Without trickle-up journalism, the national media can easily slip into an elite obliviousness—as when they seemed to largely miss what was happening “out there” in the country during the 2016 campaign. National news organizations have long relied on their local affiliates and other local news organs to surface how it’s playing in Des Moines, Iowa. Journalist Alec MacGillis observed that “the media are all in Washington, D.C., and New York now thanks to the decline of local and metro papers. And the gaps between how those cities and the rest of the country are doing have gotten so much larger in recent years.”
When a community loses a strong local news presence, it misses out on more than just information. Especially in smaller communities, the local newspaper and sometimes local radio station supported a common civic life. More than anything else, perhaps, this 2016 election was about the hopelessness of neglected small towns, the failure of mediating institutions (including political parties and unions), and stifled local voices in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. Facebook and other digital platforms are not designed to promote civic connection, but rather communities of interest often unmoored from particular geographies. Nathan Heller writes in the New Yorker that as our informational space becomes “a personal bespoke, we [have] lost touch with the common ground, and the common language, that made meaningful public work possible.”
That common ground requires investment, even subsidy. For a long time, American information regulators—principally the FCC—supported local media through a policy called localism. When they licensed broadcasting stations in the 1930s (for radio) and 1950s (TV), the most efficient approach would have been to have hugely powerful transmitters that covered wide areas. But instead, they licensed less powerful stations to every community. That’s why today we have about 1,700 local TV stations and more than 15,000 radio stations.