BERKELEY – Joan Didion famously observed that, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Unfortunately, if you get your news about the United States from Facebook, Twitter, or cable TV networks, the stories you are being told might convince you that the country is hopelessly divided.
To be sure, the US is plagued by rising economic inequality, regional and rural-urban income disparities, job insecurity, decining social mobility, and political polarization. These issues understandably become the focus of the national news media. And the fact that US President Donald Trump usually starts his day with a fusillade of divisive tweets doesn’t help matters.
But the deeper problem is that, because the business model for local print media has been eviscerated by the loss of advertising revenues to digital media, stories outside the partisan national narrative have disappeared. In 1990, newspapers across the country employed nearly 458,000 people; by March 2016, that number was less than 200,000. The decline is illustrated by the fate of the San Jose Mercury News, which used to be one of the country’s largest-circulation local dailies. Although its home turf, Silicon Valley, has grown in population, income, and economic significance, the number of journalists working for the Mercury News has declined from 400 in the 1990s to around 40 today.
Local news matters because the day-to-day world that most Americans experience is nothing like what rancorous national news coverage makes it out to be. At the same time that Trump and congressional Republicans are failing to address critical issues such as economic insecurity and climate change, state and local governments are taking action. Across the country, Americans – regardless of class or party – are rolling up their sleeves and working to improve their communities. After a long decline, there are signs that social capital is being roasted.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US in the 1830s, he observed that, both in public and private, Americans are able to overcome selfish desires, thus enabling both a self-conscious and active political society and a vibrant civil society. Today is no different – at least at the state and local level. But in the absence of robust local journalism, we often don’t hear about these activities, other than from the few reporters and researchers who have been willing to traverse the country to document what is happening.
For example, after spending five years crisscrossing the US in their single-engine propeller plane, James and Deborah Fallows have published Our Towns, a deep and faithful account of local efforts to rebuild the country. The Fallowses draw compelling parallels between today and the end of the Gilded Age, when local experiments to solve community challenges began to flourish. The lesson from that earlier period is that whenever the national mood finally shifts toward economic and democratic reform, local communities around the country will already have developed a blueprint for action.
All stories of local renewal are unique, but the Fallowses show that most follow a similar pattern. A “civic story” centers on “local patriots” who have come together to create “public-private partnerships,” while “ignoring national politics.”
Moreover, local research universities, community colleges, and other educational and social institutions have been stepping up to help communities translate their visions of civic renewal into action. And in many of the communities that the Fallowses cover, there is at least one craft brewery, where community members hold lively but civil discussions. All told, the Fallowses’ travels across the country inspire optimism. “The good parts of American community-consciousness,” they write, “seem, in many places, stronger and better than we anticipated.”
Similarly, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has been researching local rejuvenation efforts for years. In his recent book, co-authored with Jeremy Nowak of Drexel University, he shows how problem solving has been shifting vertically from national to state, county, and municipal governments, as well as horizontally from the public sector to networks of public, private, and civic actors.
Katz thinks such cross-sector collaboration is contributing to a “new localism,” which has been triggered by the same economic and social/cultural forces that gave rise to Trump. In addition to fueling toxic populism, economic insecurities are also fostering more constructive responses from dissatisfied citizens. Though many people have lost faith in the federal government, they still trust local institutions.
It is still early in what Anne-Marie Slaughter calls an “American Revival” or David Brooks, who chairs a new Aspen Institute project on community, calls an “American Renaissance,” yet it is already clear that many Americans are ready for a fresh national narrative. For example, the media entrepreneur Greg Behrman has created the digital-media platform NationSwell to go “from merely telling stories about people doing good things to participating in, and adding to, those efforts.” Other similar efforts include the cross-partisan coalition Patriots and Pragmatists and the National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers, which are laying the groundwork for a bottom-up reform movement across the country.
At the same time, new media models are being developed to fill the vacuum left by the erosion of local journalism. In Texas and California, the nonprofit media outlets Texas Tribune and CalMatters have become go-to sources for state reporting.
Moreover, innovative funding methods are being developed for local media. Berkeleyside, in Berkeley, California, recently raised $1 million from its readers through a direct public offering. Down the coast, in Half Moon Bay, citizens created a public benefit corporation to save the Half Moon Bay Review (for which Lenny Mendonca serves as chairman of the board). And the national non-profit organization Report for America now trains and subsidizes young journalists working for local newspapers around the country.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, seven in ten Americans reported feeling “exhausted by the news.” This isn’t surprising, given the acrimony dominating national news coverage. As local news has declined, civic engagement and public trust have waned. It is time to reverse these trends by focusing on the inspiring stories of communities that are reinventing themselves and bringing people together for the common good.
Laura Tyson, a former chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior adviser at the Rock Creek Group. Lenny Mendonca, Chairman of New America, is Senior Partner Emeritus at McKinsey & Company.
By Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca