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With Local News Struggling, The NextDoor App Is Shaping Local Politics

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Nearly one-fourth of local newspapers in the U.S. have disappeared in the last 15 years. And in some places, that's left social media to fill in the local news vacuum. Enter the service Nextdoor. Perhaps you've used it to find a good plumber or sell a couch in the neighborhood. But in Newark, Del., Nextdoor played a big role in the fate of the local school district.

Will Oremus is from Newark and wrote about it for OneZero at Medium. He joins us now.

WILL OREMUS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: First of all, for those of us who haven't used Nextdoor, can you talk about what it is but more importantly, kind of how it's evolved in recent years?

OREMUS: So as you mentioned, Nextdoor started out as a sort of community bulletin board for the social media age. It was really useful in a lot of ways. As the years have gone by, it has become, in many communities, a hub for local news and local political discussions. Nextdoor discourages discussions of national politics, but as it has become more influential in local politics, we've seen that it can play a role in things like local elections. I saw that here in my town of Newark, Del.

CORNISH: You write about a school referendum. What was the referendum? And how did Nextdoor play a role in its result?

OREMUS: So in 2019, the Christina School District, which is the second largest school district in Delaware, was going out for a referendum to raise money. They did all the things they usually do when they go out for these referendums. They talk to the local media, put up informational websites. The referendum failed, and it failed badly. And when they were looking at why that happened, they realized that a lot of people had been talking about it on Nextdoor. And those discussions had been dominated by a few really loud voices who were anti-district and anti-referendum who felt that this referendum was just a scam to extract more money from taxpayers.

So when they went back out in 2020, now the situation was much more dire. I mean, if they didn't pass this time, they were going to be cutting all extracurriculars. This time, they deputized some of the advocates of the referendum to go on Nextdoor. They gave them talking points. They said, hey, when you see people spreading misinformation about the district, tell them this. They did that. They got tons of engagement. They were one of the most popular topics on our local Nextdoor network. And this time when the election happened, the turnout was an all-time record, and it passed by a landslide. I can't say for sure that that was because of the Nextdoor strategy, but it certainly seemed to play a role.

CORNISH: We're watching social media grow while local newspapers struggle. What have you learned about this moment through this story?

OREMUS: So the decline of local news was bound to leave a vacuum of some sort, and something was bound to fill it. Recently, the emergence of Nextdoor has given people a way to get local news from social media in this sort of engaging format. I mean, it's mixed in with gossip from and about your neighbors. It's mixed in with information and stuff you need to know. But obviously, things get left out. And we have a local weekly paper called the Newark Post. It covered the referendum. The reporter told me something interesting. He said that local authorities have actually become less willing to talk to him for stories now that they can reach constituents directly on Nextdoor. They can give their unfiltered message, and they don't have to go through the filter of a journalist who may add their own critical questions or scrutiny. And so it can certainly become a hub for misinformation as well as the useful information that you can find just from the local knowledge of your neighbors.

CORNISH: We've said over and over again here, you know, this used to be a place where you sold a couch, and now it's where you can be in, like, kind of high-stakes political battles, you know, about school funding. How has Nextdoor responded to this shift? Do they even see it or acknowledge it?

OREMUS: One way you can tell that Nextdoor wasn't fully prepared to take on this role as a major hub for local news or local politics is that its moderation system is very rudimentary. It's all done by volunteers. They're unpaid. They don't get a whole lot of training. One thing we've seen recently is that Nextdoor, in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riot, has tried to pull back a little bit from controversial political content, especially national politics. Now it's also going to stop recommending political groups to users. So it's starting to go through that cycle of backlash and response and taking some additional safety steps that we've seen other social networks go through before it.

CORNISH: That's Will Oremus, senior writer for OneZero at Medium.

Thank you for your time.

OREMUS: Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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