Shanghai Daily and the importance of local news

Emma Leaning
The media landscape has changed dramatically since Shanghai's "window to the world" opened 21 years ago, but there's still no substitute for professional local news.
Emma Leaning
SSI ļʱ

On October 1, Shanghai Daily will celebrate its 21st birthday. In 2020 when global news consumption is at an all time high, newspapers around the world are in jeopardy. At a time when reliable information is at its most fundamental, we ask, “what happens in the absence of local news?”

Shanghai Daily and the importance of local news
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Local news: the foundation of a thriving community

At its launch, Shanghai Daily referred to itself as “Shanghai’s window to the world,” and as veteran journalist Sue Hill wrote in her article marking the 15th anniversary of the publication, it wasn’t an easy window to open. As the first local English-language newspaper on the Chinese mainland, Shanghai Daily’s challenge was to establish credibility with foreign readers as a trustworthy news source.

Deputy Editor-in-Chief Liu Qi joined the paper in 2000 as a copy editor. “I was excited to finally put what I’d learned about journalism into practice,” she recalls. “Back then, Shanghai Daily was a novelty and that gap carved a niche market for us.”

Fast forward, and Shanghai Daily remains the city’s only English-language newspaper. But while that hasn’t changed, the landscape of newspapers around the world couldn’t look more different.

The hand that feeds you

During COVID-19, it’s no surprise that print and online news readership surged. And while many turn to local news, a long-trusted lifeline, newspapers around the world are collapsing. In America alone, a fatal concoction of under-funding mixed with the boom in online news retailers saw a 45 percent reduction in newspapers over nine years.

PEN America, an organization of over 7,200 journalists, publishers and other writing professionals, conducted a nationwide survey in 2019. It found as local journalism declined, misconduct went unchecked. In other words, when the watchful eye of local newspapers is forced shut, we’re all in the dark; the effects of which go straight to the heart of everyday homes.

Newspapers are not like most goods we buy. Choose to tighten your financial belt and you’ll save money. But as research shows, when it comes to newspapers, if governments skimp on pennies, communities pay in pounds.

Shanghai Daily and the importance of local news
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The snip: When the watchdog role of local press gets cut, we’re all in the dark.

Towns and cities borrow money to open community centers, build parks and improve transport links. Financial Professor Dermot Murphy, author of “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” looked closely at the fiscal effect of newspaper cuts on local communities. He discovered a link between the cost of loans to cities and towns with newspaper closures. In short, as local publication get axed, government borrowing costs go up. And whose door does this debt land on? The taxpayers.

Worryingly, consumers aren’t aware of what’s happening to local news and the direct impact it has on them. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that most Americans believe their local news outlet is healthy, yet less than one in six subscribe to it. And it’s easy to see why. There are countless free ways to read the news. Between Facebook, Twitter, Weibo and WeChat, plus countless blogs and websites, it makes perfect sense to save our money. Except it doesn’t.

Studies show that online sources aren’t adequate replacements for strong local news. If they were, communities wouldn’t bear the brunt of rising borrowing costs. What’s more, larger outlets don’t cover much about what's going on at a local level. Meaning all manner of things are affected when a local newspaper closes, everything from public health, to education, and the environment.

And that’s not all. Swapping an established local news source for a newsfeed doesn’t just shape communities, it has the power to form history.

Putting the news in newsfeed

In her 2019 TED talk, journalist Carole Cadwalladr called out the “gods of Silicon Valley,” making a powerful plea against the dangers of social media. Cadwalladr, who tracked the use of adverts on Facebook in the run up to the 2016 BREXIT referendum, refers to a “fire-hose of disinformation” targeted at swing voters. She then links the same tactics to the 2016 US presidential election. “What happens on Facebook stays on Facebook,” says Cadwalladr. “Only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it's impossible to research anything.”

What happens in the limits of our newsfeeds, when we’re caught in a crossfire of targeted information from unknown sources?

Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for the Washington Post, has witnessed the decline of local news with growing concern. Appointed the first female editor of The Buffalo News, Sullivan speaks about the effects of harsh cuts to the paper: “Worthy local reporting requires time, expertise, talent and institutional knowledge. At the Buffalo News, we had less of those every month, and readers knew it. The same has happened across the larger landscape of local news.” The lack of real journalism in the Buffalo community meant “people were relying on gossip, conversation radio or social media. People were really deep into their echo chambers.”

Globally, the way we engage with news has become unrecognizable. Six in 10 Internet users say their primary reason for using the Internet is to keep up with news and current affairs. It’s a shift local newspapers have had to address, not only in their own interest, but in the interest of the communities they serve. Shanghai Daily has worked to accommodate readership trends from the outset. “We’ve made changes accordingly,” explains Liu. “At the beginning we were a broadsheet, then a tabloid, and in 2017 we launched SHINE.”

The digital arm of Shanghai Daily SHINE provides readers with breaking news, in-depth opinions and insightful investigations into local issues. Crucially, it’s a reliable source. Professor Deng Jianguo at Fudan University School of Journalism stresses the importance of established local news representation in the mass of online providers, “we not only need local media, we need hyper-local media that centers around serving its local audience and businesses diligently. That’s why community media is very important, though it may not solely exist in hard-copy newspapers nowadays.”

Shanghai Daily and the importance of local news
SHINE

SHINE: Shanghai’s go-to place for reliable local news

Protected, not possessed

As the 2020 BBC documentary, “The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty” revealed, trusted national papers around the world receive income from all manner of places. In doing so, some have their headlines written for them and their directions dictated to them. Referring to Murdoch and the impact he’s had, journalist Joel Golby writes for The Guardian, “this is just one tiny slice of bastard. For the rest of it, you’ll have to keep watching the news.” While not blanket reasoning, it’s a stark example of how trusted institutions can become privy to external influence and therefore fail to serve the very philosophy they symbolize.

Here the watchdog role of local press is understood. We’re supported in holding our authorities to account, in asking important questions, and in serving our community with the information it needs to thrive. As Professor Deng highlights, “to a large extent, many media organizations become irrelevant because they forget to serve where they belong.”

In 2001 Shanghai Daily brought news of an urgent sweep of the city schools after 300 students suffered severe food poisoning, and it was here you read about a former city official being sentenced to life imprisonment for taking bribes. As watchdogs of our shared community, we’ve offered insight into issues such as overcrowding in hospitals, the fight against pollution, and the unmet needs of our elderly.

The village square: Why local news is the beating heart of community

A local newspaper's purpose isn’t just to keep officials accountable and citizens armed with the right information. A local newspaper is more than that. We are the village square, the community hall, the people’s park. A place of connection, common reality and community.

Over the years, Shanghai Daily has invited you into the lives of members of our shared home-from-home. We’ve told your stories and represented your beliefs. We’ve shared your hopes, successes, fears and frustrations. Together, we celebrated the birth of our city’s first baby of the new century, and mourned the tragic death of a local marathon runner. We’ve met the teachers who guide our children and the nurses who care for our elderly. We’ve spoken to the architects who shape our city and the servicemen who keep it safe. From student to retiree, entrepreneur to volunteer, we’ve sought to represent you, one person at a time. And we’re just getting started.

This is the first article I’ve penned for Shanghai Daily since recently joining the paper as a columnist. My remit on joining the team? Write what matters. Go into the community, speak with its people about their wants and needs, then deliver them. If that isn’t at the beating heart of what ever local newspaper should be, what is?

So here’s to another 21 years with Shanghai Daily. Because strong local news is what every community needs, and what every community deserves.

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