County during the 2022 general election was 50.89%, compared to 55.54% in 2018. The study says active voter participation is the result of informed citizens, which for local polls, generally comes from local media.

This link shares data showing local news remains a trusted source for communities.