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Local news reborn at the humble library?

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Grim. Grim. Grim. That pretty much sums up the newspaper industry in the US, especially amongst the major chains that serve many markets. But the job losses – some 3,160 across all media in the US in 2019 alone – and the loss of coverage hasn’t been limited to chain newspapers. 

Is it the apocalypse, or just an unreasonable facsimile?” media analyst Ken Doctor asked, and he predicted that by June of 2020, that the consolidation of the US newspaper industry could reach its end game

As the big beasts of the US newspaper industry are humbled, more and more communities are finding themselves without a local news source. It has simply become uneconomic to provide news to them based on the business model of the past, but that doesn’t mean that the people who live there still don’t want the bonds of shared experience that local news and information can provide. 

What the market can’t deliver, communities are deciding to do on their own. And one local institution has been proving to be a centre of experimentation for re-greening these news deserts: The humble local library. 

Libraries Become Local Information Centres

As this crisis has developed, we have started to see more experiments bloom.

Some of this experimentation started years ago as journalists tried to reconnect with their communities by either working in libraries or holding public meetings there. 

But about a decade ago, some libraries started to take on a more active role in providing information in their communities. Libraries benefited from the trust that they still have in communities, sadly more trust than journalists have, and they are still valued as important public spaces in their communities. 

Dave Beard, formerly of the Washington Post and Public Radio International, has been following this trend for years. And he has highlighted a number of these projects from the Black Hills of South Dakota to New Hampshire to San Antonio, Texas, 

In South Dakota, 13 libraries came together to support a news site for communities that had lost several weekly newspapers. It’s not a daily news service, but they cover the same issues that many rural weekly newspapers do. 

In New Hampshire, Dave covered the story of Mike Sullivan, a librarian in the town of Weare who stepped up to write a four-page weekly newspaper. It’s filled with reports about local club meetings, the town’s Christmas party, graduations, new businesses and other run-of-the-mill community events. Whilst it’s not hard-hitting accountability journalism, it is the glue that holds communities together. 

In San Antonio, Dave looked at a local project at the library, NowCastSA. College interns film meetings and other local events. Contributors map local resources, and they publish stories written locally and also from the Texas Tribune, the major non-profit news organisation in the state. 

For both the library and NowCastSA, “it’s about empowering the community with information, enlightening the community with knowledge, so that members of our community can make their decisions, smart decisions, for themselves,” library director Ramiro Salazar said.

NowCastSA just celebrated its tenth anniversary, which shows that these library-based initiatives have staying power. 

A Public Radio Station, a Library and a Wikipedian

The deepening crisis in local news is giving rise to even more innovative experiments. In Charlotte, North Caroline, public radio station WFAE, the local library and the Digital Public Library of America have partnered on a project with support from Report for America. 

Described as a ““unique partnership using both radio and Wikipedia to fill news deserts”, Report for America will pay for two positions, a traditional local government reporter based at WFAE and a “community Wikipedia editor” who will work with the reporter but also create Wikipedia articles from the library’s archives. This is just one of the 164 newsrooms where Report for America will place journalists.

But as Christine Schmidt wrote at Nieman Lab, these library collaborations have the opportunity to not just provide journalism in places where it doesn’t exist anymore, but also report what is being missed by outlets in communities that still have local news organisations. 

A Taxpayer-funded Information District?

Simon Galperin wants to take these concepts a step further with his Community Information Districts project. He sees news deserts as a market failure. As the traditional ad supported model for news has crumbled, more and more communities find themselves without a source of local news and information. Galperin wants communities to create special tax districts that would fund local news coverage

As Galperin points out, special service districts are hardly a novel idea here. There are some 30,000 in the US already, funding everything from fire fighting services to hospitals to mosquito abatement. Why not fund a local news service, which could be an extension of a library? 

Journalists might be uncomfortable with taxpayer-funded news, but Galperin is finding that taxpayers are more open to the idea. 

With some back of the envelope math, he estimates that in his community of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a $40 annual fee would create an operating budget of half a million dollars for a local news service. That’s not too shabby in a community of 32,000. 

More than that, he outlined the structure of a community information district. A board of trustees could provide governance, and like other tax districts or levies in the US, it could come up for renewal from time to time to make sure that it was responsive to the community’s needs. 

His Community Info Coop has produced a guide on establishing community information districts,  and recently launched the Bloomfield Community Information Project in New Jersey to develop and test the concept. 

Inspired by the idea, the community of Longmont, Colorado, has been debating whether to launch a community information district tied to its local library. The community recognises that its library has been underfunded as the city has grown to 100,000 residents, and now it has launched a feasibility study about adding a community information district. 

Questions might remain about whether voters will support the idea, but in 2020, as more communities lose their local news outlets, we’ll see more of these experiments. And these questions will begin to be answered.