How the decline of local news brought down a popular mayor — and why yours may be next

The defeat of Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs was one of the more shocking outcomes of the November 2020 election. But it’s an upset we’re likely to see again as trusted local news sources continue their decline.

In the run up to the election, Tubbs had become the target of a local news blog that is known for both agenda-driven reporting and journalistic errors. The website, 209 Times, was able to flourish because of major cuts at the city’s most trusted news source, The Record. The publication laid off a third of its reporting staff in 2017, creating a vacuum in the local news landscape.

“What was happening specifically with The Record was that they were anemic in their reporting as when it came to investigative journalism,” 209 Times founder Motecuzoma Sanchez said in an interview with CapRadio. Sanchez — a former Stockton mayoral candidate who once sued Tubbs in federal court — was happy to fill the void. Today, he’s proud to accept partial credit for the mayor’s downfall.

Former columnist for The Record, Mike Fitzgerald, warns that more politicians will be brought down by dubious online news sites.

“You’re going to see this all over the country as print journalism declines and everybody's on the Internet, more and more charlatans, they're going to get websites. You won't know who they are necessarily,” he told CapRadio. “It’s going to be writ small in a thousand communities across America.”

U.S. newspaper circulation fell to a 78-year low in 2018. Between 2008 and 2018, advertising revenue fell 62%. The COVID-19 pandemic turned a bad situation worse. In April and May, at least 30 newspapers closed or merged, according to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Dozens more switched to online-only platforms.

“There may be no single cure for America's newsrooms, but one thing is clear...” Governing’s Michael Hendrix wrote in October. “Local journalism is facing near extinction, and with it the quality of local governance necessary to sustain a healthy American project."