As the hours tick down before Tuesday’s general election, the news headlines about the state of our democracy could not be more dispiriting:
- As of Oct. 29, just 16% of Colorado voters had cast ballots
- Yes, Colorado’s school board races are becoming more politicized.
- Election disinformation has Colorado clerks trying new tactics to reassure voters
Meanwhile, multiple neighbors in my Longmont suburb have reached out to me personally, seeking my opinion on the myriad issues on the ballot. It’s not just because they know me as a civics junkie, which I am – it’s because, as one said, “I’m not even finding profiles for those running for mayor.”
All of these things are connected. As opinions, partisanship and mis- and disinformation flood our social media feeds, our attention is the currency that fuels the platforms that profit off our anger and partisanship.
Well-researched, well-reported, nonpartisan local news articles on Colorado’s 2021 election are still out there (here, here and here for state issues), but independent reporting on city council and school board candidates and municipal ballot initiatives is disappearing — and it’s a disturbing trend that should concern every Coloradan, especially those who care about an educated electorate and inclusive democracy.
The investigative journalism and accountability reporting produced by the publication you’re reading right now, and other civic news outlets like it, helps us do jobs as citizens.
But it is not outrageous enough for the algorithms to find, so it’s often buried deep on the websites or printed pages of local news outlets — and at some, behind a paywall. The quantity of local civic news articles is also far smaller in number, as local newsrooms across the U.S. face financial decline and the remaining Colorado newsrooms are running on fumes.
Compared to the overwhelming barrage of digital distraction — the deafening roar that has come to define our online public square — quality local news that informs, uplifts, connects and activates residents is a trickle and a murmur. What’s filling the void is enough to make even the most dedicated civic advocate want to disengage.
What keeps me going is an idea that after more than 18 months of isolation and exile in our digital meeting rooms, there seems to be a deep longing among so many of us to connect.
Not just with our loved ones or our friends, but with our communities. Not just online, but in real life. Not just with people who look like us, but with our fellow Coloradans — with whom we share a common future, for better or worse.
As a person who has worked in and adjacent to the field of journalism for over two decades, I am the first to acknowledge its limitations. But professional reporters who work at the local level — covering city government, school boards, high school sports teams — these folks are our neighbors whom we depend on to do a job that is bound by a code of ethics to seek the truth and independently report it, to minimize harm, and to be transparent and accountable to the public they serve.
In fact, even in a time of extreme political polarization, 84% of Coloradans are “somewhat confident” or “very confident” that their local news media will give them full, fair and accurate information, according to a 2019 statewide survey by Corona Insights. That’s far higher confidence than for national media, so it’s a good place to start.
In Colorado, we are lucky to have many mission-driven journalists and local newsrooms who are stepping up to play new and different roles for the communities that rely on them.
Let’s recognize them for the important jobs they do for our democracy — and also demand more from our sources of local news, to do better finding, connecting with, and representing our communities.
Philanthropy is stepping up in a big way this week, committing nearly a million dollars from a collaborative of local and national funders who recognize the important role that local journalism plays in ensuring that Coloradans are well-informed and civically engaged.
We hope to play a supportive role in a growing movement to build a more inclusive public square where all Coloradans’ information needs are better met, especially communities of color, immigrants and refugees, low-income rural Coloradans and others historically marginalized or not adequately served, reached or represented.
Community-based leaders, members of the public, elected officials and mission-driven journalists all have a role to play in navigating toward this future, where all Coloradans have access to trustworthy sources of local news that they need to participate, thrive and make good decisions for their families and our state. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.
Melissa Milios Davis is director of the Colorado Media Project and Vice President for Informed Communities at the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation.
The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Learn more about how to submit a column.)