What Are Local News Deserts and How Can We Fix Them?

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Since 2004, more than a quarter of the nation’s newspapers have closed. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem, resulting in further closures and fears among experts of a local news “extinction-level event.”

According to the Brookings Institution, more than 65 million Americans live in a county with one newspaper or less. Out of 3,143 counties in the United States, 200 have no local newspapers and are classified as newspaper deserts.

The rapid decline of local print media has prompted researchers to ask what the implications are for areas with no local newspapers and how this situation can be improved.

Sarabeth Berman, the CEO of the American Journalism Project, has been raising these exact questions. During an interview with Bloomberg Technology last month, Berman described local news as being “in crisis.”

“It’s not because people don’t want local news; in fact, people really do want local news. But the rise of the internet has meant that the business model of local news has been completely disrupted,” Berman said.

Local newspapers have traditionally relied on a combination of subscriptions and ad revenue to stay financially viable. With the internet shifting news consumption online, newspaper ad revenue has taken a major hit, decreasing from $70 billion in 2000 to around $15 billion in 2018.

And although online ad revenues for local newspapers have increased in recent years, they are a “growing share of a shrinking pie,” the Brookings study said.

Another Brookings study from 2018 found an increase in local government spending following the closure of a local newspaper. Specifically, the study found that municipalities with recent newspaper closures incurred greater borrowing costs since local investors in public projects were left with a gap in local media coverage.

The study concluded that online news outlets and “alternative information intermediaries” would not be an adequate replacement for rigorous local journalism into municipal projects and governments.

Researchers have found that the decline of local journalism has political consequences too. A 2018 University of Chicago study found that local newspapers published increasingly less political news between 2010 and 2014. The study found the decline in political coverage led to diminished knowledge and participation in the political process among the public.

A similar study published by Oxford University in 2018 found that split-ticket voting during Senate elections decreased by 1.9% in areas where local newspapers closed, indicating that the decline of local journalism can lead to greater political polarization.

Berman believes that beyond these statistics, another consequence of fewer local newspapers is the rise of viral disinformation. She says that replenishing local news deserts would build trust with readers and lessen the prevalence of disinformation.

“With your local news, you feel you have a relationship. You may know a local reporter, or you know the stories they’re writing about. You can judge whether or not they are factual or accurate,” Berman said.

One solution that has seen moderate success is the replacement of local newspapers with local online publications. As of 2018, the Local Independent Online News (LION) association had identified 525 local online publications, both nonprofit and for-profit.

Despite some success, an analysis by the Los Angeles Times revealed that one in four digital news sites fails. And the Knight Foundation found that only one in five of these digital publications creates enough revenue to stay self-sufficient. Of the self-sufficient websites, two-thirds were in the seven largest metropolitan areas in the United States, far from most newspaper deserts.

Success stories like the Texas Tribune have shown the ability to build community support around a non-profit business model. In just over a decade the non-profit news publication has raised more than $56 million. The publication has now launched a training hub to help other news publications following the non-profit route.

Similarly, LION recently launched a program providing technology, tools and resources to those attempting to launch a local newsroom. With a goal of 10 newsrooms by this April and 500 over the next three years, the program will provide participants with a $100 bundle of online publishing basics including a website, publishing system and newsletter.

Another platform, Patch, takes the approach of hyperlocal news to the national level. Using a combination of syndicated content, user-generated content, computer-generated content and their reporters, Patch delivers local news by the zip code.

Critics of Patch are quick to point out that despite making a profit, the articles Patch produces do not replace the reporting quality of a local newspaper. With an editorial staff of approximately 120 serving more than 1,200 local communities, journalists are assigned to multiple locations.

“If your idea of a local news operation involves a team of reporters and editors that can exhaustively cover your hometown, you will be disappointed with Patch, which usually assigns a single journalist to cover multiple towns,” Vox’s Peter Kafka wrote in a review of the platform. “Those reporters then generate five to 10 stories a day, which means those stories are almost always generated quickly.”

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