The Expanding News Desert

From our very beginnings as a nation, newspapers have played a vital role in building community. Strong newspapers fostered a sense of geographic identity and in the process nurtured social cohesion and grassroots political activism. The stories and editorials they published helped set the agenda for debate of important issues, influence the policy and political decisions we made, and build trust in our institutions. The advertisements they carried drove local commerce and regional economic growth by putting potential customers together with local businesses. Ron Heifetz, professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, describes a newspaper as “an anchor” because it “reminds a community every day of its collective identity, the stake we have in one another and the lessons of our history. “

For residents in thousands of communities across the country – inner-city neighborhoods, affluent suburbs and rural towns– local newspapers have been the prime, if not sole, source of credible and comprehensive news and information that can affect the quality of their everyday lives. Yet, in the past decade and a half, nearly one in five newspapers has disappeared, and countless others have become shells – or “ghosts” – of themselves.

Since publishing The Rise of a New Media Baron and The Emerging Threat of News Deserts in 2016, we have continued to quantify the loss of our country’s newspapers and considerably expand the information in our proprietary database of more than 9,000 newspapers. Our 2018 report, The Expanding News Desert, delves deeper into the implications for communities at risk of losing their primary source of credible news. Concerned citizens, community activists, philanthropists, policy makers, educators, journalists and others in the industry can use this website to drill down to the county level to understand how the news landscape in each of our 50 states has changed in recent years and the implications this has for their communities. By documenting the shifting news landscape and evaluating the threat of media deserts, our reports seek to raise awareness of the role each of these interested parties can play in addressing the challenges confronting local news and democracy.

Our 2018 edition consists of two separate reports – “The Loss of Local News: What It Means for Communities” and “The Enduring Legacy of Our New Media Barons: How They Changed the News Landscape.”

“The Loss of Local News” documents the continuing loss of papers and readers, the consolidation in the industry, and the social, political and economic consequences for thousands of communities throughout the country. Our research found a net loss since 2004 of almost 1,800 local newspapers. We have also begun to identify papers where the editorial mission and staffing have been so significantly diminished that their newsrooms are either nonexistent or lack the resources to adequately cover their communities. Finally, we assess some of the recent efforts being made by other media – ranging from television stations to digital entrepreneurs – trying to fill the void that is left when a local newspaper dies and consider what still needs to be done.

“The Enduring Legacy of Our New Media Barons” provides an update on the strategies of the seven large investment firms – hedge and pension funds, as well as private and publicly traded equity groups – that swooped in to purchase hundreds of newspapers in recent years. It also explores the indelible mark they have left on the newspaper industry during a time of immense disruption.

The stakes are high, not just for the communities that have lost newspapers — or are living with the threat of losing a local newspaper – but also for the entire country. Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished. In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country – and of grassroots democracy itself – is linked to the vitality of local journalism.


Next: The Loss of Local News: What it Means for Communities