The Local News Landscape in 2020: Transformed and Diminished
In only two decades, successive technological and economic assaults have destroyed the for-profit business model that sustained local journalism in this country for two centuries. Hundreds of news organizations – century-old newspapers as well as nascent digital sites – have vanished. By early 2020, many survivors were hanging on by the slimmest of profit margins. Then, the coronavirus hit.
We can measure the loss of local news in recent years in two ways: the loss of newspapers and the loss of journalists. In the 15 years leading up to 2020, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers disappeared, leaving residents in thousands of communities – inner-city neighborhoods, suburban towns and rural villages – living in vast news deserts. Simultaneously, half of all local journalists disappeared, as round after round of layoffs have left many surviving papers – the gutsy dailies and weeklies that had won accolades and Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting – mere “ghosts,” or shells of their former selves. Compounding the problem, there has been a lack of capital and funding available to support a variety of for-profit, nonprofit and publicly funded news organizations attempting to thwart the rise of news deserts.
This is the fourth report by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, documenting and analyzing the loss of local news and its implications for our democracy. In the years immediately following the 2008 recession, the decline has been relentless, and it appears to have been accelerating in the years leading up to 2020. Since our last report, The Expanding News Desert, was published in the fall of 2018:
- 300 newspapers closed, another 6,000 journalists employed by newspapers vanished, and print newspaper circulation declined by 5 million.
- Consolidation also increased, with the largest chains, backed by private equity firms and hedge funds, racing to merge with the last surviving publicly traded companies and form mega-chains with hundreds of newspapers, and management focused on shareholder return over journalism’s civic duty.
- Despite the efforts of other media, including commercial television and digital sites, to step into the breach, they have failed to thwart the rise of news deserts, especially in economically struggling regions of the country. Independent digital sites, once seen as potential saviors, are failing to achieve long-term financial security. While more than 80 local online sites were established in 2019, an equal number went dark.
Since then, the economic fallout from the coronavirus has turbo-charged the decline – with at least 30 newspapers closed or merged in April and May 2020, dozens of newspapers switching to online-only delivery of news, and thousands of journalists at legacy and digital news operations being furloughed or laid off.1 All of this raises anew fears of an “extinction-level event” that destroys many of the survivors and newcomers, and leads to the collapse of the country’s local news ecosystem.2
Even before the coronavirus crisis, it was apparent that the local news ecosystem was in peril, journalistically and economically.3 Some of the harm has been self-inflicted. An initial lethargy, or arrogance, at many newspapers hindered innovation and a quick response to a rapidly shifting environment. As the industry went into free fall, many newspaper owners also adopted the business practices introduced by the large private equity and hedge fund owners that prioritized bottom-line performance over journalism’s civic mission, dooming hundreds of news organizations to irrelevance. And there was a failure by both legacy news organizations, as well as digital start-ups, to use the new technology to reach out and engage audiences in new, more relevant ways and give voice to the voiceless, the disenfranchised – ethnic, poor and less educated – communities in the country.
However, much of the decline was inevitable, as the business model collapsed for news organizations and a viable substitute digital model has so far failed to emerge. There was an initial naiveté about the possibilities of the digital age that blinded policymakers, the industry and news consumers to the unintended political, economic and social consequences. Instead, the intrusive, always-on internet swiftly siphoned off readers, advertisers and profits. With Facebook and Google capturing the vast majority of digital revenue in many communities today, traditional news organizations, as well as online outlets, have been reduced to fighting over the digital scraps. The long-lasting recession of 2008 further weakened many news organizations – especially those in economically distressed communities, where many local businesses filed for bankruptcy and unemployment remained high, even as the stock market rallied. Without increased funding to support for-profit, nonprofit and publicly funded news enterprises, digital start-ups – as well as newspapers, public and commercial broadcasting outlets and ethnic media – have struggled to attain the strong financial footing necessary to experiment with and develop new business models that will allow them to adequately address the local news deficit.
This first section in the 2020 report, divided into four chapters, examines the state of local news, from the end of 2004 to the end of 2019. It provides a snapshot of the local news landscape in the moments before the coronavirus struck:
Vanishing Newspapers: Over the past 15 years, the United States has lost 2,100 newspapers, leaving at least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 without any at the beginning of 2020. To date, most of losses were weeklies in economically struggling communities. However, two closings in the past year – The Vindicator, a daily in the Ohio city of Youngstown, and, The Sentinel, a weekly in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. – were especially notable: Youngstown, Ohio, became the first city of any size in the country to lose its sole surviving daily newspaper, and the closing of The Sentinel, a small weekly, improbably left the 1 million residents of Maryland’s affluent Montgomery County without a local newspaper.
Vanishing Readers and Journalists: Half of newspaper readers and journalists have also vanished over the past 15 years. Many of the country’s 6,700 surviving papers have become “ghost newspapers” – mere shells of their former selves, with greatly diminished newsrooms and readership. The loss of both journalists and circulation speaks to the declining influence of local newspapers, and raises questions about their long-term financial viability in a digital era.
The New Media Giants: Despite the shrinking universe of surviving papers, the chains are bigger than ever – and, poised to grow even bigger, with the creation of a handful of highly leveraged mega-chains formed by the union of large publicly traded newspaper companies with large hedge funds and private equity firms. Massive consolidation in the newspaper industry has shifted editorial and business decisions to a few large corporations without strong ties to the communities where their papers are located. As profitability has superseded journalism’s civic mission on many newspapers, trust in local media has declined.
Entrepreneurial Stalwarts and Start-ups: A variety of legacy and start-up news outlets are currently attempting to fill the local news void. This year, UNC researchers examined the state of the country’s 525 online news outlets, 950 ethnic media and 1,400 public broadcasting stations. Their pioneering efforts hold promise, but the challenge is finding a way to scale their efforts. There is a critical need for more funding of for-profit, nonprofit and publicly funded business models.
Economists define journalism as a “public good”4 because the information in news stories informs wise decisions about important issues that can affect the quality of life of the nation’s 330 million residents. In the absence of a local news organization, social media and internet sites often have become the default media for reading, viewing and sharing news – as well as rumor and gossip – exacerbating political, social and economic divisions in a polarized nation.5
The virus has focused the attention of many in society – policymakers, as well as ordinary citizens – on what is at risk when we lose the news. Among the existential questions that need to be answered in the months ahead as news organizations attempt to recover from the coronavirus devastation: Who produces local news in the digital age? How will local news be delivered? Who has access to it? Who pays for the news we consume?
But before we can look ahead, we need to first understand how we got to this point and what we have learned so far.
The findings in this report are based on analysis of data collected by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over the past five years. Our study attempts to measure the loss of news through quantitative and qualitative research. It seeks to answer this question: Are residents in a community getting credible news that helps them make informed decisions about quality-of-life issues? In addition to newspapers, we’ve collected information on local independent news sites, ethnic news organizations and public broadcasting outlets. You can learn more about the state of news in your community by visiting our website, https://usnewsdeserts.com, which allows you to drill down to the county level in every state, using our 400 national and state interactive maps.
This is our fourth report. Three previous reports, the most recent being “The Expanding News Desert” (2018), have chronicled the rise of a new media baron, the emergence of local news deserts and various attempts by alternative media to fill the local news void. Two books, Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability (2014) and The Strategic Digital Media Entrepreneur (2018), explored the potential for local news organizations to transform themselves and develop sustainable business models.