A Path Forward: How to Fill the Gaps in Local News
Reprinted with permission from localnewsinitiative.northwestern.edu
News deserts are not a new phenomenon. Throughout the country’s history, there have been places so small or isolated that the community could not support a local newspaper or any other media outlet. There have also been urban and suburban communities that have been traditionally overlooked, ignored and redlined by local and regional newspapers and broadcasting outlets.
Whether rural or urban, most were poor communities, often with large minority and ethnic populations. Residents in those communities were compelled to develop communication work-arounds to get the news and information that would affect them personally.
But the 21st century is different. The internet and mobile phones today are so ubiquitous—85 percent of adults owned a smartphone in 2021—that even residents in traditionally underserved and isolated communities have easy access to a wealth of information, as well as misinformation and disinformation on politically charged topics that tear at the fabric of communities and country.
Simultaneously, the collapse of the print newspaper business model, and the failure of many news organizations to develop alternative revenue sources, has destroyed more than one quarter of all the local newspapers since 2005, creating many more news deserts.
Outside of several dozen large cities, we are a nation of small towns and communities. Seventy five percent of the nation’s 20,000 incorporated cities have fewer than 5,000 residents; 40 percent have fewer than 500 residents.
Many of the 2,500 papers lost since 2005 have been small weeklies and dailies serving these communities. Most are not large enough to support either a for-profit newspaper or nonprofit digital start-up, according to Robert Picard, senior fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and author of The Economics and Financing of Media Companies, he estimates a news organization needs at least 1,000 subscribers – and the strong financial backing of either advertisers or deep-pocket philanthropists – to be viable.
While there has been a significant increase in financial support for local news in recent years, the vast majority of the venture and philanthropic money has gone to outlets located in major urban areas – not to communities “lacking a critical mass of reporters,” according media scholar Nikki Usher, author of News for the Rich, White and Blue.
Today, this is a nation divided politically, economically, digitally and, increasingly, journalistically. Seventy million residents – or a fifth of the population – live in communities without easy and affordable access to the sort of critical and credible local news and information that holds together our democracy and society at the grassroots level.
Whether seeking to revive local news in longstanding news deserts or newer ones, stakeholders – including policymakers, industry executives, venture capitalists, philanthropic organizations, universities, scholars and ordinary citizens – are confronted with multiple challenges. The geography of the country and population distribution, for example, complicate matters. More than 95 percent of the land mass in the U.S. is rural, yet only 20 percent of the population live outside major urban areas.
There is no single solution. Reversing the loss of local news requires developing different journalistic and business strategies to address the disparities between the resources available in rural and urban areas, as well as in longstanding news deserts. Solving the problem requires a coordinated, multi-pronged approach that includes:
- Identifying areas within each state that are without local news, or in danger of losing it.
- Designing policies and incentives at the state and national levels to address the disparity and availability of news in these communities.
- Increasing – as well as redirecting – venture and philanthropic funding toward news organizations that seek to deliver reliable and comprehensive local news and information to residents in news deserts.
- Rethinking journalistic practices to compensate for the dramatic loss of almost 60 percent of newspaper journalists in recent years.
In-depth research to identify at-risk communities
There are multiple ways to track the loss of local news, and what it means for residents who live in communities that have lost the news.
The State of Local News 2022 tracks trends in the number and location of local newspapers and digital-only outlets down to the county-level in each state, as well as the number of journalists employed by local newspapers. Recent research by scholars at other universities has analyzed the quantity and quality of local news in specific communities, and the impact of the loss of local news on society – including a decrease in voter participation, the spread of misinformation and disinformation and declining trust in our democratic institutions.
All of these efforts reveal important trends, based on data from previous years. But the news landscape is changing so fast – and the country is so vast – that more focused and predictive research is needed in order to craft solutions that address the unique information needs of residents in specific communities.
Several state legislatures have taken steps to set up such a process that will inform actions going forward. For example, The Illinois Local Journalism Task Force, established in 2022, is tasked with researching the state of local news in Illinois and making policy recommendations to strengthen the industry.
Nonprofit and nonpartisan organizations, as well as universities, have also stepped forward. In 2018, the Colorado Media Project – a collection of funders, civic leaders and journalists — produced Local News is a Public Good, which compiled data on the number of news outlets and newsroom employees in Colorado, interviewed dozens of stakeholders and made a series of policy recommendations that could be implemented by both local municipalities, as well as by state agencies.
Other nonprofit groups, such as the National Trust for Local News, have undertaken extensive surveying, and listening sessions, to understand the gaps in local news coverage in specific communities.
Yet there are still major gaps in what is known. As Picard puts it, “There is a need to identify every community and area within a state that is without a local news provider (or in danger of losing one). We need to understand how people in those communities are currently getting information about local issues. Is it from a neighbor – or from a source outside the community, such as social media?”
Commercial models “may not be viable in some communities – especially rural areas,” said Picard. “So, you need to consider other options, such as public or philanthropic funding. But, first, we need to understand what led to the current situation, so we can determine how to attack the problem.”