News Deserts: What Dying Newspapers Mean to You

News Deserts: What Dying Newspapers Mean to You

When a local newspaper closes in the United States, it can be a slow death. Revenues from advertising and subscriptions might slow to a trickle, and the paper’s circulations may shrink for months. Or the paper’s parent company might close shop overnight to cut its losses, and so jettison the entire staff that next morning. Either way, the vanished paper adds to a troubling trend: news deserts.

What does “news desert” mean for the community living there? And why do they matter, to both North Carolina and the country as a whole?

News Deserts: Engulfing Hundreds of Communities

When a community loses all its local news sources, it becomes a “news desert.” Why? It’s now parched of the essential information which its newspaper(s) had once supplied. The term comes from a UNC-Chapel Hill research series called The Expanding News Desert, which has reported and analyzed the precipitous loss of local newspapers in America since 2004. On June 24, the series released its 2020 report: News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?

Penny Abernathy
Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair

“The trend is undeniable,” says Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC-Chapel Hill. She first began researching the new media landscape following the 2008 recession. “I was stunned by how many newspapers had new owners,” she says. “When we started looking at their management practices, we also found how many newspapers had closed. We had lost a ton of them.”

By the first report in 2016, Abernathy and her team had focused on transforming media ownership (papers owned mostly by private equity firms). But since then, the creep of news deserts has grown more concerning. “We needed to audit how many papers we had actually lost,” Abernathy says, “and we needed to find some way to track the loss of journalists.”

Abernathy herself began as a local journalist.

After graduating from Scotland High School in Laurinburg, North Carolina, Abernathy walked into her local newspaper to cover the sports beat. “I fell in love with it,” she says, and so she didn’t stop. She advanced through the ranks of weekly and regional newspapers before arriving at the Charlotte Observer, North Carolina’s largest paper.

But her love for journalism brought her from the newsroom into business roles. “It was very important that I learn the business of journalism, if I wanted to make sure there would be good community journalism in the future,” she says. That education meant senior executive positions (and successes) with the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. After over 30 years inside the country’s top newspapers, Abernathy returned to North Carolina in 2008. She had come as the new Knight Chair in Journalism and Media Economics at the Univ. of North Carolina.

But the state’s local news scene worried her. “Many community newspapers had passed by and changed owners multiple times,” she says. These papers, the first stop for most reporters, had first taught her the journalistic spirit. But something fundamental had disappeared. And with Abernathy’s journalistic convictions and experience in news business models, she decided to find out what had happened. As of last month, she has released four reports.

News in 2020: Shrinking Newspapers and Disappearing Journalists

The report released June 24 built on the three previous reports to build a 15-year perspective. American newspapers reached their peak circulation and advertising revenue around 2004, and so the 15 year window ended in 2019. The new findings map a steep decline of existing newspapers around the country.

News Desert image
A graphic of lost newspapers from the 2020 report.

Compared to the 9,000 newspapers publishing in 2004, the U.S. had only 6,700 papers by the end of 2019. We’ve lost 2,100 newspapers (about one-fourth of all papers) in only 15 years.

Given that 6,576 of those 6,700 papers are the small weekly, daily and ethnic papers closing so often, this pattern spells trouble for American journalism. Larger national papers do face similar financial constraints. But the smaller, local-level newspapers go under more quickly.

This pattern of shuttered newspapers also spells trouble for the communities left behind. These places are the titular news deserts, and they’re widespread. According to the new report, “more than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties and equivalents have no newspaper,” and “half of the counties have only one newspaper.”

The geographic realities of news deserts tell the same grim story:

News Desert Graphic
Image from the 2020 report.

These news deserts most often harm marginalized communities.

“We’re looking at whole areas of this country that have lost daily access to credible and comprehensive information that help residents make wise decisions,” says Abernathy. “Invariably, those [areas] are impoverished or minority communities.” As the U.S. will become majority-minority in the next few decades, Abernathy knows leaving marginalized minority neighborhoods in news deserts cannot continue.

“Newspapers have historically been the primary source of information for small and mid-size communities,” she says. These overlooked areas often don’t get regional news by television. “Most digital digital [news] sites are in metro areas. In many inner-city or suburban neighborhoods, you depend on the community paper.”

The flip-side of lost newspapers? Disappearing journalists.

“You can think of the loss of news in two ways,” says Abernathy. “The loss of newspapers, and the loss of journalists.” Her 2020 report found an enormous decrease in working journalists’ numbers. While 71,000 journalists had been working 10 years ago, the new amount has fallen to only 35,000. “We have lost half of our journalists,” Abernathy says.

Image from the 2020 report.

Losing journalists so fast harms the communities whose news they had covered. Why? Those reporters often covered state education, the environment, economic development, and local politics – all beats that impact readers’ daily lives. “We’ve also lost the reporters who did investigative pieces,” says Abernathy, “which had held government and corporate officials accountable.” Hard-nosed journalism that affects local policy requires veteran journalists, but many have since lost their jobs. Local readers in turn lose those reporters’ wealth of experience and investigative expertise.

So do their former newsrooms. Abernathy points out that the layoffs remove the wisdom in newspaper staffs, as fired reporters hold “institutional memory and knowledge” (the knack for how the paper can best cover news and serve readers). “That includes editors and reporters,” she says. “[After layoffs] you end up with a group of relatively inexperienced, lower-paid journalists doing the same job experienced reporters did just ten years ago.”

COVID-19 has worsened these existing patterns.

The Expanding News Deserts team had nearly completed the 2020 report when the pandemic hit. Local newspapers’ dire situations only worsened. “COVID-19 has accelerated what already existed,” Abernathy says. These losses, already a rapid trend across 15 years, intensified with the loss of revenues due to the pandemic.

Take the Morehead community in northeastern Kentucky. On April 29, its residents learned that the local Morehead News began to merge with the Daily Independent. Four other weekly newspapers in the area also merged with the Daily Independent in May. Community Newspapers Holding, Inc., their parent company, explained that the mergers came because of ad revenue lost during COVID-19.

For residents of Morehead, their local news no longer exists. About 7,000 people live there (per the 2010 census). They, along with the Morehead State University campus, will now receive regional news from an Ashland paper 55 miles away.

Beyond anecdotes and light data, how COVID-19 intensified the news deserts pattern still remains unclear. Research specialist Zachary Metzger explains that the 2020 report adjusted, but future research will need to specifically track COVID-19 effects. “It’s hard to say what the impact is,” he says. “The full scale will have to wait until the end of the summer. We have discussed a mini-report for the fall.”

How Can We Reverse News Deserts?

The 2020 report names four areas for improvement: journalistic mission, media business models, technological capabilities, and media policies. Let’s explain just journalistic mission and media regulations for now. Why? They hold the most direct importance during our current moment of civil unrest and COVID-19.

“How do we rethink our journalistic mission to include those overlooked and marginalized communities?” Abernathy asks. Any viable answer needs to overcome serious distrusts. “Trust starts at the local level, and trust has been declining in local institutions over the last 20 years.”

Existing “ethnic media” (minority-owned papers, like the Charlotte Post and QCity Metro in Charlotte) could respond to these communities’ needs. They have long served these overlooked communities while no other papers would. However, these newspapers face the same straits (revenue loss and lack of reach into their communities) as the mainstream media. Digital sites don’t always help, Abernathy explains. “Even if you do have a digital site,” she says, “many minority communities live outside areas with high-speed internet.”

In both the new journalistic mission and policies, we have few easy answers.

The existing policies which regulate newspapers have become antiques, Abernathy points out. “All our policies are based on a twentieth-century model,” she says, “but we’re in the twenty-first century now. We need to look at a whole new set of regulations going forward.”

She does admit that COVID-19 has jump-started that conversation, saying, “There’s been plenty of interest over the past several months in various pieces of [media policy] legislation.” Metzger noted that communities’ urgent need for updated COVID-19 stats and guidelines needed the same local papers which had to shut down. The report mentions lawmakers’ proposals to help the Federal Communications Commission take a central role in ensuring sound local news. But Abernathy indicates that the existence of proposals alone doesn’t solve the problem: “They’re all piece-meal. Many are aimed at solving short-term issues, when we really need to think about the short term and long term together.”

Need some good news?

The News Deserts research has garnered widespread notice.

Both academics and journalists have applied the reports’ findings in new directions. “We get daily requests from think tanks and researchers to use our raw data,” Metzger says. “It circulates pretty widely.”

Multiple scholars have launched their own research based on the news deserts trend, including members of the Brookings Institute, PEN America and the Reuters Institute at Oxford. The News Deserts findings also make a (fitting) splash in media outlets such as the Washington Post, Poynter and Politico. Copies of the new report even arrived at the U.S. House of Representatives to assist the creation of possible legislation. But that attention doesn’t guarantee the best solution to the widespread problem.

Why Do Dying Newspapers Matter?

Newspapers equip their communities with the ground-level information their residents need. The report writes, “Economists define journalism as a ‘public good'” because its content “informs [Americans’] wise decisions.” And at a local level, the importance increases tenfold. Who covers the local school boards’ decisions, or how they impact your kids? What about the new taxes that affect your local businesses? Not the national or regional papers. Those beats come (or, came, depending where you live) from community newspapers.

Understanding that local news have been instrumental but now face peril matters to the twenty-first century news consumer. Our Refresh the Press series explains how media today happens, and the loss of community news dominates the new media landscape. It affects you and your daily decisions.

That’s why the Expanding News Deserts site includes “Rate Your Local News,” a check-the-box rubric for grading your news. Does your paper cover a balanced mix of public safety, health, transportation, and economic development? Does it publish multiple stories in each beat? Do the facts and contexts help you better understand your community? What about the relevant analysis?

Helpful news coverage should balance these things, according the Abernathy, her team and their research. So you should better understand what a healthy news diet includes (along with any possible biases), and make sure that’s what you receive. Once you do, what more will you learn about your community and its realities? That answer depends on your own due diligence.

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