It was a school, too, for readers. The candidates in local elections or speakers at school board meetings dealt with matters that made a tangible and immediate difference to readers. Official corruption was not some distant problem; it was misuse of funds that should have gone to your child’s school or your library. By way of a footnote, it was satisfying to learn that the lies of Representative George Santos were revealed, before he was elected, by a small Long Island paper, The North Shore Leader. Pity the word didn’t spread then beyond its 20,000-odd readers.
And not only that. [Ellen] Clegg, a veteran reporter and retired opinion editor of The Boston Globe, laughingly recounted how she had to knock on a neighbor’s door in Brookline, Mass., to find out if he’d won in a local election. Mr. Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said the local information vacuum left people susceptible to the polarized diet of national news, so that parents showed up at school board meetings yelling about vaccinations or critical race theory but without a clue on issues like math tests and new facilities.
“Voter participation goes way down when you don’t know who’s running. There’s a lot more straight-ticket voting now,” Penelope Muse Abernathy, the author of “The State of Local News 2023” and a former colleague at The Times, told me. “Part of the beauty of having many reporters is they showed up at meetings. If there was a bond issue, they reported this is what it was going to cost. What happens is we end up paying more in taxes, there’s more corruption, and nobody’s minding the store.”