Goodbye to the Hometown Paper

The tight connection between local news and good citizenship became abundantly clear in 2018 for Nate McMurray, the Democratic candidate for Congress in a heavily Republican district in western New York. Although the supervisor of the town of Grand Island was battling a party enrollment skewed against him, he had one monumental advantage: His Republican opponent, incumbent Rep. Chris Collins, had just been indicted on insider trading charges. The Buffalo News’s Washington correspondent, Jerry Zremski, had broken the story, and the paper had followed developments diligently for months. Many who would likely have voted for the incumbent crossed the aisle to vote blue. But that wasn’t always the case in the farther-flung parts of the sprawling congressional district that were less served by strong local news.

The problem, as McMurray saw it, was that voters in those parts were shockingly uninformed. “I’d be going door-to-door, or meeting with people at a diner or a fair, for example, and in the most isolated areas, a lot of people had no idea that their own congressman had been indicted,” McMurray told me. One of the toughest places, he said, was Orleans County, which University of North Carolina journalism professor Penny Muse Abernathy identifies as a “news desert” — i.e., a place with little or no local news.

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