Story at a glance
- Local newspapers are shutting down at an average rate of two per week throughout the United States, leaving large swaths of the country in news deserts.
- Previous research has shown that when local news shutters, participation in democracy declines, and local officials are free to operate without the press holding them accountable.
- New non-profit business models, proposed legislation, and programs placing journalists in local newsrooms are all potential solutions to the crisis, and some success has been reported.
Local news has been on the decline for decades, thanks in part to the exodus of advertisers from the classified pages to then-startups like Craig’s List, and the advent of the internet and social media.
New research from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications painted an updated picture of the situation in a report that found that two local newspapers fold each week in the United States.
The findings spell concern for rural communities unable to sustain local coverage. Areas that currently lack robust coverage also tend to have older, poorer and less educated populations compared with areas that are covered well.
Between late 2019 and May 2022, over 360 newspapers closed, while since 2005, the nation has lost over a quarter of its local publications. That trend is expected to continue, and by 2025, researchers predict the US will lose one third of its local newspapers.
The majority of communities that have seen a local paper fold do not have an online or digital replacement, putting one fifth of the country’s population, or 70 million Americans, at risk of living in a void of local information, researchers found. Roughly 7 percent of counties throughout the United States currently have no newspaper.
“This is a crisis for our democracy and our society,” said lead author Penelope Muse Abernathy in a statement.
“Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain print or digital news organizations.”
The repercussions of closing local papers include increased spread of misinformation, heightened political polarization, and declined public trust in media. Surveys have consistently shown local media tends to garner higher trust from the public when compared with national outlets.
Although corporate and philanthropic funding efforts in recent years have contributed to several new hyper-focused digital sites, these outlets tend to exist in “digitally connected urban areas with diverse sources of funding,” according to a Northwestern press release.
Newspapers that survived the shift significantly cut staff and reduced circulation, while conglomerates like Gannett, Lee Enterprises and Alden Global Capital have bought up huge shares of local papers throughout the country, the release continued.
Adopting a non-profit model has resulted in some success for individual newsrooms.
Citing additional signs of hope, Tim Franklin, senior associate dean, John M. Mutz Chair in Local News and director of the Medill Local News Initiative explained how new startups have also launched in places like Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland.
“Some legacy news outlets are deftly transforming from print to digital,” he continued. “There are unheralded local news leaders who are adapting and experimenting with new models. And local news is increasingly being delivered through newsletters and other digital platforms. But the need to innovate is urgent.”
Another potential solution proposed by experts is to partner college journalism students with local newsrooms to provide a staffing and coverage boost.
Report For America, a non-profit organization that places journalists in local newsrooms across the country, has also grown in popularity in recent years and is based off of similar public service projects like Teach For America.
Additional solutions include offering tax credits for individuals or businesses who subscribe to local news, a hallmark of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
Other countries that have seen a similar decline in news revenue already engage with social media companies or search engines like Facebook and Google to pay news organizations every time an article or link is published on the platform.