The Loss of Local News: What It Means for Communities

The past 15 years have been pivotal for the newspaper industry, a period of immense disruption and financial distress that reversed the good fortunes of the previous two decades. In 2004, newsroom employment and print advertising were near peak 1990s levels. Since then, the number of journalists employed by newspapers has been cut in half, and print advertising revenue has fallen to record low levels. The large metro and regional state papers felt the squeeze first. But by 2010, even century-old weeklies that had survived the Great Depression were feeling the existential threat. The question that hangs in the air today: Can local newspapers remain economically viable in the 21st century, overcoming a secular shift to digital by readers and advertisers and the resulting damage to the business models that have sustained them for 200 years.

Newspapers have been variously described as watchdogs that hold our civic institutions accountable and “furnish that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide.” “The bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct.” “Vitamin supplements for their communities” that provide the vast majority of “news that feeds our democracy” and “link people overwhelmed by otherness and isolation.”1

What is at stake if we lose the thousands of local newspapers that have historically provided coverage of our cities and countryside? Numerous government and foundation studies have found that for a community to reach its full potential, it must be civically healthy and inclusive. Economists call public service journalism a “public good” because the information conveyed through news stories helps guide decision-making in our society. A 2011 report by the Federal Communications Commission found that local newspapers are the best medium to provide the sort of public service journalism that shines a light on the major issues confronting communities and gives residents the information they need to solve their problems. But, in many communities today, there is simply not enough digital or print revenue to pay for the public service journalism that local newspapers have historically provided. Therefore, the fate of communities and the vitality of local news – whether delivered over the internet, the airwaves or in print – are intrinsically linked.2

This report explores the loss and diminishment of local newspapers, the implications for our communities and our democracy, and the potential to thwart the rise of news deserts. The report is divided into five sections:

The Loss of Newspapers and Readers:  More than one in five papers has closed over the past decade and a half, leaving thousands of our communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Half of the 3,143 counties3 in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities. Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated.

The Rise of the Ghost Newspaper:  In an era of fake news, the diminishment of local newspapers poses yet another threat to the long-term vitality of communities. Many of our 7,100 surviving newspapers are mere shells, or “ghosts,” of their former selves. Once stand-alone iconic weeklies have merged with larger dailies and gradually disappeared. Metro, regional and state papers have dramatically scaled back their coverage of city neighborhoods, the suburbs and rural areas, dealing a double blow to communities that have also lost a local weekly.

Bigger and Bigger They Grow:  Ownership matters, since it determines not only the editorial vision and mission of a newspaper, but also the future business models that will evolve for an industry in the midst of massive disruption. More than half of all newspapers have changed ownership in the past decade, some multiple times. The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two-thirds of the country’s 1,200 dailies. Not surprisingly, the number of independent owners has declined significantly in recent years, as family-owned papers have thrown in the towel and sold to the big guys. The consolidation in the industry places decisions about the future of individual papers, as well as the communities where they are located, into the hands of owners with no direct stake in the outcome.

Filling the Local News Void:  A range of entrepreneurs – from journalists at television stations to founders of digital sites – are experimenting with new business models and new ways of providing local news to hundreds of communities that have lost their local newspapers. Most ventures, however, are clustered around major metro areas. As a result between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no news coverage at all.

The Challenges and Opportunities That Remain:  There are no easy fixes. Despite this, for-profit and nonprofit ventures, as well as legacy and digital news organizations, are beginning to develop viable economic and journalistic models. The opportunity – and the challenge – is finding a way to scale these efforts so the thousands of communities that have lost a newspaper have a viable alternative. We need to make sure that whatever replaces the 20th century version of local newspapers serves the same community-building functions. If we can figure out how to craft and implement sustainable news business models in our smallest, poorest markets, we can then empower journalistic entrepreneurs to revive and restore trust in media from the grassroots level up, in whatever form – print, broadcast or digital.

Our findings are based on analysis of the data collected by the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over the past four years. Our 2016 report was based on analysis of two industry databases that track newspapers. For our 2018 report, we have added three more layers of verification to determine the status of the more than 9,000 publications in our database, including information obtained from 55 state, regional and national press associations and our own extensive independent online research and interviews with staff at individual papers. Additionally, we added layers of demographic, political and economic data from government sources. As a result, you may use this website to drill down to the county level in every state to find out how your community has been affected. You can find out more about our methodology here.  As was the case with the 2016 report, because our focus is on local newspapers, we have excluded from our analysis the country’s largest national papers – The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today – as well as shoppers, magazines and other specialty publications, such as business journals.


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