The role of local journalism between the need for security and new crises – by Giacomo Buoncompagni

Recent national and international emergencies, from pandemics to the recent floods, have repeatedly highlighted how the role of local information must be to synthesise the various social and cultural policies proposed by public bodies and the correct representation – the state of life of citizens in the territory – beyond national media logics, often based on speed and the spectacularisation of disasters.

In fact, citizens have an “innate need” to know what is happening beyond their direct experience, to be aware of events that affect them or that are not happening in front of their eyes.

Can local journalism support cultural production and local heritage, as well as improve the social and political participation of individual communities, in their own language, respecting their traditions and conditions?

First, community media provide access not only to the public sphere, but also to the intimate life of local communities.

Today’s public sphere is an increasingly crowded arena of issues and subjects with the same moods and commentaries produced by these actors, but in this changing media ecology, local newspapers still play a crucial role in helping people feel connected to their communities by providing relevant news and a space for public debate, complementing the national news agenda of large national newspapers (Gunn, Syvertsen 2016).

Despite the importance of their presence and function, local media have declined significantly in Western media systems. Local newsrooms, operating on thin margins, have been forced to confront changing news consumption habits and the shift from print to online news, which have reduced the functionality of existing business models and the desirability of existing news products and services (Nielsen 2015; Buoncompagni 2024).

However, the presence and, to some extent, the success of the local press today is not so much due to the general economics of information as to the cognitive and in-depth economics.

“Narrating from the inside” has enabled the emergence and representation of hitherto unknown social realities, the field of newsworthiness has expanded, drawing on a wider range of sources. This has made it possible, on the one hand, to better capture the multiple interests of the reading public and, on the other hand, to satisfy the information needs of individual communities in a short time and with depth, especially in crisis and emergency contexts (Comunello, Mulargia 2018; De Vincentiis).

Reporting from the territory means constructing a reasoned point of view and not just presenting facts. The local newspaper does not only collect news, but becomes a place of active mediation, of aggregation (Russ-Mohl 2011). 

In this respect, Hess (2013) prefers to speak of ‘geo-social’ news, content that is selected and hierarchised around the notions of relevance and place.

Indeed, information that speaks of and in the community should seek to understand the plurality of components that make up the social environment, allowing us to define interpretative views through which to understand the world.

However, in the face of serious emergencies, information can fail to fully respect the vocation to the territory that should be its own, or, on the contrary, build a tribal community narrative without taking into account what is communicated outside the municipality or region (Farinosi 2020).

Socio-natural disasters of this kind are, by definition, exceptional events, concentrated in time and space, which disrupt daily routines (Quarantelli 2000) and destabilise the social structure, causing disorder, human losses and destruction (Gilbert 1998). Increasingly, these are sudden and often unpredictable events that disturb the equilibrium of society, leading to situations of collective stress that transform the biological, political and cultural systems and modify the motivations of the actors within these systems (Barton 1969; Cattarinussi, Tellia 1978). The disruption of normal social activities caused by the event often triggers specific patterns of behaviour and leads to the production of new frames of reference (Pelanda 1982). The very sharing of the experience and suffering produced by the catastrophic event often provides the impetus for positive social change and promotes the development of altruistic feelings (Barton 1969), the activation of protective actions or the de-escalation of conflict based on emotional and political responses to the emergency.

For Norris (2008) and Alexander (2012), the presence of shared narratives capable of restoring shared meaning to lived experience is important for the (cultural) reworking of trauma and the restoration of a sense of wellbeing and cooperation. On the contrary, a narrative that is limited, circumscribed, overly thematic or aimed at marginalising a section of the population could generate further insecurity and conflict within a community already affected by a collective tragedy (Lombardi 2006).

Instead, the ‘information dialogue’ between local media and community audiences could improve emergency journalism through bottom-up content, especially in cases where traditional media struggle to reach.