Renewing Philanthropy’s Commitment to Local Journalism

Renewing Philanthropy’s Commitment to Local Journalism

Rebuilding local news coverage is part of a civic-repair program we must pursue to restore the democratic promise of our cities and of our country.

In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs described how city life emerged from countless small relationships and residents’ belief that decision makers understood them and their needs. She held that decisions about a city’s development should be based on reality as observed on the street, not on theories or politics developed from afar. She famously described the importance of “eyes upon the street” to keep people safe. She meant this literally: pedestrians, shopkeepers, neighbors looking out their windows. But, given her profound commitment to observing city life accurately and then basing action on those observations, I think it’s fair to extend her definition of watchful eyes to include journalists looking out for the neighborhood—and, by extension, whole towns and cities.

This inference brings me to one of the causes of our sustained civic crisis: the collapse of local news. Far fewer local journalists are working today in the United States than existed at the turn of the century. This is true even in New York, the capital of national media and the city I call home. This decline is much greater in the rest of the country, undermining our communities much like city planners, ignorant of lived neighborhoods and blind to the ways cities really work, undermined urban life 60 years ago, according to Jacobs. She wanted planners to descend from their ivory towers and walk the streets. We need more reporters doing the same thing today. Either way, the missing piece is shoe-leather beat reporting: seeing, hearing, and even smelling what’s going on block by block.

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Source: The Stanford Social Innovation Review