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What makes local journalism local?

Lawmakers’ well-meaning attempts to support journalism can stumble when definitions limit the help to legacy newspapers

When I began my journalism career, local news seemed to be thriving. I received my first paid journalism position in 2004: copy editor at the Oklahoma Gazette, Oklahoma City’s alternative newsweekly. In 2005, I began an eight-year stint at TulsaPeople Magazine, Tulsa’s city magazine, where I served in various editorial roles.

Today, Oklahoma’s local-news landscape has changed considerably. The state’s two largest newspapers, The Oklahoman (where I was a features intern in 2003) and the Tulsa World, which were family owned for decades, have sold to GateHouse and Lee Enterprises, respectively.

Why this matters

Lawmakers have begun introducing bills designed to support local news organizations, but they use inconsistent definitions of key terms tied to these media.

This project analyzes the language in these bills and suggests considerations for ensuring they reflect a wide range of community-serving outlets.

In 2018, founder and publisher Bill Bleakley sold the Oklahoma Gazette to In June 2023, leaders announced the Gazette would cease its print operations. Meanwhile, TulsaPeople celebrated its 38th anniversary in November 2024, and it remains family owned, with a healthy print and online readership and a spinoff home magazine, among other publications.

These news organizations are home to talented editors and writers, and they produce important reporting on politics, education, transportation, health and other critical information needs. However, as an alternative newsweekly and a city magazine, they do not fit some definitions of “local news outlet.”

Defining “local” has been a notoriously challenging task for journalism scholars, with the rise of research on “news deserts” adding important layers to the conversation. Although academic researchers, industry experts, and journalists have recognized the perils of the decline of local news for decades, the problem has only recently caught lawmakers’ attention.

Jared Schroeder, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, and I recently analyzed laws, proposed and enacted, in each state that included the terms “journalism” or “news” (read more about this research here). We found that between 2018 and 2023, lawmakers filed 29 bills in 12 states to support local journalism. Only three of those bills became laws. The bills proposed various kinds of support, but most presented tax exemptions or tax credits for news organizations. Three bills designated funds to state institutions to hire more journalists. A California bill aimed to establish bargaining expectations and revenue sharing between news organizations and social media companies.

These bills identify local news organizations as important components of the local news landscape. They highlight their roles in providing information of consequence for citizens, in offering original local reporting about their communities and for creating a sense of cohesion, and they recognize that news deserts will continue to emerge around the country without legislative intervention. However, without clear and consistent descriptions of what constitutes “local news,” “local news organizations” and “local news journalists,” these bills will be difficult and possibly impossible to implement.

In analyzing the language in the bills, we recognized that lawmakers acknowledged and reinforced the importance of local news organizations for informing communities, and they highlighted the critical information needs on which these outlets report. They also referenced local journalism as a public good. However, in seeking to support them financially and in other ways, they relied on inconsistent definitions derived from their own or their legislative peers’ experiences, rather than from scholars or experts.

They also presented “community” in a geographic or physical context, which is not surprising for state-based legislation, but this approach limited support for outlets focused on other types of communities.

Defining “local” has been a notoriously challenging task for journalism scholars, with the rise of research on “news deserts” adding important layers to the conversation.

A 2023 tax-credit bill in Virginia, for example, defined a “local news journalist” as anyone who “regularly gathers, collects, photographs, records, writes, or reports news or information that concerns local events or other matters of public interest, who provides at least 100 hours of service during the taxable year to an eligible local newspaper publisher, and who earns no more than $50,000 during the taxable year for such service.”

California’s Journalism Preservation Act defined a journalist as working at least 30 hours a week and engaging in activities such as “gathering, developing, preparing, the recording of, producing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, designing, presenting, distributing, or publishing original news or information that concerns local, regional, national, or international matters of public interest.” New York’s four tax-credit bills used the same 30-hours-a-week standard but required that a journalist live within 50 miles of the community the news organization covers and produce “original local community news for dissemination to the local community.”

These definitions acknowledge core practices of news gathering — collecting information, writing, editing, photographing, designing — and some include journalists working outside of traditional news organizations, but they also create limitations based on hours, income and proximity, which could exclude outlets covering broader geographic areas or non-geographic-based communities.

Lawmakers’ definitions of a news organization featured varying characteristics as well. A 2022 tax-credit bill in New York included “any print or digital publication,” but that publication must primarily serve “a local community.” A 2023 tax-credit bill in Massachusetts, which featured wording nearly identical to a bill in New York, also included print and digital platforms, but they should publish “original content derived from primary sources and relating to news and current events.” The New York and Massachusetts bills, as well as a Virginia bill, all said that a qualifying news organization should include “at least one local news journalist.” These definitions, again, lack clarity, particularly in defining “local.” Is proximity purely geographic? What about emotional proximity? Further, a focus on “news and current events” disregards outlets covering lifestyle news, such as local magazines, blogs, social media pages, and others.

We found that between 2018 and 2023, lawmakers filed 29 bills in 12 states to support local journalism. Only three of those bills became laws.

On a broader scale, in describing “local journalism,” legislators discussed “community” as a physical or geographic location. The Virginia and Massachusetts bills described local newspapers as serving the needs “of a regional or local community,” and the Washington bill discussed local print and digital outlets that provide “journalism in their communities.” The New York Local Journalism Sustainability Act highlighted outlets that “serve a local community by providing local news,” particularly “a geographically contiguous area.” The New York bill also defined “local” in terms of readership, noting that readers of local newspapers should reside in “a single county within this state” or “a single area with a two hundred mile radius.”

The California bill reinforced that “quality local journalism” is vital for “sustaining civic society, strengthening communal ties and providing information at a deeper level that national outlets cannot match.” This clearly differentiates eligible outlets as operating at the local level.

In a notable deviation, an Oregon bill focused on supporting grants for local journalism referred more broadly to “local journalistic publications” and the value of researching “local news and information ecosystems across this state, especially those serving rural, underserved and other hard-to-reach communities, including multilingual, non-English and ethnically specific media ecosystems.” The bill also referenced “community-centered, solutions-oriented journalism,” which extends the definition of “community” to groups united by race, ethnicity, class and other factors. Both the Oregon bill and the Local Journalism Task Force Act in Illinois referenced “communities underserved by local journalism.”

These are important considerations, as “news deserts” conversations have tended to focus on legacy local newspapers and, as Nikki Usher, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego, argued, often lack exploration of the economic, social and political dimensions of communities, as well as the role of ethnic news media and the information needs of historically marginalized groups. I saw firsthand the distinctive ways alternative newsweeklies and city magazines serve a city and its surrounding areas. But these outlets’ coverage – which ranges from politics to education to business to food to arts and culture – may not be universally characterized as “news.”

In clarifying these definitions, legislators should consider not only easily recognizable examples of local news outlets — newspapers — but also other information and sources that hold value for communities, including local TV, nonprofit news outlets, collaborative journalism efforts, Spanish-language media, hyperlocals, Facebook pages, local magazines, community radio, and news outlets designed to serve underserved and marginalized communities. Some of these outlets have full newsrooms, while some have a single staff member. They might rely on audience submissions and citizen journalists.

The landscape for local news has become increasingly diverse and multifaceted, and if legislators want to help it survive and thrive, definitions encompassing anyone who follows processes and practices considered journalistic should have an opportunity to benefit.

Cite this article

Jenkins, Joy (2024, March 14). What makes local journalism local? Reynolds Journalism Institute. Retrieved from:

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