The number of U.S. communities that have lost news coverage — more than 1,300 — according to a new University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism study, is staggering.
“The Expanding News Desert” study found about 20% of metro and community newspapers, 1,800, have closed or merged since 2004, when 9,000 were published. Since then, some 70% of the newspapers that died were in suburban areas of cities, which traditionally had many news choices. Communities without coverage tend to be rural.
As of 2018, the South is the hardest hit region: 91 counties without newspapers, according to the UNC database.
The consequences for journalism — and democracy — are severe.
“In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism,” the report notes.
Be it major metropolitan areas or small towns, local newspapers are often the primary source for credible information that impacts everyday life. They are the watchdogs that speak truth to power, reporting on the mayor, school boards, police or local financial dealings. Without them, there is little-to-no civic or private accountability.
Another fear, per The News Guild, is “ghost newspapers.” This refers to once-robust local pubs transformed into pared-down papers. In March, The News Guild cited the legacy of hedge fund Alden Global Capital as it pillaged the Digital First Media newspaper chain as a chilling example. (Digital First Media's newspapers include The Denver Post and The Detroit News.)
In fact, hedge funds and private-equity firms own a big piece of American newspapers — and their focus is usually profit margins, not community service.
Other publications have simply scaled back. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette became the first major metro paper to cut print circulation from seven days to five. (A digital-only version posts the other two days.) The New York Daily News let go of half its staff in July.
In fact, 1,000 to 1,500 of the 7,100 newspapers still publishing have cut more than half of their newsroom staffs since 2004, per UNC.
Online news sites try to fill in the gaps, but at slower rates than newspapers shutter. The study also found most emerging news sites are located in affluent metro areas; only two were in counties without a newspaper. A 2016 Knight-sponsored analysis of 153 online sites concluded that only one in five attracted enough visitors and funding to be self-sufficient.
(Another emerging option is Civil Media Company, which has seen the launch, or pending launch, of several new, independent newsrooms across its blockchain platform.)
As print publishing drops, the researchers predict a grimmer fate for many zoned editions. They will become ads-only shoppers, specialty publications or axed.
The UNC research team took data from almost 60 national, state and regional newspaper organizations, as well as from the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION). Then they melded the results with demographic, political and economic data from government sources.
“If journalism and access to information are pillars of self-government, these tools of democracy are not being distributed evenly, and that should be cause for concern,” said Rutgers University professor Philip M. Napoli, after leading a separate study of three demographically disparate communities in New Jersey.
Or as the UNC researchers concluded: “Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished.”
The Knight Foundation and UNC jointly funded the effort.