One of the best antidotes to distrust of “the media” and apathy about the journalism crisis is delivered to around 6,000 inboxes a week.
The Local Matters newsletter is inspiring for anyone who appreciates the importance of a robust local press system, and loves to see journalists holding the powerful to account, exposing corruption and righting wrongs.
A no-frills newsletter, it lists a dozen or so of the week’s best local news stories, with links. It’s produced by a handful of volunteers who spend hours scanning front pages of newspapers in every state and tracking investigative work by broadcasters and nonprofits.
Reading the newsletter helps explain why Americans’ trust in local news remains consistently higher than trust in national news: Local newsrooms continue doing great work on behalf of their communities.
Seeing this every week, as newspapers struggle and their newsrooms shrank by two-thirds over the last 15 years, is uplifting.
Among stories in last Sunday’s edition: The Arizona Republic exposing golf courses bragging about conservation while using more water than they’re supposed to; a Chicago Tribune report about government agencies encouraging farmers to use fertilizer containing a toxic chemical; and The Montgomery Advertiser reporting that a 53-year-old Alabama prisoner died after officials took the oxygen tank keeping him alive.
Anyone can read or just skim the free newsletter, which is available at linktr.ee/lmattersnews. It would be especially valuable for state and federal policymakers considering whether to help save local news outlets.
Joseph Cranney, an investigative reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, started Local Matters in 2016.
“There was a ton of anti-media sentiment around that time, which always pissed me off because if people judge the media based on CNN and Fox News it’s a really unfair way to look at it,” he said. “The majority of journalists and the most important journalism happens at the local level. But there really wasn’t a way to spotlight that.”
Initially they tried reading front pages every day, using a Newseum app. Now they generally scan Sunday papers and draw on tips and lists of reporters on social media.
Still, it takes hours a week for producers on what’s now a four-person team.
Diana Fuentes, executive director of the Investigative Reporters & Editors association, said Local Matters “provides a vital service to journalists across the nation.”
“There is excellent investigative work done in local markets, large and small, exposing corruption, pointing out inadequacies and unfairness and, yes, giving voice to the voiceless,” she said via email. “But we don’t all have time — or the access — to search for those great stories in all the publications in the United States and its territories, so the time and care the Local Matters team spends on producing a roundup of that work for us is much appreciated.”
IRE sponsors the newsletter with in-kind support. Local Matters also received a $10,000 Knight Foundation grant to help cover subscriptions and labor. It’s advertising-free but recently added a digital tip jar, bringing in about $100 per month.
Paywalls are a challenge. Local Matters pays for some subscriptions and some papers provide free access.
While the newsletter is positive, highlighting good work, its producers also see troubling changes and states with fewer papers.
Gannett acquiring many of the country’s local papers is especially obvious. Cranney sees it producing “cookie cutter” front pages in papers across states, all running the same stories.
“That’s kind of at odds with the mission of what that local paper ought to be, which is specifically designed for the community where it’s based,” he said.
Local Matters and its online story repository are helping educate future journalists, with educators sometimes asking which stories to use for classes.
So far, Local Matters is mostly a priceless tool for journalists who use it for reporting ideas, career advancement and recruiting.
Lulu Ramadan, one of the producers, said Local Matters can influence decisions about where to work, by surfacing papers producing strong investigative work.
Ramadan was part of a Palm Beach Post and ProPublica team whose investigation of air pollution from sugar companies was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting.
One state she monitors for Local Matters is Washington, which factored into her move across the country last year to work for The Seattle Times. She is one of the reporters hired with community support for the Investigative Journalism Fund, which is coordinated by a nonprofit that makes grants to support the paper’s investigations team.
Every Sunday, Ramadan gets up early and spends four or five hours searching for newsletter selections.
“I tell myself I should be doing it anyway,” she said. “Part of our job is reading as much as we write. This is like accountability: Now I’m actually forced to read all of these excellent stories.”
Appearing in Local Matters has become a matter of pride for reporters following it, as well as a potential career boost. Ramadan said they tell people not to be discouraged if they aren’t included, since it’s not an exhaustive list and “there are just things we’re going to miss.”
Even so, it’s a tremendous effort and invaluable service, especially as the industry’s crisis worsens and Americans lose sight of what local journalism provides.
If you see local outlets’ finest work, week in and week out, you appreciate even more why they must be saved.