Hundreds of cities across the United States have lost their local newspapers in the past decade, cutting off readers from quality journalism focused on issues specific to their region.
The spread of so-called "news deserts" came at the same time social media became a popular way to access information and, more recently, during a rise in disinformation.
Twitter is trying to redress that balance through its #FollowLocalJournalists initiative that seeks to promote and highlight the efforts of local journalists and their impact on the community.
Launched on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, the hashtag is part of a wider project to support local media.
The social media platform seeks "to spotlight, elevate and support local journalism—which is a vital resource for communities around the world, especially now for people seeking COVID-19 information," according to a statement Twitter shared with VOA.
An advertising campaign published in 28 local newspapers last week directed readers to lists of local reporters to follow. The campaign involves papers for cities including Detroit, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, Miami, Kansas City and Cincinnati.
"Local journalists are largely people who care about their communities and care deeply about the work they do," Michael Perry, senior news director for content at The Cincinnati Enquirer — one of the papers involved — told VOA. "It's nice to see journalists treated professionally and respectfully, with an acknowledgement of the great work that is being done in communities big and small."
Report for America, a U.S.-based program that supports local media by placing journalists in newsrooms, also welcomed the initiative.
Its marketing and public relations manager Sam Kille told VOA that Report for America "love[s] the fact that Twitter is shining a light on local journalism because it's the local reporters who are going to tell you what's happening within your own community."
"Being able to go online and pull up a list of local reporters that you can follow, just makes it easier to get that information," Kille told VOA.
Threats to local journalism
Twitter's initiative comes during a decline in local media. A 2020 study by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found 2,100 newspapers have closed in the U.S. in the past 15 years, leaving 1,800 communities that had local outlets in 2004 with none at the start of 2020.
The decline, attributed in part to the changing digital landscape and financial stress of the 2008 recession, escalated during the economic pressures of the pandemic.
The lack of reporting within these communities can have a severe impact, media analysts say.
"Truth evaporates in news deserts," said Kille. "In the absence of trusted local news sources, people are flooded with misinformation or partisan news. They're not finding out what's really important to them."
Perry of The Cincinnati Enquirer highlighted how journalists serve their communities by mining data, reviewing public records, asking tough questions, and holding public officials accountable.
"Most of us consider journalism a public service, a passionate calling to tell stories, to educate, to shine a light on the good and the bad," Perry told VOA via email.
'Crisis for our democracy'
Kille of Report for America also believes local journalism plays an essential role.
"The crisis of local news is a crisis for our democracy," Kille said. "When people don't have trusted news sources within their own communities, they don't look at their neighbors the same way."
The decline in local media occurred alongside the rise of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. A 2020 report by Pew Research Center found that about half of the 9,220 Americans surveyed say they regularly get their news from social media platforms.
Use of social media to access news can have both positive and negative impacts on local journalism, said Perry.
"There is no question it's been helpful in terms of sharing legitimate content. We understand that we can reach audiences on various social media platforms," Perry said. At the same time, he added, social media can be harmful in spreading misinformation and can lead to attacks on journalists.
At a time of growing disinformation, Twitter's efforts to elevate the voices of local reporters is viewed by some as an important step.
The nonpartisan Pew Research Center reports that Americans who mostly get news from social media are less knowledgeable about current events and more likely to be exposed to misinformation. It pulled data from 10 surveys of more than 9,000 adults on their media consumption habits between November 2019 and November 2020.
"Twitter's new campaign is a great start for bringing more awareness to local journalists, and creating a path for people to follow local journalists," Kille said, adding that there's more work to be done.
"We'd love to see Twitter expand this outreach beyond those larger newspapers to other newsrooms across the country," said Kille.
The social media platform is also helping journalists connect to the public through the use of Twitter Spaces, where users can join conversations hosted by reporters from around the world.
"As journalists continue to selflessly report from the front lines of conflicts, in the face of hostile interests and, especially during this past year, risk their personal health to cover a global pandemic, we believe it is pivotal that they and their industry are supported," according to the Twitter statement emailed to VOA.
Report for America also has initiatives to boost local journalism. Last month, it announced it has placed 300 people — 45% of whom are journalists of color — in over 200 local newsrooms.