New models are emerging to save what’s left of America’s newspapers but not fast enough to prevent widespread losses.
Closures continue at an average rate of two per week, according to a new version of the pivotal “news desert” research.
The State of Local News 2022 report, released Wednesday by Northwestern University’s Medill School, said more than 360 papers closed during the pandemic.
Overall the country lost a quarter of its newspapers over the last 15 years and is on track to lose a third by 2025.
“That is a real crisis for democracy,” principal author Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Medill, said Wednesday.
Abernathy produced the first “news desert” research in 2016 at the University of North Carolina, documenting how many newspapers were disappearing.
The work motivated publishers, philanthropists and policymakers to pursue a range of solutions to save an industry essential to self governance.
Its latest findings, of a worsening news desert and surviving papers ravaged by cutbacks and consolidation, should prompt Congress to finally act on bipartisan proposals to stop the bleeding and provide long-term stability.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who sponsored a bill that would provide temporary tax credits to preserve local journalist jobs as the industry transforms, said this remains a priority.
“Local newspapers reflect and inform our communities, and are essential to our democracy,” she said in a statement to The Seattle Times. “That’s why I support creating tax incentives for local newspapers, broadcasters and digital outlets to keep these newsrooms open. We need to do all we can to protect local journalism.”
Abernathy and Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and director of Medill’s Local News Initiative, said local and state-level solutions are also needed.
I say all of the above. But I’m concerned local and state support won’t be enough for less affluent regions that especially need the government accountability, community building and civic engagement that strong local news outlets provide.
America needs a robust, independent, local, free press system serving everyone. This must be a national priority, just as it was for the Founding Fathers.
There are some positive findings in the report, including the emergence of new local-news ventures supported by local benefactors and philanthropies in places like Chicago, Denver and Baltimore.
New models, such as hybrids with philanthropy supplementing for-profit papers like The Seattle Times, are also proving to be successful in some markets.
Abernathy said that despite the closures, these new models and remaining news outlets provide a strong foundation to build upon, if local support, owners and capital can be found.
New digital news ventures are also being created and their innovation is encouraging. Some are breakout successes.
But digital news startups are still relatively scarce nationally, don’t employ many journalists on average and disappear at about the same rate as new ones are created. Also, the “vast majority of those sites are located in larger cities, leaving much of the rest of the country uncovered,” the report said.
As for newspapers that provide most local coverage, more than 2,500 closed since 2005, leaving the U.S. with 6,377, including 1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies, according to the report, which is available online at localnewsinitiative.northwestern.edu.
Survivors aren’t distributed evenly. More than a fifth of the population, 70 million people, now live in news deserts or communities at risk of becoming one. Four million live in counties with no local newspaper and 66 million live in counties with a single paper covering often vast areas.
Two-thirds of the nation’s counties (2,000 of them) have no daily, and fewer than 100 of those have a digital substitute, the report said.
Remaining papers cut staff and distribution as profits evaporated in recent years, the report said. This reduced their ability to provide basic coverage especially in rural areas and suburbs.
“The disparity between those places that have news and have access to local news and those that do not …. is growing,” Abernathy said. “I think that is a real crisis for our democracy when you put it in with the other divides we’re experiencing whether that’s political, economic, cultural or even digital divides that we see in this country.”
Newspaper employment fell 70% over the last 15 years, including a nearly 60% decline in newsroom staff.
Despite the shocking declines, papers in larger cities are generally OK, Franklin said.
“I’m not too worried about a lot of the major cities and even some of the regional metros are going to be fine and are building a really solid base of subscribers to sustain them for the long-term — Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas,” he said. “My biggest concern really are the smaller community publications that don’t have scale to sustain themselves on reader revenue.”
Still, policymakers should work to stop further news consolidation, Abernathy said.
Ten large chains now own more than half of dailies. The largest chains aggressively cut costs and staff and close underperforming papers.
Less than a third of weeklies and only a dozen of the 150 large metro and regional dailies remain locally owned and operated, the report said.
“The larger the chain gets, the more disconnected the owner is from what the needs of the community are,” she said.
Anyone concerned about the loss of local news, and health of America’s democracy, should read this report and urge their elected representatives and community leaders to help save what’s left.