Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca: America’s Grassroots Saviors

BERKELEY – Joan Didion famously observed that, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Unfortunately, if you get your news about the United States from Facebook, Twitter, or cable TV networks, the stories you are being told might convince you that the country is hopelessly divided.

To be sure, the US is plagued by rising economic inequality, regional and rural-urban income disparities, job insecurity, declining social mobility, and political polarization. These issues understandably become the focus of the national news media. And the fact that US President Donald Trump usually starts his day with a fusillade of divisive tweets doesn’t help matters.

But the deeper problem is that, because the business model for local print media has been eviscerated by the loss of advertising revenues to digital media, stories outside the partisan national narrative have disappeared. In 1990, newspapers across the country employed nearly 458,000 people; by March 2016, that number was less than 200,000. The decline is illustrated by the fate of the San Jose Mercury News, which used to be one of the country’s largest-circulation local dailies. Although its home turf, Silicon Valley, has grown in population, income, and economic significance, the number of journalists working for the Mercury News has declined from 400 in the 1990s to around 40 today.

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Laura Tyson, a former chair of the US President's Council of Economic Advisers, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior adviser at the Rock Creek Group.