Commentary

Is New York City Becoming A 'News Desert'?

New York City may be the news capital of the world, home to some of the biggest media organizations. But that status hasn't helped to improve local news coverage. The most populous U.S. city shows some similarities with rural America as a "news desert," according to a report by the Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

While 12% of all U.S. newsroom employees live and work in New York, according to Pew Research, most of them cover topics that defy the confines of the city's geographic boundaries, like national, global and business news.

That leaves significant gaps in local coverage of healthcare and hospitals, courthouses, public housing and even politics, which is remarkable for a city with 90 online news publications and at least 270 ethnic and community media organizations.

The lack of coverage is especially acute for the city's boroughs outside of Manhattan, where most people live. Geographic-based beats also aren't a priority, as local news outlets that cover the entire city tend to focus coverage on specialized themes, such as education or transportation, according to the Tow Center.

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New York City isn't immune to the problems that face local news outlets across the U.S., including a decline in readership and advertising revenue as audiences migrate to digital media. Reader revenue isn't enough to replace lost ad sales, limiting the financial resources to support local journalism.

That has led to some experimental efforts like The City, a nonprofit local news website that received $10 million in funding from philanthropic foundations and private contributors. The digital publisher started last year as part of an effort to fill the void left by the demise of hyperlocal website DNAinfo and a pullback of local coverage by the ailing New York Daily News, notes the Tow Center.

Having lived and worked in New York for most of my adult life, I think the report is profoundly dismaying. It makes me worry for the health of city, which is losing almost 300 people a day to other parts of the U.S., if a Bloomberg News analysis of census data is to be believed.

It's easy to blame the Trump tax reform, which capped the mortgage-interest deduction from federal taxes at $10,000, for the exodus, but New Yorkers have been fleeing the region for years. It's not clear whether the city can reverse the tide, given the high cost of living and low quality of life, even for high-income millennials.

Another worrisome trend is the decline of New York's retailing industry as more shoppers buy products on Amazon, while merchants struggle with soaring rents and endless bureaucracy. New York is being hollowed out, removing a significant source of ad revenue for local news outlets. Their travails reflect the city's broader economic ills.

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