As President Joe Biden said during his inauguration, “this is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth …”
The best defense against such attacks is a free press.
A strong network of local newspapers makes democracy stronger and more resilient. It’s a vaccine against misinformation, proven to inform and engage citizens by seeking and sharing facts and truth.
To pass Biden’s test, the country must stop the local-news death spiral and find ways to sustain and grow a diverse, independent free press.
“What is at stake is not only the future of democracy but also the future of the society that we want to live in,” Penelope Muse Abernathy, a leader in efforts to save local newspapers, told me last week.
We discussed how the news crisis deepens divides. Voters are less informed and more vulnerable to misinformation because the news void is filled with polarizing cable channels and social-media sites stoking conflict.
Abernathy is known for leading research documenting the spread of “news deserts,” with little to no local news reporting, across much of the country.
As I write about press issues, I’ll refer often to this research. It’s like the climate science tracking global warming, showing how the crisis is real and growing.
A former newspaper reporter, editor and executive, Abernathy recently retired from the University of North Carolina and began teaching at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, (and) Integrated Marketing Communications.
At UNC, Abernathy set out to study news ownership changes. She ended up quantifying how the country lost a fifth, then a quarter, of its local papers, with losses accelerating in recent years. Many remaining outlets are “ghost” papers with little investment in reporting.
The first “news desert” report was in 2016. A 2020 update examined not just closures but the “collapse of a for-profit business model,” Abernathy said.
Online news startups didn’t backfill as expected — as many failed as were created between 2018 and 2020, and survivors are often in places with other local news sources.
The 2020 update also found the crisis is acute in poor and historically under-covered communities, and ethnic media are experiencing the same problems as other newspapers.
Public radio added 1,000 reporters the last decade. But that doesn’t come close to replacing 36,000 newspaper reporting jobs lost, she said.
Voters are left grasping at straws. Abernathy’s personal example: Voting in a largely rural North Carolina congressional district with a history of fraud, she couldn’t find stories vetting candidates.
“When you don’t have a local news organization and you have ghost newspapers at the state level it’s very difficult to find any information,” she said. “I found only one article in the local newspaper — it basically said one of the candidates was coming to town. Not only could I not get any information on the congressional candidates I couldn’t get any information on who was running for school board or county commission.”
Abernathy turned to Raleigh and Charlotte newspaper sites “and immediately hit a paywall on both of them, so that was that.”
Here are excerpts of our conversation, edited for space:
Q: How does the loss of local papers, and social media becoming a primary news source, contribute to division?
A: More than 90% of what circulates on Facebook is national news so it’s very politicized, it’s polarizing. When you don’t have local newspapers, there’s no one that shows you how the issues being discussed at a national level relate to you. It contributes to a disconnect with why national policies are relevant and to just this lack of information, which lets you grasp for anything.
Q: You found many of Facebook’s featured local stories are outdated, crime or offbeat stories.
A: There’s nothing that really kind of helps you make wise decisions.
Q: Is there a viable business model for local news?
A: In a community that has average or above-average economic growth prospects, and a publisher who has a mandate to meet the needs of the local community, they can have an average or above-average chance of crafting a sustainable for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid. It’s going to necessitate a variety of business models and you’re not going to have profit margins you had in the past, and you’ll have to have the capital to invest for at least five years.”
Q: What about places with less prosperity, where people may feel disenfranchised and unheard by larger news outlets?
A: The problem that concerns me, especially in these hard-hit areas, is there just has not evolved a nonprofit or hybrid model that’s going to support journalism over the long haul.
Q: And digital platforms …
A: Technology companies — basically Facebook and Google — have siphoned off more than 70% of digital revenue in most markets. That means every other medium, they’re all fighting over the digital scraps. There’s just not enough left. It is a permanent break in the for-profit business model.
Q: Some in Congress want to save local news.
A: I’m delighted to see bipartisan support. We still need to have a more thoughtful, holistic and strategic approach to the policies and regulations that will guide us for the next couple of decades. As the country goes through an exciting and extraordinary transformation demographically, that puts a huge burden on all of us to realize what is at stake.