How resurrecting local news could help you love your neighbor better

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How resurrecting local news could help you love your neighbor better

August 30, 2021 - Mike Orren

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A local newspaper sits on a table by a cup of coffee

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MIKE ORREN is the Chief Product Officer at The Dallas Morning News, having spent his entire career focused on local media.

Voter. Parent. Churchgoer. Arts patron. Volunteer. 

Such words may describe a majority of the readers of this website. It’s also how an oft-cited 1972 study identified local newspaper subscribers, with each factor multiplicative upon the others, a formula for citizenship. 

Flash forward and fewer than 3 percent of us still pay to subscribe to a local newspaper or digital equivalent. Theologian Karl Barth’s admonition that “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other feels quaint in an era when anyone with a social media account or a templated website can achieve a reach as great as that of the New York Times.  

If you aren’t engaged in local news, it begs the question: How can you answer the command to love your neighbors if you don’t know them—rejoicing in their successes and empathizing with their needs? 

Do you live in a “news desert”?

While I won’t pretend that local news is a panacea for the ills and divisiveness of our modern world, I do believe that a local news revival should be one tool that a faithful Christian can wield in working to bring mercy and justice to their neighbors, modeling Christ’s love for those in their community. 

We need a news revival—not just in the spiritual sense, but in the corporeal. 

While national publications like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times thrive digitally and the cable news outlets have plenty of viewers, locals face an existential crisis. If your community is fortunate enough not to be among the burgeoning news deserts in our country, the odds are that it will be soon. 

In combination, a proliferation of digital sources; the decline of print as a news medium; platforms like Facebook and Google dominating advertising; and industry consolidation reduced both the number of outlets and of journalists covering local news. Our country, with free press written into our bill of rights, has over two hundred news deserts—counties without a newspaper. Half of all counties have only a single weekly, a far cry from the days when a citizen often had multiple local newspaper brands to choose between, morning and night. There are roughly one-third as many newspaper reporters as there were at the turn of the century.

Slides: “Newspapers Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 29, 2021) https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/fact-sheet/newspapers/.

Can you be a Christian and a journalist?

Given the divisiveness in our media culture, some might ask if fewer journalists is a bad thing. 

It absolutely is. 

Studies already found that even nascent news deserts see reduced civic engagement; a decline in the understanding of local issues; and an increase in reliance on social media for (mis)information. There are real economic impacts—when newspapers close or reduce publication days, the cost of municipal bonds rises, as do government payroll and property taxes, all due to lack of oversight. 

Even worse, the demise of traditional outlets has opened the door to networks of thousands of so-called “pink slime” news sites that impersonate local papers in order to deliver partisan propaganda without any local reporting beyond press releases. 

Amid this, as a career member of the media, I’m dismayed to find how many lengthy search results there are asking “Can you be a Christian and a journalist?” Even though most find their way to the obvious “yes,” you won’t find as many contemplating law, corporate raiding, medicine, or any other number of careers serving as a needle’s eye to traverse.  

Marshall Allen, a ProPublica health reporter who moved from ministry to journalism, sees a clear cohesion between the two vocations, speaking to those who may not like what they read in the news: 

A natural progression from the ministry to muckraking, pointing out that both are valid ways of serving a higher cause. The Bible endorses telling the truth, without bias. So does journalism. The Bible commands honesty and integrity. In journalism, your reputation is your main calling card with sources and readers… 

Luke’s goal was to tell the truth about Jesus, which upset many people. Luke didn’t airbrush the early Christians. He named names. Luke told the story of Judas betraying Jesus. He exposed Peter denying Jesus three times. He verified the facts and then told the truth. If it was good enough for Luke, it’s good enough for me. 

As a member of industry organizations that sometimes struggle to execute even simple commercial alliances between news companies, I can assure you that there is no cabal of media conspiring to synchronize coverage points for a political agenda. Like in all professions, the vast majority of practitioners are sincere and trying, as flawed humans, to get as close to the truth as possible. That’s true of journalists like Lee Strobel, who used his reporting chops to deliver some of the most impactful apologetics of our age.  

It’s true of Christian journalists who live their faith through their work, people like a colleague of mine who worked for months on an investigation that involved calling hundreds of families harmed under medical plans with poor oversight. He told me he got through the arduous process by praying for each source as the phone rang. His prayers and work brought about real reform for the otherwise powerless victims. 

4 ways to better love your neighbor

If local news is important, what can you do to maintain local coverage for your neighbors? 

1. Subscribe. 

The average consumer will buy five digital subscriptions, period. That includes everything from news to Peloton, to Netflix. Make one of your subscriptions a local news outlet, either a newspaper’s digital product, or a regular donation to a local news startup or nonprofit. Give subscriptions as thoughtful gifts to friends, your children, and those who might not afford them otherwise. 

2. Be an engaged local reader. 

When you read something that stirs you, ask if it presents an opportunity to love your neighbor. That may mean seeking out and helping someone who is in a rough spot, or in amplifying an important message. Write letters to the editor. Encourage local publishers to highlight matters of faith—we listen. At The Dallas Morning News, opinion pages now contain a periodic “Living our Faith” feature which is among the more heavily read in an otherwise secular news product. 

3. Be informed on current legislation. 

Recognizing the spot that local news is in, this year both sides of the aisle joined in sponsoring two separate bills to address the public good that local news provides and the need to ensure it continues. 

The Journalism Sustainability Act provides a tax credit for citizens who subscribe, payroll tax relief on journalists and another tax credit for small businesses advertising locally. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act provides temporary relief from antitrust restrictions to allow news companies to bargain collectively with Facebook and Google for a payment model that recognizes the profits those giant platforms enjoy based on news-driven searches. 

4. Pray for your local reporters and those who support their mission. 

Barth had even more to say about those who deliver the news: “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church—in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions.” 

That is no less valid a sentiment today, but as news folk struggle to cross the business chasm to a post-print world, they are under tremendous stress—not even counting the need to turn the other cheek in the face of a culture that accuses anyone who delivers a message they don’t like of being “fake news.” Pray for those living out the Ephesians plea that we “speak the truth with [our] neighbor, for we are members one of another.” 

In a recent Daily Article, Dr. Denison said: “I am convinced that every Christian needs a personal Acts 1:8 strategy: a plan to serve those close to home (our ‘Jerusalem’, those further away (our ‘Judea and Samaria’), and those ‘to the end of the earth.’” 

Jeremiah called us to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). 

How will you prosper your city and its watchdogs? 

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer at The Dallas Morning News, having spent his entire career focused on local media. In the mid-2000’s he founded Pegasus News, the largest hyperlocal news site in the US, eventually selling it to a NASDAQ-traded broadcast company. As a consultant and executive, he has led media strategies for CBS Local, Examiner, American Lawyer Media, D Magazine, and many other local outlets. He is on the board of directors of The Local Media Consortium and The Agape Clinic. He is a member of Munger Place Church and of 28:1, a community of committed Christian brothers who seek a closer relationship with God and a continual advancement of His Kingdom.

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