The paradox of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown is that it has exposed the deep fissures that have stealthily undermined the health of local journalism in recent years, while also reminding us of how important timely and credible local news and information are to our health and that of our community. This is a watershed year, and the choices we make in 2020 – as citizens, policymakers and industry leaders – will determine the future of the local news landscape. Will our actions – or inactions – lead to an “extinction-level event” of local newspapers and other struggling news outlets, as predicted by some in the profession? Or will they lead to a reset: an acknowledgment of what is at stake if we lose local news, as well as a recommitment to the civic mission of journalism and a determination to support its renewal?
In only a few months, the pandemic and the ensuing recession have greatly accelerated the loss of local news that has been occurring over the past two decades. Layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs have affected thousands of journalists in 2020. Dozens of newspapers have been closed, and there is the threat of dozens – even hundreds – more closures before year’s end. While we don’t yet know what the news landscape will look like in a post-pandemic world, we do know there will be a “new normal.” Because this is a pivotal moment, now seems an appropriate time to hit pause and document the state of local news today. That way, we can begin to address the underlying structural issues that have contributed to the rise of news deserts.
This report is the fourth on the state of local news produced by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It measures what has been lost, while also assessing what must be done if we are to nurture and revive a vibrant news landscape in the third decade of the 21st century.
The first section of this report, “The News Landscape in 2020: Transformed and Diminished,” examines the loss of local news, from the end of 2004 – when newspaper advertising, circulation and employment were at, or near, peak levels – to the end of 2019, providing a time-lapsed snapshot of the news landscape before the coronavirus seized control of the economy. It assesses not only the current state of local newspapers, but also that of local digital sites, ethnic news organizations and public broadcasting outlets. The second section, “The News Landscape of the Future: Transformed . . . and Renewed?” establishes the need for a reimagining of journalistic, business, technological and policy solutions.
Extensive research has established that the loss of local news has significant political, social and economic implications for our democracy and our society. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, almost three-quarters of the general public remains unaware of the dire economic situation confronting local news organizations. By documenting the transformation of the local news landscape over the past 15 years, and exploring the challenges and potential solutions, we hope this report will raise awareness of the role that all of us can play in supporting the revival of local news.
Accompanying this report, our updated website, usnewsdeserts.com, with more than 350 interactive maps – allows you to drill down to the county level to understand the state of local media in communities throughout the United States. You will find information on regional and community newspapers – as well as public broadcasting outlets, ethnic media and digital sites.
New this year, in both our report and prominently displayed on our website, we provide a quick exercise that allows you to assess the quality of local news in your community. We hope you will share this information with others and use it to support news organizations that take their civic mission seriously – whether they are digital sites, newspapers or broadcast outlets.
All of us have a stake in nurturing a strong local news environment. This includes the venture capitalists who fund start-ups, the hedge funds and private equity firms that invest in and own our news organizations, the tech companies that disseminate news and information, the government officials who craft policies, and the directors of corporate boards and philanthropic organizations that fund our local institutions. But, most of all, we as residents of the thousands of communities – large and small – that dot this vast country need reliable news and information to make wise decisions about issues that will affect the quality of our everyday lives and those of future generations.