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Newspaper closures increase as sales slow

The pace of newspaper closures, mergers and bankruptcies appears to be accelerating as both chains and independent newspaper owners face unrelenting economic challenges, and the largest companies shed underperforming assets.

Since publication of the 2018 report, The Expanding News Desert, UNC researchers have uncovered an additional 200 shuttered papers. Almost half of those papers have closed in recent months, according to data compiled by the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.  If the trend holds, the U.S. will have lost more than 2,000 newspapers since 2004, bringing the total number of surviving newspapers in the country to less than 7,000.

Most of the shuttered papers this year have been in the Midwest and Northeast. All are weeklies, except four small dailies under 10,000 circulation in Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, and the 33,000-circulation Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, which announced last week it planned to close at the end of August because the family-owned paper could not find a buyer.

This new information is based on UNC’s annual survey of state press associations – with more than three-quarters of the organizations reporting – as well as extensive tracking of news accounts and investment reports on sales, mergers and sales.  

While closures appear to be accelerating, the pace of acquisitions has slowed in recent months as sales prices have dropped to historic lows.  Many newspapers in small and mid-sized markets are being valued at only two times trailing annual earnings, according to investment bankers, who predict that the pace of acquisitions will pick up in the fall, as some large chains, such as such as Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. (CNHI), begin exiting the market, and others, such as Gannett and GateHouse, contemplate merging operations.

CNHI, backed by the pension fund Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), announced in 2018 that it planned to sell or shutter all of its more than 100 papers, located in mostly rural communities. However, CNHI is in no rush, given the depressed market.  "This is not exactly the market you'd want to sell anything in because the prices are too low,” David Bronner, CEO of the RSA, said in an interview earlier this year with the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. “(Community newspapers) still make money. And you have a wealth of real estate assets there. You wouldn't want to give it away at two times earnings."  CNHI did not return numerous calls, seeking further comment on the status of its papers.

In contrast, GateHouse, the largest newspaper chain with more than 450 papers, is moving ahead with either sales or closures of several dozen of its smallest papers. In a recent earnings call, company executives said they were focusing this year on assimilating the more than 100 acquisitions in recent years, and reshuffling the properties in its portfolio. In late May, GateHouse announced it would be “consolidating” its 50 remaining suburban weeklies in the Boston area, leaving only 18 titles. GateHouse has also continued selling off small individual properties in the Midwest and South, such as the daily Log Cabin Democrat to Paxton Media, while shuttering those it cannot sell, including the 150-year-old Bastrop, Louisiana, Daily Enterprise. According to news reports, GateHouse has also explored merging with Gannett, the second largest chain with more than 200 papers.

While the large chains can afford to hold out for better prices – or simply walk away from underperforming properties – some legacy family-owned newspapers and regional chains, such as Western Communication, which owns seven papers in the Pacific Northwest, are being forced to declare bankruptcy and auction off their properties at rock-bottom prices.  The 151-year-old Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania, with a circulation of 40,000, was recently picked up at auction by Digital First Media, the third largest chain with more than 100 papers in its portfolio.  This came only a couple of months after Digital First, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Capital, made an unsuccessful hostile bid to takeover Gannett, after reportedly first asking Gannett to buy its newspapers. Meanwhile, according to news accounts, Tribune Publishing is still looking to either sell its 77 papers, including the Chicago Tribune, or merge with another chain.

All this sets up an unpredictable second half of the year.  More precise numbers on closures and sales will be available in fall, when the Center publishes its fourth annual report, tracking the threat of news deserts.

Local news: Going, going… gone

"Local news: Going, going... gone" by Penelope Abernathy for American Heritage, Spring 2019

"While more and more readers prefer to receive news online, this dramatic loss has been driven not only by changes in reader preference, but also by the business decisions of newspaper owners. The decrease in daily circulation comes primarily from the pullback of metro and regional newspapers from distribution to outlying rural and suburban areas. In contrast, much of the loss in weekly circulation since 2004 comes from the closure of more than 1,700 weeklies. This decrease in print readers raises serious questions about the long-term financial sustainability of both small community and large metro newspapers."

"Local news: Going, going... gone" by Penelope Abernathy for American Heritage, Spring 2019

"While more and more readers prefer to receive news online, this dramatic loss has been driven not only by changes in reader preference, but also by the business decisions of newspaper owners. The decrease in daily circulation comes... -->

In news industry, a stark divide between haves and have-nots

"In news industry, a stark divide between haves and have-nots" by Keach Hagey, Lukas Alpert and Yaryna Serkez for The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019

"Meanwhile, about 400 online-only local news sites have sprung up to fill the void, disproportionately clustered in big cities and affluent areas, the UNC study found."

"In news industry, a stark divide between haves and have-nots" by Keach Hagey, Lukas Alpert and Yaryna Serkez for The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019

"Meanwhile, about 400 online-only local news sites have sprung up to fill the void, disproportionately clustered in big cities and affluent areas, the UNC... -->

When no news isn’t good news: What the decline of newspapers means for government

"When no news isn't good news: What the decline of newspapers means for government" by Alan Greenblatt for Governing, April 24, 2019

"Owners and publishers willing to plan for the long term will be able to ride out the journalism industry’s ongoing transition from print to digital, says Abernathy, the UNC professor. But there are many communities that lack the economic base, she says, to support anything like the amount of state and local government coverage that was available a generation ago."

"When no news isn't good news: What the decline of newspapers means for government" by Alan Greenblatt for Governing, April 24, 2019

"Owners and publishers willing to plan for the long term will be able to ride out the journalism industry’s ongoing transition from print to digital, says Abernathy, the... -->

When “Local News” Isn’t Local

The Impact of News Deserts in Research from Pew, Facebook       

Two concerning and contradictory findings about local news attitudes emerged from a Pew Research Center study released today. While half of Americans say local media don’t cover their communities, almost three-quarters don’t realize that the loss of local news has been driven by the demolition of the business model that has historically supported newspapers.

The Pew study, which surveyed 35,000 Americans between October and November 2018, found that more than 70 percent of Americans think their local news outlets are doing very well or somewhat well financially.  As a result, less than 15 percent have paid for subscriptions or donated to local news outlets in the past year.

Nearly half of those surveyed by Pew say the local news they receive isn’t about the community in which they live. More than 1,800 local newspapers in the U.S. – or one in five – have closed or merged since 2004, according to a report by the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, The Expanding News Desert. Many of the country’s remaining local and regional papers have pulled back circulation and coverage from outlying areas as both daily circulation and newsroom employment dropped by nearly 50 percent since 2008, leaving Americans in thousands of communities without a credible and comprehensive source of local news.

More than one-third of Americans think local journalists are out of touch with the community, and a vast majority of those surveyed by Pew think it is at least somewhat important for these journalists to be personally engaged with their local area. “These figures stand out in part because Americans overwhelmingly believe local journalists should have a strong connection to the communities they report on,” said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew. “Vast majorities, for instance, put importance on local journalists being personally engaged and knowing the history of the community.”

Facebook has also recently released data that shows that one in three of its users live in places where the company cannot find enough local news to launch its “Today In” feature.  According to Facebook’s metrics, there has not been a single day in a four-week span where the company has been able to find five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns. And while the supply isn’t there, the demand is. Facebook says when it surveys users about what types of news they would like to see more of, local news tops the list “by far."

Similarly, Phil Napoli at Duke University found that were no articles on local issues and events in 20 percent of 100 communities sampled during a seven-day period in 2016.

Local TV stations top the list of outlets where Americans often get local news, according to the Pew survey. Some 38 percent of U.S. adults say they often get news from TV, while 20 percent primarily turn to local radio and 17 often use local daily newspapers. But nearly a third – 28 percent of those surveyed – said they turn to less traditional types of providers for local news, such as online forums and community newsletters. While nearly 80 percent of Americans who get local news from television and radio access it through the television set or the airwaves, nearly half – 43 percent – of the daily newspaper readers access that news digitally rather than in print.

For much more on ghost newspapers and the loss of newspapers and readers in the Expanding News Desert, visit our report page.


The Impact of News Deserts in Research from Pew, Facebook       

Two concerning and contradictory findings about local news attitudes emerged from a Pew Research Center study released today. While half of Americans say local media don’t cover their communities, almost three-quarters don’t realize that the loss of... -->

Shrinking newspapers and the costs of environmental reporting in coal country

"Shrinking newspapers and the costs of environmental reporting in coal country" by Charles Bethea for The New Yorker, March 26, 2019

"According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, some fourteen hundred American cities and towns have lost a newspaper during the past fifteen years. There are now more than a thousand communities in the United States that have no local news source whatsoever; recently, Facebook, which has sucked up much of the advertising money that once went to newspapers, acknowledged that it was struggling to find the local news that its users want to read, because, in many places, nobody is reporting that news."

"Shrinking newspapers and the costs of environmental reporting in coal country" by Charles Bethea for The New Yorker, March 26, 2019

"According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, some fourteen hundred American cities and towns have lost a... -->

Facebook says it wants to do something about news deserts

"Facebook says it wants to do something about news deserts" by Kristen Hare for Poynter, March 18, 2019

"The data Facebook is sharing with the researchers doesn’t come with any money, but Abernathy said it will include links to the stories shared on Facebook, the news outlets and cities. That information can help her and others get a better sense of places that are getting news that’s not truly local."

"Facebook says it wants to do something about news deserts" by Kristen Hare for Poynter, March 18, 2019

"The data Facebook is sharing with the researchers doesn’t come with any money, but Abernathy said it will include links to the stories shared on Facebook, the news outlets and... -->

Facebook wants to feed users more local news. There just isn’t enough of it.

"Facebook wants to feed users more local news. There just isn't enough of it." by Keach Hagey for The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2019

"One-third of Americans live in a place where Facebook can't find enough local news being shared on its service to justify building a localized aggregator for that area, according to data released by Facebook on Monday."

"Facebook wants to feed users more local news. There just isn't enough of it." by Keach Hagey for The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2019

"One-third of Americans live in a place where Facebook can't find enough local news being shared on its service to justify building a localized aggregator... -->

Going to pieces

"Going to pieces" by Chris Davis for Memphis Flyer, March 14, 2019

"Ending rural and regional home delivery also contributed to the nationwide rise of what are now being called "news deserts," a dynamic that worsened with corporate acquisition and subsequent shuttering of hometown and family newspapers in places where 40 to 60 percent of the population may not have broadband or wi-fi access. News deserts are most common in Southern states, according to the UNC report, and less likely to affect younger, whiter, and more affluent communities."

"Going to pieces" by Chris Davis for Memphis Flyer, March 14, 2019

"Ending rural and regional home delivery also contributed to the nationwide rise of what are now being called "news deserts," a dynamic that worsened with corporate acquisition and subsequent shuttering of hometown and family newspapers... -->

Collaborating at the Capitol: A new Illinois reporting service nearly doubles the number of statehouse journalists

"Collaborating at the Capitol: A new Illinois reporting service nearly doubles the number of statehouse journalists" by Christine Schmidt for NiemanLab, March 13, 2019

"Seven in ten newspapers in the U.S. did not have a statehouse reporter in 2014, a Pew analysis then found, and it’s quite conceivable that that number has only grown since. Between 2003 and 2014, the number of full-time statehouse reporters declined by 35 percent, with Illinois experiencing the strongest impact: losing seven full-time newspaper statehouse gigs in those 11 years. (Right as the state’s former governor was getting nailed on corruption charges, I might add.) That’s the same number of news organizations’ reporters in the Illinois statehouse press corps today, plus one from a conservative think tank."

"Collaborating at the Capitol: A new Illinois reporting service nearly doubles the number of statehouse journalists" by Christine Schmidt for NiemanLab, March 13, 2019

"Seven in ten newspapers in the U.S. did not have a statehouse reporter in 2014, a Pew analysis then found, and it’s quite conceivable that that... -->

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