This is an opinion piece written by the Tompkins County Public Information Advisory Board (members listed below). It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit opinion pieces for consideration, please send them to Matt Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When was the last time you read, heard or watched a local news report on one of these issues in the community?
- What’s the status of the 20+ years of repeated efforts to clean up the lead and arsenic contamination at the popular hiking and pet walking trail at Ithaca Falls? How does that contamination impact visitors?
- Why does Tompkins County’s polio vaccination rate lag the state’s vaccination rate and several other counties in the region?
- Who are your school district, municipal, county, state or federal representatives? Do you know what actions they took on a public issue in the last 6 months?
If you’re uncertain of any answer, you’re not alone. News coverage on significant local issues has been shrinking, making it more difficult for Tompkins County residents to be well-informed about their communities while eroding community cohesion and deepening polarization. The local pattern is the same in both New York and the nation.
The rapid growth in free or inexpensive digital advertising made available by tech giants eroded the ability of local news providers to generate revenue to pay their journalists, ad salespersons, marketing staff and administrative employees. In 2004 New York had 62 daily papers and 439 weekly papers. By 2019, these numbers declined to 54 dailies and 249 weeklies. With those closings, newspaper newsroom employment shrunk 25 percent. The loss was not offset by more jobs appearing in local and regional TV, radio and digital news operations.
Locally, The Ithaca Journal’s newsroom staff reductions illustrate the sobering metrics. Twenty years ago, the Journal had two dozen full-time reporters, sports writers, editors, photographers and clerks. Another six freelance writers produced weekly “town talk” columns on every town in Tompkins County. The Journal’s last full-time staff reporter resigned in the spring and was replaced in August when the Journal contracted with a freelance reporter to handle the news coverage that nearly 30 full-time staffers and freelancers once produced.
Meanwhile, The Ithaca Times and The Ithaca Voice face a daunting task of covering local news with their small and dedicated staffs of young journalists. The Voice launched in 2014 as a web-based nonprofit, local news provider. Its website lists one editor and three full-time reporters on its staff, while a handful of freelance contributors supplement its coverage. The Ithaca Times weekly newspaper, its website ithaca.com, and its Finger Lakes Community Newspapers of nine small weeklies lists two managing editors and a sports reporter. Tompkins Weekly, WHCU, WRFI and a few other news outlets have small local operations and some regional media like WSKG cover news across many counties. All face challenges in providing community news.
The impact of fewer journalists working in Ithaca has been a sharp decrease in the regular coverage of local government, school boards and issues as important as health, economic development and public safety. There’s less access to information that brings communities together, like sports coverage, highlighting student achievements, and recognizing when someone passes away. Getting key public information to residents has become more difficult for local governments as leaner local media budgets reduce their supply of community news. In the absence of media coverage, newsmakers such as politicians and local governments try to fill in the information gap, often with limited resources.
The Tompkins County Public Information Advisory Board (PIAB) has been discussing this trend, and we are increasingly alarmed to see important stories not being told. Less access to local news leaves community members lacking the information they need to participate in the political process, hold government and powerful private actors accountable and engage in civic activities from voting to volunteering.
Legislation in both Albany and Washington has proposed ways to improve community news coverage. Among those:
- A tax deduction for personal subscriptions to eligible local news organizations might incentivize more individuals to pay for local journalism and boost the revenues of local outlets.
- Tax offsets for eligible production expenditures incurred by newsrooms could help defray the costs associated with original reporting.
Elected leaders should consider resolutions supporting such legislation, as well as ways to bolster resources available to support local news coverage — but governments aren’t the only ones with skin in the game.
Local businesses and organizations should also consider increasing advertising efforts in local publications, and residents who have the means can consider donating to local nonprofit news outlets such as The Ithaca Voice, WSKG, or WRFI. Local philanthropies should consider inviting news providers to apply for funds to increase and sustain their coverage. Also, our community’s media should explore collaborations to improve local news coverage.
In the coming months, PIAB will examine ways our community can foster better coverage of major public issues and their impact on residents as well as improve basic news about public safety, governmental actions and local events. We’re inviting community ideas to increase and improve public information efforts. If you have ideas, please share them with us at tcgov.co/piabideas or email email@example.com.
The Tompkins County Public Information Advisory Board includes Chair Larry Roberts, Secretary Patty Poist, Bruce Estes, Elizabeth Graeper-Thomas, and Kate Supron. Legislature Liaison Amanda Champion and Tompkins County Communications Director Dominick Recckio assist the board. If you are interested in serving on the board or attending a meeting, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.