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The findings in this report are based on information in a comprehensive proprietary database of more than 9,000 local newspapers, created and maintained by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The data, collected over the past four years by faculty and researchers in the School of Media and Journalism, are derived from a variety of industry and government sources, supplemented with extensive reporting, fact-checking and multiple layers of verification. UNC maintains five separate databases on newspapers that were published in 2004, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
For this 2018 report, information on individual publications in the database has been cross-referenced with at least four sources. It includes statistics gleaned from two industry databases: Editor & Publisher DataBook (published 2004-2017) and E&P data accessed online for the years 2016-2018, as well as proprietary information collected and provided by the consulting firm BIA/Kelsey for the years 2004 and 2014. Researchers then verified these data with information obtained from 55 state, regional and national press associations and our own extensive independent online research, as well as interviews with staff at individual papers, when available. We have supplemented newspaper data with information from other industry sources, such as the Local Independent Online News (LION) association, the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), and the Pew Research Center. Layers of demographic, political and economic data from government sources were also added to the database. By visiting this website – usnewsdeserts.com– and using the interactive maps, researchers, as well as interested citizens, can drill down to the county level in all 50 states and compare how communities across the country have been affected by the closing of local newspapers.
Our database tracks the fate of the country’s newspapers in recent years because newspapers have historically been the prime source of news and information that guides decision-making of residents and government officials in most communities on important local issues such as education, elections and the environment (to name but a few). Our research is concerned with identifying local newspapers that provide public-service journalism. Do they, for example, cover local government meetings? Or do they provide coverage on any of the eight topics identified by the Federal Communications Commission as being “critical information needs?” For our 2018 report, we intentionally excluded from our proprietary database shoppers, newsletters, specialty publications, advertising inserts and some zoned editions that produced minimal public service journalism - even if they were identified as “newspapers” in other databases. This report does not attempt to assess the quality of news generated by local news outlets, which would require in-depth analysis of the content produced and distributed in a community. We recommend this as an additional research step to anyone seeking to determine the health of the local news ecosystem in a specific region.
Since this is one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date databases on newspapers, we make every effort to share it with serious academic and industry researchers who are pursuing related or relevant topics. If you would like access to our newspaper database, please click here to fill out a request form.
Building and Refining the Database
As a result of the extra layers of verification that we have added since publishing our 2016 report (The Rise of the New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts), we have identified 300 local newspapers that existed in 2004 but were not listed in industry databases. Therefore, in our 2018 report, we have adjusted upward the number of newspapers in our 2004 database – to 8,891 newspapers (1,472 daily; 7,419 weekly).
Simultaneously, we have identified almost 600 papers that were stand-alone traditional newspapers in 2004, but by 2018 had evolved into shoppers, advertising supplements or specialty publications such as lifestyle magazines or business journals. Many of these are still listed in 2017 industry databases, but we removed them from UNC’s 2018 database, since our focus is on identifying local newspapers. The 2018 report identifies 7,112 local newspapers in the country – 1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies – that are still being published. Each newspaper in the database has the following variables: year, name, frequency (daily/weekly), number of days published per week, city, state, parent media company and total circulation.
As was the case with the 2016 report, because our focus is on local newspapers, UNC also excluded from the 2018 report data on the country’s largest national papers – The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today – as well as shoppers, advertising supplements, magazines and other specialty publications. In total, 1,779 papers that were closed, merged or morphed into shoppers or specialty publications over the past 14 years were removed from the UNC database to arrive at the 2018 number.
The 2018 tally of 7,112 papers may overstate the number of stand-alone newspapers. Based on UNC’s analysis of papers owned by the largest 25 chains, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of newspapers still listed in industry databases may be, in fact, zoned editions of larger papers. Nevertheless, these zoned editions were not removed from the 2018 tally, since they are still providing news coverage of important events and issues in their communities.
Despite adding multiple layers of verification, we realize the UNC Database is still prone to errors inherent in any large database, particularly one that depends in part on surveys and the accurate feedback of respondents. When we spotted errors, we corrected them in the database and will continue to update our analysis as new information becomes available. If you detect an error, please fill in and submit the corrections form available on our website. In general, we update our most current year’s database every quarter.
The Concept of News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers
In our 2018 report, we are introducing the concept of “ghost newspapers” and expanding our definition of “news deserts.” Previously, we defined a news desert as a community without a newspaper. As a result of the dramatic shrinkage in the number of local news outlets in recent years, we have expanded our definition of news deserts to include communities where residents are facing significantly diminished access to the sort of important local news and information that feeds grassroots democracy.
As we compared our updated 2004 and 2018 databases and correlated them with numerous news stories and press releases, we noted that a number of traditional stand-alone newspapers had become shells, or “ghosts,” of their former selves. They are no longer providing residents in communities large and small with the news they needed to make informed decisions about a range of important issues that could affect their quality of life.
We identified two types of ghost newspapers: the once-iconic weeklies that merged with larger dailies and evolved into shoppers or specialty publications, and the metro and regional state papers that have dramatically scaled back their newsroom staffing, as well as their government coverage of inner-city and suburban communities, as well as rural areas. As noted above in “Building and Refining the Database,” UNC removed from the 2018 database 600 weeklies that had become shoppers or specialty publications since 2004. However, we did not remove the larger metro and regional state papers, but estimated the number — at least 1,000 – by comparing industry statistics on newsroom staffing and circulation to news articles about the size of an individual paper’s newsroom staffing in 2004 compared with 2018. To determine definitively whether a large daily is fulfilling its civic journalism role of informing a community on important issues, much more research – including in-depth analysis of published content – is needed. Having raised the issue, we leave that to other researchers to determine if an individual paper is a “ghost.”
Dealing with Circulation Limitations
There is currently no widely accepted and easily accessible tracking system of online readership data, especially for the thousands of local papers in small and mid-sized markets. Therefore, print circulation is used as a proxy for measuring the decline in both the reach and influence of traditional newspapers.
The print circulation figures in our database come with limitations. Some circulation figures are audited and verified; others are self-reported. Therefore, in our 2018 database, we’ve added additional verification steps and information in an attempt to be as transparent as possible about where we are getting the numbers. We also noted whether the reported circulation is free or paid circulation.
When possible,we use circulation numbers from the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM). AAM is the industry leader in media verification and specializes in verifying circulation metrics for publishers.However, only 13 percent of papers in the UNC Database subscribe to AAM audits. Additionally, the reported AAM numbers for the large dailies often lag behind the audit by a couple of years.
Because news organizations must pay AAM to verify their circulation statistics, many small papers do not use the service and instead self-report. If there are no AAM data,UNC relied on self-reported newspaper circulation from a variety of sources (E&P, state press associations and independent research). Self-reported circulation data are problematic, since UNC researchers observed that a significant number of newspapers report the same circulation across multiple years. However, self-reported numbers are the only option available for many small weekly papers.
U.S. and State Maps
For the 2018 report, UNC created interactive maps for the country and all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. The maps in this report, and in its online version, provide insights into the risk of news deserts in thousands of communities across the country. By visiting http://www.usnewsdeserts.com, researchers can analyze data (demographics, political leanings, number of news outlets) down to the county level for all 50 states. UNC researchers used government data to pinpoint the locations of newspapers as accurately as possible. Often, both the BIA/Kelsey and E&P 2014 databases incorrectly listed the parent company or city location for many newspapers, especially the smaller ones. UNC researchers attempted to review and correct errors. The UNC Database uses the newspaper’s office as the physical address for mapping purposes.
To identify whether newspapers were located in a rural or an urban area, each was assigned to a corresponding group from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC) based on the county in which they were located. According to RUCC codes, communities in groups one though three were classified as metro areas. All others were classified as rural. Additionally, U.S. Census information on demographics (income, age, population makeup, etc.) was merged into the database, as well as information from state election boards and industry sources such as the Local Independent Online News (LION) association. We also overlaid the USDA’s information to locate counties in food deserts. The USDA defines a food desert as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers.”
For national and state maps, click here.
Tracking Sales, Mergers and Closures
UNC tracks changes in a newspaper’s ownership, as well as closures and mergers, through news accounts and press releases. We define a closure as a newspaper that is no longer published and a merger as a newspaper that has been combined with another publication. Often the two merged papers initially have a combined name, but eventually the name of the smaller paper is eliminated. We tracked mergers and acquisitions in the newspaper industry from 2004 to 2018 and assessed corporate strategies by identifying and examining:
- Publicly available corporate documents, including quarterly and annual reports released by the individual companies and press releases by Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April and Cribb, Greene & Cope, two of the leading merger and acquisition firms in the U.S. newspaper industry.
- Numerous news articles about individual purchases and business decisions.
- Statements made by executives that were in press releases, news articles or industry presentations.
- Reports and interviews with industry representatives and analysts.
There are limitations to all of the above sources. Press releases, news articles, statements made by news executives and reports from industry analysts often list by title only the sales of the largest and most prominent newspapers, usually dailies. The weeklies involved in the sale, as well as specialty publications (including shoppers and business journals) are often grouped together and reported as a single number. That is why we try to check all announcements of sales against publicly available documents and corporate websites.
We track updates to the industry through the Twitter account @businessofnews and post important developments on our website here.For the past three years, we’ve updated the current year’s database on a quarterly basis. The final update of the 2018 database will occur in January 2019, when all transactions that occurred in the fourth quarter of the previous year will be recorded.
Similar to our 2016 report, UNC categorized the largest 25 newspaper owners into one of three categories: private companies, publicly traded companies and investment companies.
- Private Companies: This group includes large companies, such as Hearst Corp., which own a portfolio of media that include an array of media formats. They not only own print publications, but cable networks and digital enterprises as well. This category can also include smaller companies like Boone Newspapers, which owns fewer than 100 publications in small and mid-sized communities throughout the South.
- Public Companies: This group includes publicly traded companies such as Gannett, Lee Enterprises and McClatchy.
- Investment Companies: This category has arisen in the past decade and has a different ownership philosophy and financial structure from the traditional newspaper owners. Owners in this group can be either private or public, but the key distinctions in investment company ownership are the companies’ business philosophies and financial structures, which differ significantly from those of traditional newspaper chains. Companies were classified in this category if they met at least five of the eight characteristics in the chart below:
About the Editor & Publisher and BIA/Kelsey Databases
Editor & Publisher began publishing an annual Newspaper DataBook in 1921. The DataBook has information on more than 25,000 companies and more than 160 data fields. Data are collected through mail and email surveys, supplemented with telephone research. BIA/Kelsey, a research and advisory company, focused on local advertising and marketing, began tracking newspaper ownership in 2004. The organization employs a telemarketing team that calls individual newspapers and collects information from employee respondents.