A local solution to a global news crisis

BOSTON — The collapse of local news is a global crisis.

And in countries around the world where trusted sources of local news are evaporating at an alarming rate, communities suffer in the news deserts that are left behind.

In the rural districts of southern India, a dramatic spike of COVID-19 cases caused by inadequate public health infrastructure is compounded by the lack of any public awareness campaign or trusted, local news outlets through which health officials can disseminate information on preventive measures. “Covid demands changing people’s attitude towards social interactions. The more people are made aware, the more our chances of defeating the disease,” said Dr. Amar Fettle of the Kerala Health Department in southern India.

In small villages in the middle of Nigeria, the dramatic erosion of trusted, local news organizations has given rise to ‘fake news’ sites that fuel extremist views which can inflame the country’s tinder box of sectarian violence. Without local news outlets to challenge misinformation and hate speech, Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the situation “threatens the peace, unity, security and corporate existence of Nigerians.”

In the news deserts that have taken shape in these countries, the health, environment and safety of local communities are all at risk. Officials are not held accountable as there is no free press to make sure that happens. As a result, polarization sets in, civic engagement unravels and truth itself is eroded. Democracy is undercut.

In an age where it feels like media is ubiquitous online, on satellite television and on social media platforms, it seems counter intuitive to think there is a crisis in the news. But trusted, local news is indeed in a stunning decline around the world, and it is happening at a time when it is desperately needed.  Like the United States, countries around the world are seeing local reporting disappearing and news deserts spreading across the land. The economic strain on the business models of traditional journalism has been taking its toll for years in the U.S. and globally, but the decline is now precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis which has effectively eliminated advertising revenue.

That is why this week we’re launching Report for the World — a scalable and sustainable way to support local reporting that serves communities around the globe.

We will begin in India and Nigeria with support for local reporting that assures our partner newsrooms complete editorial control and independence. Both countries have their own proud traditions of journalism that at their best serve as a watchdog over their respective democracies. It’s important to note that some of the national news organizations in India and Nigeria are going strong.

So how does our program work?

We are partnering with two independent, digital-first newsrooms: the Scroll.in in India and TheCable in Nigeria. Both newsrooms were selected through a competitive vetting process and chosen for their commitment to public service journalism. These organizations are planning to focus their local reporting initiatives on the environment as well as beats including health, education, labor, gender, criminal justice and fact checking.

With these first two Report for the World host newsrooms selected, we are now opening up a call for applications for six journalists to serve in these two newsrooms. The deadline for applications is open until March 8.

“Media globally are going through a challenging time, particularly in terms of revenues, yet the value of quality reporting has perhaps never been higher,” said Koreel Lahiri, Media Development Investment Fund’s program director for South Asia and Report for the World advisory board member. “Providing practical support so journalists and newsrooms can produce powerful storytelling about some of the most critical issues of our time—like the environment, human rights and health—will help media better serve their audiences, hold the powerful to account and rebuild trust in journalism.”

India and Nigeria offer two powerful illustrations of how the collapse of local news leaves populations more vulnerable to everything from COVID-19 to sectarian violence, and how it deprives audiences of critical information at a time when it is often a matter of life and death. But, sadly, there are many other examples of what happens in under-covered corners of the world when the early warning systems that local news reports provide fail to inform.

In the Horn of Africa, the collapse of local media and restrictions on a free press have meant that countries are caught unaware of food scarcity and drought conditions that can precede famine. There is no early warning system. And in these countries, a withering news ecosystem means governments are not held accountable when they fail to respond as a humanitarian crisis sets in.

In the Philippines, the collapse of local news, the crackdown on freedom of the press and the rise of fake news provides free reign for a brutal police state that carries out extra judicial killing. In Brazil, news organizations stripped of resources in the Amazon region are struggling to keep up with COVID-19 coverage in the big cities and unable to serve as a watchdog to organized crime and powerful corporations which are accelerating deforestation, destroying delicate ecosystems and contributing to global warming. And in so many of these places where the local media is struggling, authoritarian governments are on the rise. Democracy is imperiled.

As Report for the World moves to respond to the global crisis in local reporting, we are joining a network of non-profit institutions, foundations and journalism organizations that are creating a broad set of initiatives to address the problem.

A new report titled “Saving Journalism” authored by Anya Schiffrin and funded by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation, explores an array of international initiatives which fall into four broad categories: private funding, public subsidies, new business models, and support from tech platforms.

The Google News Initiative, for example, has set up emergency assistance funds during the pandemic and provides tools for data reporting on the pandemic. Another interesting initiative is in Australia where an effort is underway to shift the balance of power between media and tech giants, and get Google and Facebook to pay for  news carried on their platforms. It is a case being watched closely by journalism organizations around the world.

We’re proud that The GroundTruth Project was an early adapter in trying to find solutions through our national service program Report for America which this year will place 300 reporters in more than 200 newsrooms across the country. We recognize that this crisis in local journalism is as severe in the U.S. as it is anywhere else in the world and approach the effort to find a solution to this global challenge with great humility, seeking partners who want to work with us anywhere in the world.

A global strategy is needed. To that end, the Center for International Media Assistance, along with BBC Media Action  have been promoting the idea of a billion-dollar International Fund for Public Interest Media, which would deploy government development aid to support journalism in the Global South. We see ourselves in alignment with these efforts. The GroundTruth Project has, for the last nine years, supported journalism in under-covered corners of the world through our global reporting fellowships teaming up emerging journalists from the U.S. with their counterparts in the countries we have covered.

We are proud of that work, but Report for the World takes a different and more effective approach, drawing upon our many years of work on global issues and combining it with the lessons we have learned around scaling and sustainability through Report for America.  We encourage news organizations in any country that want to be part of a movement to address this problem to work with us toward finding solutions.

Schiffrin, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, wrote for Project Syndicate on Feb. 10, “Desperate times call for bold action, and these are undoubtedly desperate times for journalism. But the news industry has been struggling since well before the pandemic. Unless countries go beyond short-term support to build and nurture more resilient local-news ecosystems, the reliable and verifiable information our societies need will become increasingly difficult to find.”