Heather Chaplin on the free press
Heather Chaplin is the founding director of Journalism and Design at the New School.
The U.S. local newspaper industry is collapsing. While this is terrible for many reasons, it also means we have an opportunity: to pull the ideals of the free press from the wreckage and build new infrastructures and practices that empower people equally—something 20th century newspapers never did.
Before doing this, we need to understand the intended function of the free press. Newspapers, TV shows, radio programs, web sites—those are just forms it’s taken in the past. But the function of the free press—its first-order function—is to help people protect themselves from exploitation. For political systems to be democratic, they need mechanisms that even the playing field between the powerful and the less powerful—voting rights, public education, progressive taxation, affordable housing, and so on. The free press should be understood as one of these mechanisms.
Obviously, there is no single solution to the crisis of the free press. But I want to argue for the critical importance of informal news networks.
In communities that have never been served by mainstream local newspapers—in predominantly Black neighborhoods, for example—you’ll often find people who have taken on the role of news gatherers and disseminators themselves. The woman who collects local eviction notices and slides a homemade newsletter on the topic under her neighbors’ doors. The barber who discusses local news in his barber shop. The UPS driver—or in earlier days, the insurance salesman—who passes on local news and who is trusted by everyone.
Likewise, in authoritarian regimes, people often find ways to report on, disseminate, and discuss important information beneath the radar. I have always been inspired by Congo Square in New Orleans, the one spot where enslaved people were allowed to congregate, and where they gathered on Sundays to dance, sing, and talk.
As director of Journalism and Design at The New School, I’ve taken these inspirations and begun the work using community colleges as hubs.
The idea to use community colleges came from witnessing professors at Shasta College in Redding, California, spring into action when the Carr Wildfires happened. Redding has only one newspaper with a handful of reporters and a Sinclair Media-owned radio station. (Sinclair made headlines in 2019 for insisting anchors read far-right editorials written by its owners.) Professors and students at Shasta College stepped in with literally life-and-death news that local residents weren’t getting anywhere else. My team and I felt we were witnessing not just a great student journalism moment, but the birth of a community news network.
There is much work to be done bringing together local leaders from libraries, faith-based organizations, urban leagues, arts organizations, parent-teacher associations, and the like—as well as local members of the media—to surface community news needs and develop solutions. News “products” don’t have to be 1,000-word articles that The New York Times would print. They can be pamphlets under people’s doors, dinners with topical discussions, art shows, wheat-pasted flyers, speaker series, podcasts, text-threads, zines, and on and on.
This more casual, social approach to the news is actually in keeping with earlier manifestations of the free press from the earliest days of the United States, when people would gather at the local post office (often the general store) to get their newspapers and mail, shop, and talk with neighbors.
There are about 1,050 public community colleges around the country, serving roughly 10 million people, many of whom are recent immigrants, low-income, and of color. In other words, it’s an already existing infrastructure serving the people most likely to lose out as local newspapers collapse and information voids spread.
To those who will say community news networks can’t replace local newspapers, I say this: if local newspapers had truly been allied to the people in their communities, if owners had been less concerned with double-digit profits and dedicated instead to having reporters on the ground, they would have showed more resilience in the face of disappearing print ads. Are there issues to be worked out around the skills and money needed to do investigative work? Yes. But there are also opportunities in partnership with organizations like ProPublica, Report for America, The New York Times, and surviving local outlets—as well as tools like those provided by Muckrock, which help people file and make sense of Freedom of Information requests.
It is reality that our local news ecosystem will soon be so anemic, and our institutional news organizations so few, that we need to be building last lines of defense. We should be working as quickly and as hard as we can at the local level to identify, build, and nurture community news networks before it’s too late.
This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.