Katie Hawkins-Gaar: Rethink How We Do Local News

It happens every few weeks or so: Someone shares an article to our neighborhood’s Facebook page, and folks quickly chime in with some version of the same comment.

“How do I get past the paywall?” 

“Can someone post the article for me? I can’t read it.”

“I only see the headline.”

I’ve lived in Atlanta most of my life. I grew up in the suburbs, went to college at Georgia State, and started my career downtown at the CNN Center. I love Atlanta. I am surprised by Atlanta. I get frustrated by Atlanta. I am forever rooting for Atlanta. And I can think of a mile-long list of things of which ATLiens deserve better.

Toward the top of that list? Local news. Atlanta deserves in-depth, reliable journalism that’s accessible to everyone.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, metro Atlanta’s only major daily newspaper, operates like most legacy media outlets these days. Which is to say: a digital paywall, a dwindling staff, and a rapidly shrinking print circulation. Its articles are hidden behind a paywall, one that limits Atlantans’ access to important information about local issues and events—news that helps people make informed decisions about their day-to-day lives. 

Paywalls restrict all residents, but especially low-income community members. These folks who don’t have the means to pay for a subscription are the most in need of information about local resources and services. Paywalls limit the public’s ability to communicate openly and to hold the powerful accountable—and they result in far fewer people reading the news.

In a city like Atlanta, number one in the U.S. for income inequality, this is an especially bad approach.

For the people who do subscribe to the AJC, the paper isn’t what it used to be. The physical newspaper is a fraction of the size of what it once was, and even then, many of the articles are reprinted from national outlets like the Associated Press and Washington Post. It’s been 16 long years since the AJC won a Pulitzer Prize. And the staff that does still exist at the paper isn’t doing much when it comes to innovating—or seeming to have much fun, even—on social media.

And while the newspaper’s coverage is some of the most regrettable in all of Atlanta currently, it’s not just the AJC that’s failing us. Creative Loafing used to be a vibrant, exciting, well-crafted alt-weekly—a barometer for what was worth talking and caring about in Atlanta. Its currently a tone-deaf, typo-laden mess—a sad shell of what it once was. Even more depressing, over the past few years many hyperlocal publications like Atlanta Loop, Decatur Metro, Brookhaven Post, and Tucker Observer have all shut down as well.

To be fair, there are a number of outlets stepping up to fill in the gaps. Decaturish and Rough Draft report on local events and issues. Canopy Atlanta is redefining community news. Axios Atlanta offers quick, daily digests of the latest news. Capital B, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to serving Atlanta’s Black community, has shown immense promise in its first year and a half. Legacy institutions like Atlanta Magazine and The Georgia Voice continue to produce excellent work. Local writers are even stepping out on their own with must-read newsletters like George Chidi’s The Atlanta Objective.

But it’s not enough. Atlanta is a vibrant, bustling, changing city with a modern and cultured core. Our news options don’t reflect that. Our longtime news outlets are shrinking, and the new offerings we do have are promising, but too limited. Atlanta’s current local media ecosystem feels like a patchwork approach, niche solutions scattered all over this city we call home.

Journalism at its best is about informing and connecting citizens, holding the powerful accountable, and strengthening communities. Atlanta is a city with big problems and bigger potential. We deserve local outlets that reflect our vibrant metropolis, call out the people and institutions holding us back, and help us envision a path to a brighter, more equitable future.

It hurts my heart to complain about the state of local media in Atlanta. Being a local journalist is a hard, often unforgiving job, and the many reporters and editors in our fair city do good, thoughtful, important work. But the residents of Atlanta deserve better news sources—ones that are accessible to everyone—and the journalists in Atlanta deserve more opportunities to do solid, innovative reporting and get their work seen by wider audiences.

There are models that Atlanta can follow, like Pittsburgh’s forward-thinking PublicSource, Kansas City’s community-minded The Beacon, or New York’s impact-oriented THE CITY. We could rally behind a crowdfunded alt-weekly like Baltimore Beat or get creative on social media like the Tampa Bay Times. We could bring old institutions back to life in new, innovative ways, like LAist or the Chicago Reader.

Or! We could create something entirely fresh, something distinctly Atlanta.

A digital-first, well-funded news outlet that’s dedicated to serving the public, exploring solutions, and keeping crooked leaders in check is sorely needed here. And I bet ATLiens would line up to support it.

Of course, if it were easy to start a new journalism venture, more people would give it a go. Local news is a tough industry—especially now. I don’t know what the next best news outlet in Atlanta would look like. But I do know that this city would be much better—informed, connected, engaged—if we had news options that residents were excited to support and share.

I live in East Atlanta, one of our city’s many unique, quirky, and complicated neighborhoods—one which doesn’t get much in the way of in-depth, nuanced, forward-thinking news coverage.

Some people come to our neighborhood Facebook page hoping to rally support for our less fortunate neighbors. Others post looking for childcare help. Plenty of people use it to distribute neighborhood gossip or drama. And nearly all of us come hungry to connect, help, and learn. We’re looking for reliable news.

I love local journalism. I love Atlanta. And I would love to support an innovative venture that reflects and represents our city. There are loads of issues for journalists to investigate—housing shortages, income inequality, Cop City, our dysfunctional transit system—the list goes on. And there’s plenty of opportunity to inspire our community and leaders to action.

Atlanta deserves more. With better-funded, accessible, forward-thinking local and hyperlocal news options, the sky’s the limit. Just think what our city could accomplish—how much more equitable things could be—with better informed and empowered citizens. Local news can help us get there.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar

Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a freelance writer, journalism adviser, and mom living in Atlanta. She’s the founder of Digital Women Leaders, a mentoring initiative that connects journalists via free one-on-one calls. She also writes My Sweet Dumb Brain, a newsletter about navigating the ups and downs of life.