Journalist Margaret Sullivan: Democracy needs strong local news

By Katherine Kiessling

Nov 12, 2023


Media columnist Margaret Sullivan appears at a town hall conversation in 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Sullivan is backing state legislation to provide a tax credit to local newsrooms that would allow them to hire more journalists and expand local coverage.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im


“Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life” by Margaret Sullivan. The author and journalist will lead a panel discussion on democracy and local journalism on Wednesday at the Hearst Media Center in Colonie.

Courtesy of Margaret Sullivan

Local news is dying. Per a report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2022, one-fourth of newspapers have disappeared in the country — and by 2025, that figure is expected to hit one-third. Among these are nearly half of New York state’s weekly papers, shrinking local coverage and expanding news deserts.

A state bill, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, hopes to help close that gap. Through a proposed tax credit, local newsrooms, including newspapers, web-only publications and broadcast stations, would receive funds to hire more journalists and expand local coverage.

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A panel discussion led by Margaret Sullivan, former editor of The Buffalo News, public editor of The New York Times and media columnist for Washington Post, will kick off a campaign for the bill on Nov. 15 at the Hearst Media Center in Colonie. Judy Patrick, vice president for editorial development at the New York Press Association, will moderate.

Ahead of the talk, Sullivan, who is currently a columnist with The Guardian, sat down to discuss how local journalism and the future of democracy are intertwined.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about local journalism’s role in the larger media and democratic ecosystems and why this current landscape may or may not have you worried as far as local journalism goes?

A: In my time at The Buffalo News, I really came to recognize how much the journalism we were doing at the paper was able to give people in western New York a common basis of understanding and common basis of fact. They might not necessarily have the same opinion about what was happening, but in general, they were able to say, “Okay, we understand what’s going on with our neighbors and we are functioning from a common ground of reality.” And I think that the paper in Buffalo still serves that purpose.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that local journalism is struggling and needs all the help it can get. I say that not because of some nostalgic idea about the roar of the presses and the smell of ink or something, but because it’s really important to our democracy that people be well informed … The research at Northwestern (University) that Penny Muse Abernathy has done shows that approximately two newspapers a week are going out of business in the United States.

There are things that happen when local journalism fades that are very troubling. One of the things that happens is that civic engagement declines, and … corruption can flourish because nobody’s watching. Those are just two things that come out of this threatened atmosphere for local journalism.

Q: I’m wondering, because you touched on how local journalism helps establish this common ground of reality as you put it, and a lot of your writing has talked about how we don’t have that shared reality anymore. How do we address that? Is local journalism a part of that?

A: This is a huge problem in a democracy of people not sharing a general set of facts, like, for example, who won the 2020 election, just to pick the most obvious and one of the most troubling things. We know that the trust in the mainstream media or the press has declined very sharply over decades. But trust in local journalism tends to be higher, so we need to build on that strength. When people in a community are exposed to valid local news that they trust, or at least they trust more than national cable news, for example, that helps to create a society in which democracy can function.

So yes, I think supporting local journalism is really important. And there are other things that are important too. For example, teaching news literacy, which can be done not only in schools but also to adults, so that in this era of so much disinformation and misinformation, falsehoods and lies and deep fakes, people can understand how to separate the wheat from the chaff: What is a reliable news source. What sounds like a crazy thing that I might like to share, but I probably shouldn’t, because it’s probably false. How we could get out of our echo chambers … And it’s flourishing throughout the country. There’s an organization called the News Literacy Project. That’s just one. But there are lots of them.

I also think that news organizations can help by being more transparent about their process. How did we do the story? Why are we allowing this source to be unnamed? Things like editors’ columns or editors’ notes are ways that different news organizations can speak to the public about how they do their jobs, and help people understand. There is no one single answer to all this stuff, but I think we need to work on multiple fronts.

Part of this, too, is supporting news organizations. Local people, people in Albany, people in Buffalo, wherever it may be, need to recognize that their communities and their regions would be a worse place to live if they didn’t have some pretty good forms of local news and if their communities were to become news deserts, places where there really isn’t a regular, valid, believable form of local news … So it’s important for people to subscribe to the paper, it’s important for people to contribute to startup websites that do a good job with local news, to engage with the people at the papers, whether that’s commenting, writing a letter to the editor, talking to your neighbor about what you’ve read or heard in an informed way, and then practicing civic engagement, which can take the form of, for example, voting, working as a poll worker, leafleting, getting involved in a campaign, all of that kind of thing. I think all of this works together to keep our democracy as healthy as possible.

Q: As we approach 2024, with so many monumental events happening around the world, is there anything else that you think that journalists and media should make their resolutions going into this new year to  improve upon or to change?

A: Choose to concentrate more on substance and less on sort of political gossip, to take our roles really seriously as a foundational part of the way America is supposed to function.

And that works on the local front as well. It’s not just about national politics. It’s so important to have local reporters at city council meetings, at school board meetings, all of these things in that watchdog role. It’s not just that we want to reveal corruption, although that’s a good function, but also, on the local and the national front, it’s extremely important to give American citizens the information they need to function, to go to the voting booth, to engage in their communities. And that’s the thing that I worry so much about because I think it’s fading. I don’t know that people truly understand what’s going on with the problems in local journalism. So many news organizations, which were more robust, and this is certainly true of regional papers throughout the country, had staffs of two or three hundred people, and they’re down to staffs of 50. You just simply can’t do the same job anymore.

Q: I’m curious — towards the end of your book “Newsroom Confidential,” you talked about having some doubts about journalism’s ability to recover this loss of public trust, but you were still “moderately hopeful.” So first, are you, a year later, still moderately hopeful? And if so, why?

A: The jury is sort of out on all of a lot of stuff. I think journalism and democracy could go either way right now. There are bright spots in the way philanthropy and innovation and collaboration are buttressing local journalism and journalism in general. So I’m happy to see that and the bill that’s before the New York Legislature, which would help local news organizations fund local reporting is a positive thing. It should be taken seriously and supported.

There are many things that give me hope, and there are certainly bright spots and I also can feel down about where things are headed. Because I see how much we lack that common basis of fact and reality that is necessary for the country to really function the right way. I don’t think it’s irrevocable. I think that we may look back on this moment as a time when things were pretty dark, and we righted ourselves. And we may look back on it as a time when we should have grasped the opportunity to make it better, but we didn’t, and now we have to live with the consequences. It’s better to say that I’m cautiously hopeful rather than saying I’m optimistic. I think it can get better. It’s up to people, it’s up to American citizens, it’s up to New Yorkers what kind of society they want to live in.

Q: I have one more question for you that’s totally not related to this topic, but as a journalist who grew up obsessed with Nancy Drew and has joked about putting my amateur sleuth skills to use in this field, you had talked during your Washington Post departure about working on a fictional mystery series. I’m curious — is that still in the works?

A: I’ve written a few chapters. I really like it, and I’ve sent it around to a few writer friends who really like it. But my various journalism jobs have kept me away from it a little bit … So I haven’t set it aside permanently, I just haven’t been driving it forward in any really major way. But I really like it. The protagonist is a young journalist who gets laid off, and is sitting around feeling pretty bummed out when she encounters a murder and starts to investigate it. I love to read that kind of stuff myself.

I was a big Nancy Drew reader, too. There have been pieces done about it that so many — and I’m not calling myself this — but so many high achieving and accomplished women were Nancy Drew readers. She was just, in a very weird way, a great role model. Someone who was very capable and independent and smart. All these female Supreme Court justices say they read Nancy Drew … her kind of personal power came from her. Again, her independence and her brains and her ability to investigate and solve problems — those are pretty good things to learn.

Nov 12, 2023


By Katherine Kiessling

Katherine Kiessling covers arts and entertainment for the Times Union. The New Jersey native has written for, Central New York Magazine and Charleston City Paper. You can reach her at [email protected].