News Deserts and the Challenge to Democracy

By Deborah Steinborn

What do Glen­nville, Geor­gia, and Youngstown, Ohio, have in com­mon? The small town in the Deep South and the mid-sized Mid­west­ern city both have lost their sole local news­pa­pers in recent years.

For more infor­ma­tion, see the UNC report “News Deserts and Ghost News­pa­pers” (or click the graphic)

 

Res­i­dents, with­out a doubt, sore­ly miss these local news out­lets. The Glen­nville Sen­tinel was found­ed in 1925. The city’s agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my was boom­ing, and there was a lot to report on. But in 2016, the week­ly news­pa­per shut its doors for good, leav­ing the town of rough­ly 3,800 and the sur­round­ing area with­out any local news­pa­per at all. Youngstown’s 150-year-old dai­ly Vin­di­ca­tor had a sim­i­lar cult fol­low­ing. After its demise in 2019, a few staffers tried to com­pen­sate by launch­ing their own dig­i­tal news start­up. A noble effort, sub­scribers say, but just not the same.

These are two tales of the death of local news. There are thou­sands more in the U.S., from the Bald Knob Ban­ner in rur­al White Coun­ty, Arkansas, to Her­nan­do Today in Her­nan­do, Flori­da, to the Rocky Moun­tain News in Den­ver, Col­orado. A sim­i­lar pat­tern is vis­i­ble in coun­tries around the world. The result­ing land­scape is increas­ing­ly promi­nent. And it’s become both a cause for con­cern and for action. Aca­d­e­mics have even coined a term for it. Com­mu­ni­ties, either rur­al or urban, with lim­it­ed access to the sort of cred­i­ble and com­pre­hen­sive news and infor­ma­tion that feeds democ­ra­cy at the grass­roots lev­el, are dubbed “news deserts.”

The desert is spread­ing rapid­ly. Between Jan­u­ary 2005 and Decem­ber 2020, a quar­ter of all U.S. local print news­pa­pers ceased pub­li­ca­tion, accord­ing to data that North­west­ern pro­fes­sor Pen­ny Muse Aber­nathy col­lect­ed while at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na. With­in that same time frame, more than half of all local jour­nal­ists lost their jobs, as round after round of lay­offs gut­ted news­rooms, accord­ing to UNC. The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic has accel­er­at­ed this con­sol­i­da­tion. At least 30 more Amer­i­can news­pa­pers closed or merged between April and May 2020 alone.

This trend isn’t lim­it­ed to the U.S. The influ­en­tial Ger­man region­al news­pa­per Rhein-Zeitung per­ma­nent­ly closed all local edi­to­r­i­al offices in Feb­ru­ary 2020, leav­ing edi­tors at just three loca­tions through­out the entire state of North Rhine-West­phalia. The con­sol­i­da­tion mir­rors devel­op­ments in rur­al, sub­ur­ban, and urban areas through­out the country.

“In the past, when you were grow­ing up and you got the home­town news­pa­per, your mom was cut­ting out the gro­cery coupons, your dad was read­ing the sports scores, and you got the local news along with it,” says Anne Nel­son, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and author of the book Shad­ow Net­work: Media, Mon­ey, and the Secret Hub of the Rad­i­cal Right. “Some­times the nation­al and inter­na­tion­al news came last, but local events and state­house pol­i­tics were cov­ered,” Nel­son says. “Now, there’s a new polit­i­cal media mod­el exploit­ing local news deserts par­tic­u­lar­ly in rur­al, mid­dle Amer­i­ca. Amer­i­cans today inhab­it par­al­lel media silos, divid­ed large­ly along par­ty lines.”

In oth­er words: the decline in local jour­nal­ism affects the health of local democ­ra­cy. The news void is filled with cable chan­nels, radio sta­tions, and social media sites that stoke con­flict and polar­iza­tion. In the 2019 study, “When news­pa­pers close, vot­ers become more par­ti­san,” a group of Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go researchers direct­ly and unequiv­o­cal­ly linked news­pa­per clo­sures to par­ti­san­ship. “Unless some­thing is done,” the study’s authors warned, “our pol­i­tics will like­ly become ever more con­tentious and par­ti­san as the media land­scape consolidates.”

That’s the bad news. Here’s a bit of good news. Unique ini­tia­tives are push­ing back in sup­port of local news. In Boul­der, Col­orado, for one, the mem­ber-sup­port­ed Pub­lic News Ser­vice pro­vides mul­ti-plat­form con­tent for free to news out­lets in fly­over states in an effort to advo­cate jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.

Report for Amer­i­ca places young jour­nal­ists in local news­rooms to report on under-cov­ered top­ics and com­mu­ni­ties. Aim­ing to tack­le news deserts at scale, it paired 226 reporters with news­rooms in 48 states, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Puer­to Rico in 2020 com­pared with just three reporters in 2017. Jour­nal­ists have worked in news­rooms from Mor­gan­town, West Vir­ginia, to Anchor­age, Alas­ka, and Ridge­land, Mis­sis­sip­pi, to name just a few. And in Pitts­field, Mass­a­chu­setts, a group of local investors took over the Berk­shire Eagle from Dig­i­tal First Media in 2016 in an effort to revive local jour­nal­ism. Under the new own­er­ship, it hired addi­tion­al staff and expand­ed its inves­tiga­tive team. It is now con­sid­ered a news­pa­per of record for the entire county.

Per­haps even the sim­plest of efforts can make a dif­fer­ence. In 2019, the edi­tor of The Desert Sun, a local dai­ly in Palm Springs, Cal­i­for­nia, dropped nation­al pol­i­tics from the opin­ion page for a month. As op-eds turned to local issues, so did the news. Online read­er­ship near­ly dou­bled. And aca­d­e­mics who ana­lyzed the exper­i­ment found that polar­iza­tion in Palm Springs had vis­i­bly decreased. “Polar­iza­tion is a tough trend to slow down in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics,” says Joshua Darr, a pro­fes­sor at Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty. “But The Desert Sun was able to do just that by chang­ing one page of its paper per day.” 

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Deb­o­rah Stein­born is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and mod­er­a­tor based in Ham­burg. She writes reg­u­lar­ly for Forbes mag­a­zine, Die ZEIT, and oth­er media.