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League of Women Voters looks at local news landscape in Washington, possible impact on democracy

A headline in the last print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reads "P-I PRESSES FALL SILENT" as the newspaper put out its last edition, March 17, 2009.
Ed Ronco
This headline on March 17, 2009, marked what is maybe the biggest example of a changing local news landscape in Washington state. There would be more, if smaller, examples in the years to come, including layoffs and shrinking newsrooms, not just in Seattle, but in local newsrooms across the country.

We know local news outlets nationwide are less robust than they once were. And we know that has far-reaching effects in communities. What does it mean for Washington state?

A two-year study by the Washington chapter of the League of Women Voters is hoping to find out.

Joanne Lisosky, a retired professor of media studies at Pacific Lutheran University, says fewer local news outlets imperils democracy itself. And while the study is still underway, already researchers have found some interesting — and perhaps unexpected — impacts.

"We have found research that was published at the Columbia Journalism Review that noted that the decline in local newsrooms could hinder the detection of the next disease outbreak," Lisosky told KNKX. "Health officials rely on information collected by local news organizations."

That's not the focus of the study, but it's one of the signs that the health of local news in any given community has implications beyond what you'd expect, like keeping an eye on city hall or making sure powerful people are held accountable.

So while there are widespread efforts to promote global media literacy and drive home the importance of quality, factual mass communication, this study will look at the local news landscape in Washington state, how it's doing and what that might mean for democracy.

Lisosky spoke to KNKX’s Ed Ronco about what they know so far, and what they’re hoping to learn. Listen to the conversation above, or click below for an interview transcript.

Ed Ronco, KNKX: What do we know about the ability to gather and distribute local news here in Washington state?

Joanne Lisosky: Well, we're learning so much more. The League of Women Voters is concerned about this situation on how the decline in local news may have a negative effect on our democracy because the league really cares about democracy more than anything else. It's a nonpartisan group, but it's sincerely concerned about democracy in this country.

KNKX: Obviously, local journalism has a watchdog function. Wherever I live, I want to know what my mayor is doing and want to know what my elected officials are doing or my school board. I want to know that my tax dollars are being well spent or not so that I can make a change when I'm looking at my ballot. But let's go beyond that obvious function and talk about some of the things you've discovered. One of them is local journalism's impact on public health. That feels like an especially timely thing to highlight. What did you find?

Lisosky: We have found research that was published at the Columbia Journalism Review that noted that the decline in local newsrooms could hinder the detection of the next disease outbreak. Health officials rely on information collected by local news organizations. At the same time, they rely on those local news operations to disseminate truth to the citizens about the diseases that are being impacted.

KNKX: Another thing that was interesting that I know you found is the lack of a local news outlet in a community can affect municipal government's ability to get a loan. That surprised me.

Lisosky: Well, it means that people aren't paying enough attention, and those loan operations recognize that those public officials who are getting this money may not be as diligent as they would have been if there was somebody looking over their shoulder all the time. So they recognize that if there's not a watchdog watching these public officials who are getting this money, then it's going to be more difficult for them to actually give money to these municipalities.

KNKX: I think there's good reason to be concerned about the decline of local news. But is there also opportunity here for other places, other people to fill the vacuum, especially voices that haven't been represented in the past?

Lisosky: Well, part of the study, we are absolutely looking at possible solutions to this problem. Part of some of what we've uncovered is the whole idea of the nonprofit news organization. There's a national organization that supports people who are trying to start nonprofit news in their community, and it's really it's branching out. And in fact, there's a brand new nonprofit news organization in Gig Harbor (called) Gig Harbor Now. They have got the support of this nonprofit news organization nationally, and they are now publishing.

KNKX: And I know in Bellingham there's another one getting started — The Cascadia Daily (News), with a former Seattle Times writer as the lead editor on that. That's not a nonprofit, but it's an example of one of things kind of coming into the picture, just as things are leaving the picture.

Aside from noticing that my local newspaper might be smaller or thinner, that I'm not seeing as much local news on TV, what can I do if I'm if I'm worried about this issue?

Lisosky: Well, right now in Congress is a bill called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act would allow individuals and businesses tax credits to support local journalism.

KNKX: And Joanne, this measure in Congress is bipartisan, including here in Washington state's delegation.

Lisosky: And in fact, one of the co-sponsors of this local journalism sustainability act is our own Dan Newhouse from Eastern Washington, Republican. He lives in a rural area. Those are the parts of this country that are most affected by the lack of local news.

Joanne Lisosky taught media studies at Pacific Lutheran University for 23 years. You can reach her at

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.