A make-or-break year for trust in American democracy

Lessons from the 2024 Local News Summit

By Jim Friedlich and Vivian Schiller

April 24, 2024

Guardian columnist Margaret Sullivan, the executive director for the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University, made the stakes of the 2024 election clear. 

“Democracy is on the brink,” she said, speaking at the 2024 Local News Summit hosted by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Aspen Digital.

Sullivan cautioned that news organizations and journalists need to do more because “we’re not getting through to people” when it comes to the stakes of the election. The path forward is built on strong newsroom leadership, relentless self-scrutiny, and collaborative innovation, she said.

Errin Haines, The 19th’s editor-at-large, advised journalists to stop prioritizing access-journalism and to remember that voters are human. “Elections are about choices, and we need to understand why certain people are making theirs,” she said, continuing: “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if [journalists think voters] are good or bad, it’s about how they’re going to vote.”Haines encouraged local news organizations to get closer to their communities.  

Summit participants shared examples of how local outlets are putting these ideas into action and opportunities to advance the field: 

  • Projects like Documenters, which trains and pays local residents to report on government meetings, are engaging communities from the ground-up and making government more accessible. 
  • There has been increased collaboration between local and national news organizations to cover important stories in a way that is additive and not extractive. For example, ProPublica’s local initiatives pair on-the-ground expertise of local news organizations and the investigative know-how and resources of the nationally focused nonprofit newsroom. 
  • Publications are aiming to disentangle their coverage of local events from the polarized national political framework.
  • Outlets are considering the language they use and how certain words resonate with audiences. For example, speakers shared that “democracy” tends to resonate with more liberal audiences while conservatives respond more strongly to “community.” 
  • Tools like THE CITY’s Meet Your Mayor quiz, which has been repurposed by outlets around the country, help voters focus on issues and make actionable decisions about how they plan to cast their vote. 
  • Projects like Philadelphia’s Every Voice, Every Vote have partnered with religious institutions, civic groups, and neighborhood organizations to ensure that voters have reliable information. Organizations like Scalawag are also turning to influencers and other trusted individuals who can help deliver information that resonates with audiences. 

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