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The Big Story: The Press Forward Multiplier Effect – Nieman Reports

Since 2005, over 2,200 American newspapers have closed, and one-in-five Americans live in a news desert with no reliable, independent coverage of local government, schools, or current events.

Local healthcare needs local press

By David Jarrard
4-minute read

Local journalism that is vibrant and free is essential to making healthcare better.

And, of course, it can be irritating as hell from time to time. After all, that’s the job.

As advocates of healthy, informed conversations about the delivery of care in a marketplace of ideas, last week’s announcement by 22 major philanthropies to invest more than $500 million to reinvigorate local journalism is worthy of celebration.

Strong local news matters to thoughtful healthcare leaders.

The mistrust and misinformation that makes your hard work of leadership ever harder has been exacerbated by the gutting of local news staffs, the death of local news outlets and the polarizing, blunt-instrument nationalization of every substantial issue.

Can’t get your story out today?

Since 2002, more than 2,500 local newspapers have closed, “more reporters have lost their jobs than coal miners,” and roughly 20 percent of our population – and often the most vulnerable among us – have no local news that covers their communities. No local stages, voices or watchdogs.

What can a “news desert” feel like? Beyond no local coverage at all, imagine working with well-intentioned but harried, inexperienced reporters to unpack your nuanced, consequential, byzantine healthcare issues. 340B, anyone? The fine points of payer entanglements? A labor contract?

Yes, we know. At first thought, some leaders might dismiss the disappearance of the local newsroom as a relief. It’s one less uncontrollable factor to eliminate from the too-busy days. Hand-holding those nit-picking reporters and translators of information can be exhausting. You’ll just heavy up your social media posts to get your messages out instead, right? Who doesn’t trust a tweet from a brand?

But the decline of local media outlets and savvy local journalists makes telling your complex stories fraught. Strong, independent local news offers you important, strategic opportunities that healthcare providers – or any organization – cannot build, buy or create on your own. Consider these benefits:

A trusted voice – beyond your own

The provision of healthcare is a powerful, local event. Lives are launched, protected, advanced and end in your hands. Your colleagues and allied providers – likely thousands of them – live and work close by. Unlike other big healthcare players (looking at you, payers and pharma), you have a uniquely local story to tell, local support to rally, local political and market strength to wield.

But being local has vulnerabilities, too. Half of the $4 trillion spent annually on healthcare is attributed to providers. That puts the spotlight squarely on you. The high cost of care? The bad billing experience? The hard outcome? Fair or not, it’s your brand and your buildings locals see, it’s your logo on the bill, so it’s you they question first.

That said, through what trusted voice will you engage your community – including your colleagues – in these important conversations? How will you inform and activate the customers, voters, employers and patients who will decide the future of your organization? Healthcare providers need a robust local news community to independently educate, explain and hold all stakeholders accountable.

The value of the hard question

Anticipating and answering the hard questions from journalists makes us all better communicators.  Smart reporters will challenge assumptions, ask about the thing we most want to avoid and draw their own conclusions.

Good local news media does all of the above, with the added twist of local knowledge – the names of your board members, the zip codes you serve, the politics, the competition and the patients. In mid-sized to smaller communities, the reporter may be a patient, or someone in their family may be an employee.

These journalists can bring a richer understanding to their coverage and more piercing questions.  Certainly, any “word salad” will wilt here.

It’s the challenge and benefit of familiarity.

More than the local paper

“Local” media isn’t confined to a zip code or a medium. While traditional media – local newspapers, television and radio – remain the backbone of news production and consumption, websites, social media and text services with local reporting staffs continue their astronomical rise. So do outlets that focus on groups with common interests – geography, identity, faith and on.

All provide opportunities to stretch your message and messengers to places and people you might never otherwise reach, joining intimate conversations to which you would otherwise not be invited.

A voice for the marginalized

Local media can be a loud voice for groups who have few advocates. As healthcare organizations pursue a more accessible, equitable delivery of care, many are eager to hear from and engage directly with marginalized communities. Local news outlets can offer a megaphone for those who may have been silenced, and a preciously precise way for healthcare organizations to speak back.

Checks and balances – healthcare and beyond

It’s your hometown, too. A healthy local news media is important to the health of the community you serve, beyond the interests of any single organization.

A robust fourth estate, its security enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, is a cornerstone of democracy, a power center designed from the beginning to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as the bartender said.

Once upon a time, you’ll recall, “local newspapers were an independent check on opaque, consolidated financial and political power,” as the editors of The RoadMap for Local News put it.

“Unlike talking heads on cable news or anonymous viral Twitter accounts, local newspaper reporters adhered to professional standards of fairness, worked with editors, and checked their facts.” The growing local news vacuum is going to create “one of the great times to be a corrupt politician.”

No rose-colored glasses

Yes, we know. This paean to local news reporting also acknowledges the great frustration that comes from working with aggressively ill-informed, agenda-driven or just-plain-sloppy reporters. The mistranslations and misinterpretations in poor reporting can be damaging. No rose-colored glasses here. Every industry has bad actors.

But every community, including every healthcare organization, is better served with smart, local journalists doing their job than those without, or those that are covered from a passionless distance.

Into these news vacuums, other players with other agendas enter the conversation and act in your community largely unchecked and unaccountable.

Support your local news

The commitment to invest $500 million in local media over the next five years is a good thing, but it’s a small thing. It’s a Kickstarter, a planting of seed money to attract more money.

Newsrooms, local reporting staff and information distribution are not cheap, of course. The internet broke the traditional news business model, and a variety of new ones are being tested. The new local news may not look like the old one.

Whatever the model, invest in it. Support the local reporters, editors, videographers, bloggers and designers coming together to uniquely cover your unique community.

How, you ask?

  • Money. Invest a portion of your advertising spend and sponsorship dollars in local journalism.
  • Time. Invest your precious time (and it is precious) with local reporters and editors not only to tell your story, but to hear about the issues important to them and their audiences. Give journalists – and the audience they represent – the gift of your attention.
  • Partnership. Good reporting can include the facilitation of important, community-wide dialogues on topics of broad concern. As appropriate to your mission, join local news efforts to create a welcoming public square for the sharing of ideas and the formation of community.

It’s not a panacea, but good local journalism can be an active counteragent to the considerable communications challenges we face and key to building the community we all want to enjoy. Through your support, you can nurture opportunities for trusted conversations that can only happen close to home, where you may need it most.

And that’s a good story.