For hundreds of years, local newspapers were a vital source of information, accountability and community for millions of Americans. But in the last two decades, the industry has faced a series of challenges that have threatened its survival and left many areas without reliable local news coverage.
According to a report by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, more than 360 newspapers closed between late 2019 and the end of May 2022, and the U.S. has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers since 2005. The report found that 70 million residents — or a full fifth of the country’s population — either live in an area with no local news organizations, or one at risk, with only one local news outlet and very limited access to critical news and information.
These areas are referred to as ‘news deserts’, and they have serious consequences for self-government and society. Research has shown that in communities without a strong local news presence, voter participation declines, corruption increases, misinformation spreads, political polarization worsens and trust in media erodes. Local news plays a crucial role in informing citizens about public health, education, public safety, local politics and other issues that affect their daily lives.
How some local newspapers are fighting back
The decline of local newspapers is being driven by multiple factors, but most especially the loss of advertising revenue to online platforms like Facebook and Google, the consolidation of ownership by hedge funds and private equity firms that prioritize maximizing profits over real journalism, and the rise of competition from digital outlets that cater to niche audiences or national interests.
However, not all hope is lost for local journalism. Some local newspapers have found ways to adapt and survive in the changing media landscape, by diversifying their revenue streams, engaging with their audiences, collaborating with other outlets, innovating with new technologies and formats, and seeking support from philanthropic donors and civic-minded investors.
For example, the Seattle Times launched several community-funded journalism initiatives that allow readers to donate to specific reporting projects on topics such as education, homelessness and transportation. The Salt Lake Tribune has become the first legacy newspaper to transition to a non profit model that relies solely on donations, grants and memberships. The Philadelphia Inquirer has been acquired by a nonprofit foundation that aims to preserve its independence and public service mission.
These examples show that local newspapers can still provide valuable journalism that serves the public interest and strengthens democracy. But they also need the support of their readers and communities to sustain their work. As Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Medill and the principal author of the report on the state of local news, said: “It is critical to understand what is working and where there are still gaps in the flow of reliable, comprehensive and timely news and information.
Although it may seem so, the decline in local newspapers is not inevitable. If we want to avoid living in ‘news deserts’, we need to support our local newspapers before it is too late.