The journalism school at the University of North Carolina has produced an extensive and brilliant report about the sad decline of the American newspaper industry.
According to the report’s author, Penny Abernathy, the business model for newspapers that worked for 200 years began to fail 15 years ago. Since 2004, more than 20 percent of the country’s newspapers have closed.
The closures have left thousands of communities at risk of becoming news deserts, Abernathy said.
Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities. Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable — the poorest, least educated and most isolated.
Abernathy is a former executive with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and now holds the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC. For her report, she tracked and analyzed the newspapers in every county of every state since 2004.
She also writes about “ghost newspapers,” calling many of the country’s 7,100 surviving newspapers mere shells. “Metro, regional and state papers have dramatically scaled back their coverage of city neighborhoods, the suburbs and rural areas, dealing a double blow to communities that have also lost a local weekly,” she said.
At the same time, big newspaper chains have bought more of the surviving papers. “The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two-thirds of the country’s 1,200 dailies,” Abernathy said.
What’s that mean for news coverage?
“Not surprisingly,” Abernathy said, “the number of independent owners has declined significantly in recent years, as family-owned papers have thrown in the towel and sold to the big guys. The consolidation in the industry places decisions about the future of individual papers, as well as the communities where they are located, into the hands of owners with no direct stake in the outcome.”
In the midst of the news desert Abernathy has documented so well, will corruption grow? Certainly there is now less accountability for local politicians, unelected officials, and business people. As Louis Brandeis said more than a hundred years ago, sunlight is the best disinfectant. But with so many local newspapers gone or turned into mere “ghosts,” where’s the sunlight going to come from?
And let’s ask, too, if the news desert is somehow equivalent to a loss of press freedom? On the national level, countries with the most press freedom are usually the least corrupt, and countries with the least press freedom are the most corrupt. Today in the United States there are far fewer professional journalists covering the local political beats. Nationwide, newspaper staffing has dropped 45 percent (from 71,640 to 39,210) since 2004. And the number of newspaper journalists fell from 52,000 in 2008 to about 25,000 in 2017.
Will entrepreneurs and digital sites create new business models to fill the news void? That’s happening, Abernathy said, but only around major metro areas. “As a result, between 1,300 and 1,400 [non-metro] communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no news coverage at all.”
You can find out if your state and county are news deserts with Abernathy’s interactive map here.
Richard L. Cassin is editor at large of the FCPA Blog.