A map of the news deserts of the United States. White dots indicate daily newspapers; darker areas show the counties with the fewest — or no — daily newspapers; lighter areas show areas with more local news sources. (Washington Post)

A map of the news deserts of the United States. White dots indicate daily newspapers; darker areas show the counties with the fewest — or no — daily newspapers; lighter areas show areas with more local news sources. (Washington Post)

Comment: When newspapers fold, no news is bad news

Communities without a local source of news see reduced civic engagement and election participation.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

“It has been our great privilege to bring you news from Stoneham and Woburn over the years,” read the announcement. “We regret to inform you that this will be the final edition of the Sun-Advocate newspaper.” The Massachusetts weekly, as of August, is no more.

It is an increasingly familiar story across the United States. Already in a sharp downward spiral, the local news industry was hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic. The worst blows were taken by newspapers; businesses that, as a group, had never recovered from the digital revolution and the 2008 recession. Between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers closed their doors. Since covid struck, at least 80 more papers have gone out of business, as have an undetermined number of other local publications, like the California Sunday Magazine, which folded last fall; then won a Pulitzer Prize eight months later.

Those papers that survived are still facing difficult straits. Many have laid off scores of reporters and editors; according to Pew Research Center, the newspaper industry lost an astonishing 57 percent of its employees between 2008 and 2020; making these publications a mere specter of their former selves. They are now “ghost newspapers”: outlets that may bear the proud old name of yore but no longer do the job of thoroughly covering their communities and providing original reporting on matters of public interest.

Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor, describes the loss of the Sun-Advocate in Massachusetts as “a grim picture but not nearly as catastrophic as in some parts of the country.” After all, he told me, there are other news organizations nearby, including the Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn and WickedLocal.com, a digital site run by Gannett that serves swaths of Massachusetts. (Gannett had owned the Sun-Advocate until its closure.)

By contrast, in many regions of the country, there is no local news coverage at all, or next to none. These areas have come to be known as “news deserts”; a term used by academics and researchers to refer to areas where coverage of the community by local news outlets is minimal or nonexistent. It’s in such places that the collapse of local news is being felt most dramatically. Then again, even if you don’t live in a defined news desert, you may have noticed that your regional paper long ago ditched actively covering your community if it is outside the immediate city and first-ring suburbs.

The spread of news deserts: Between January 2005 and December 2020, about a quarter of U.S. local print newspapers ceased publishing, according to data that Northwestern professor Penny Muse Abernathy collected while at the University of North Carolina. By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local print newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.

This trend in local news has been life-changing, of course, for the employees who lose their jobs and incomes. But even more concerning is what happens to the communities they used to serve; and, more broadly, what happens to our society and our ability to self-govern when local news dries up.

An extreme case of the withering of local news over the past decade is Youngstown, Ohio, where the beloved 150-year-old daily newspaper, the Vindicator, abruptly went out of business in 2019. The death of “the Vindy” made Youngstown — just minutes from the former General Motors manufacturing plant in Lordstown — the biggest U.S. city without its own daily newspaper. (A neighboring city’s newspaper began putting out a Vindicator edition, plus a small group of former staffers launched a digital news site, Mahoning Matters. But it is not the same as a dedicated newsroom of 40 journalists.)

As I researched my 2020 book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” I traveled to Youngstown just after the shocking announcement. Residents had gathered at a quickly called public meeting, and many were in tears as they contemplated the future of their city and region without this institution.

What’s lost when a newsaper folds: I spent some time with Bertram de Souza, the paper’s editorial page editor, who had been at the Vindicator for 40 years. As a reporter, he helped reveal the corruption of James Traficant, who was expelled from Congress and sent to prison in 2002 after being convicted of racketeering, taking bribes and using his staff to do chores at his home and on his houseboat. Youngstown “is absolutely the kind of place that needs watchdog reporting,” de Souza told me, “and this newspaper was committed to exposing corruption.” The problem, going forward, is that when it comes to revealing malfeasance, you don’t know what you don’t know: If there’s no one to keep public officials honest, citizens might never find out how their faith is being broken and their tax dollars squandered.

Mark Brown, the paper’s general manager and a member of the family that owned it, said something I found poignant as he recalled the Vindy’s heyday, when editors were able to send a reporter or freelancer to all of the municipal board and school board meetings in a three-county area. Public officials knew journalists were present, Brown said, “and they behaved.”

What happened to the Vindicator was a particularly notable version of an oft-repeated story: There just wasn’t enough money anymore to keep the paper afloat and pay the staff. Brown told me that the Vindy had lost money for 20 of the 22 years before its closing because of shrinking circulation, limited advertising revenue and rising costs.

While it was still in business, the Vindicator was relatively lucky because it was owned by a local family for 132 years. Many other newspapers have fallen out of local hands and under the control of large chains, some owned by private equity firms or hedge funds. One of these, Alden Global Capital (sometimes known as Digital First Media), perhaps the worst of the so-called vulture capitalists, earlier this year snapped up the storied Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and others in the well-regarded Tribune chain.

From a journalism perspective, this was widely — and rightly — regarded as a disaster. “Devastating” is how Ann Marie Lipinski, the Tribune’s former top editor, now curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, characterized the development to me in an interview. And tech journalist Karl Bode commented darkly on Twitter: “we’re slowly replacing a functional press with PR spam, hedge fund dudebros, trolling substack opinion columnists, foreign and domestic disinformation, brand-slathered teen influencers, and hugely consolidated dumpster fires like Sinclair Broadcasting.” (Sinclair Broadcast Group, the second-largest owner of local television stations in the country, has at times required its news anchors to read scripts with a strong conservative bent on the air.)

Less civic engagement; more polarization: It’s not just watchdog journalism that suffers when news organizations shrink or die. The decline affects civic engagement and political polarization, too. Studies show that people who live in areas with poor local news coverage are less likely to vote, and when they do, they are more likely to do so strictly along party lines. To put it bluntly, the demise of local news poses the kind of danger to our democracy that should have alarm sirens screeching across the land.

Then there’s the matter of public trust. In general, people trust the mainstream news media — or as I prefer to call it, the reality-based press — far less now than they did several decades ago. Around the time of The Washington Post’s landmark reporting of the Watergate scandal, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers (the secret history of the Vietnam War) by the New York Times and The Post, the vast majority of citizens basically trusted what they heard and read in the traditional media. CBS’s Walter Cronkite was known as “the most trusted man in America.”

Most studies show that there is one exception to this steady decline in trust: Americans find their local news sources significantly more credible than national news sources. Yet these are the very same outlets that are rapidly disappearing. That’s especially worrisome at a time when conspiracy theories and misinformation are rampant.

Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor and author of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” has called the loss of local news “the essential problem of our republic.” It is nothing less than a crisis, he says, and a deepening one.

“The only way we can talk to other people is with some common understanding of the facts, for example whether or not our water is polluted or whether or not the teachers in our school are on strike,” Snyder told E-International Relations. We don’t have to like what we learn about our communities through local news reporting, he noted, but it benefits us nonetheless. “When local news goes away, then our sense of what is true shifts from what is helpful to us in our daily lives to what makes us ‘feel good,’ which is something entirely different,” Snyder said. And, I would add, something very troubling.

More than newspapers: This crisis, to be sure, is not just about newspapers, and certainly not just about newspapers in their printed incarnations. What’s important is the journalism, not the precise form it comes in. Local newspapers have been the center of most regions’ media ecosystems for many years because historically they have employed the most journalists and as a result produced the majority of original news. But they aren’t the only way to provide local news, by any means. Public radio, local television and digital-only news sites — often newly formed nonprofits — are increasingly part of the equation. And if there is a future, it surely is a mostly digital one.

But digital news sites, too, have struggled, and many have closed during the pandemic, including the well-regarded Bklyner, whose Brooklyn-based editor and publisher Liena Zagare wrote a heart-rending note in late August announcing a September end to publication. “Since I never figured out how to get paid regularly for the many hats I still wear … I cannot hire someone to fill in while I take the time off that I need to make sure that I, too, can be sustainable,” she explained. Among her roles: assigning stories, fact-checking, editing, reporting, writing, copy-editing, publishing, social media, tech, subscriptions, ad sales and handling payroll.

All of this leaves many localities — from rural areas to New York City’s most populous borough — struggling for answers. And yet, while the situation is undeniably troubling, some partial solutions are beginning to take shape. Digital news outlets are getting help through organizations such as the American Journalism Project, which raises money to fund and guide nonprofit, nonpartisan newsrooms. Just weeks ago, the group and a coalition of Cleveland-based organizations announced the Ohio Local News Initiative to bolster regional reporting in the state, starting next year with a newsroom in Cleveland. Report for America, based loosely on Teach for America, puts young journalists in underserved communities to shore up the staffs of existing news organizations.

Hope in collaboration: Well-established local outlets are coming up with collaborations too, as when the Texas Tribune joined forces with national investigative powerhouse ProPublica to cover the Lone Star State, or when several Pennsylvania news organizations decided to share their resources through Spotlight PA, with a particular focus on statehouse coverage. In Chicago, a rare bit of good news recently came along to balance the sale of the Tribune: The long-struggling Sun-Times newspaper and Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ radio station are planning to combine as a nonprofit newsroom; it would be one of the largest in the nation. Meanwhile, there is bipartisan support in Congress for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would grant tax credits to outlets for every local reporter on their payroll.

No one can doubt the idealism behind these various efforts. However, the path forward remains uncertain. In many cases, where newspapers already have closed their doors, or shrunk beyond recognition, help may be arriving too late. What’s more, any government action, or public funding, means treading carefully; the journalism industry has, for good reasons, long prided itself on independence.

There is no single answer to this crisis. Any solution, if there even is a solution, will require a multifaceted approach. But before local news can be saved, or successfully reinvented, one thing is absolutely necessary: American citizens must understand the existential threat local outlets are facing; and the incalculable value that their journalism brings to our democracy.

Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post.

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