News, On Campus

Bouie Highlights the Importance of Local and Regional News in Upholding U.S. Democracy

Rebuilding democracy starts within local communities, according to New York Times columnist and former CBS political analyst Jamelle Bouie. 

“The first step, I think, is people rebuilding the institutions that help people understand themselves and understand their communities,” Bouie said. “And that means starting with journalism at the very lowest level, at the very local level.”

Bouie came to the Heights on Wednesday night as the opening keynote speaker for the Clough Center’s spring symposium on “Journalism and Democracy,” discussing how the loss of local news coverage, among other forces, has severed many Americans from democratic values.

“Put simply, [it] is two things,” Bouie said. “It’s the collapse, the almost total collapse of local and regional news, and it’s the collapse of any number of mediating institutions in American society that connect people to politics in a more concrete and tangible way.”

Bouie also spoke on the importance of free press, as well as its recent decline in many regions of the United States. According to Bouie, many towns and even midsize cities no longer have local newspapers.

“There are large parts of the country that when it comes to news relating to the community itself, they are effectively news deserts,” Bouie said. “And this isn’t just a problem of not knowing what’s happening with the local high school football team.”

Bouie attributed the decline in local and regional news to the combined effects of economic downturns and the internet rather than the news business itself. As a result of this lack of journalistic coverage, Bouie said the United States has seen a growing lack of awareness of political corruption at the local, county, and state level.

“I think that this decline has played an important and somehow still underrated role in declining faith in America’s democratic institutions,” Bouie said. 

According to Bouie, constituents are growing increasingly disconnected from issues in their communities due to this decline in local news, making it more difficult for them to hold politicians accountable. Bouie said this has resulted in a general cynicism toward government representation in the United States. 

“That kind of connection to public officials is really important because it helps build a kind of democratic advocacy,” Bouie said. “You believe that you can actually act on your community.”

Without local news sources, more Americans are turning to exclusively national news outlets to stay informed, according to Bouie. 

“Instead of paying attention to what’s happening around them, many Americans have turned to national news to close the gap,” Bouie said. “They may not have a subscription to the local paper they have, but they have a subscription to The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal.”

Bouie clarified that while national news outlets are valuable, he believes that political news has allowed people to root for their party and against their political enemies, creating an element of entertainment in politics. 

“Now, there’s always been this element in politics, which is, I think, an element of entertainment,” Bouie said. “But now we have an almost total devolution [of] entertainment into politics and in political news.”

In response to this general unawareness of local politics, Bouie encouraged others to engage with democracy on a regular basis in their communities, rather than strictly on a national scale. 

“Maybe we should turn our attention instead to the missing institutions, the missing people, the missing journalist that can help Americans better understand,” Bouie said.

March 17, 2023