'Local news is the oxygen of democracy' and disappearing when it's needed the most: media expert
Thanks to the internet, many newspapers in major U.S. cities — the New York Times, the Washington Post — have become much easier for out-of-towners to access than they were in the past. The Times has plenty of online subscribers who don’t live in the Big Apple; the Post has many readers outside of Washington, D.C. The internet has, in effect, made it easier for urban newspapers to become national publications.
But at the same time, many journalism professors and media analysts have been sounding the alarm about the shortage of local news in the United States — especially outside of major urban centers. Nancy Gibbs, who serves as director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, addresses that topic in an op-ed published by the Post on December 27.
“Every couple of weeks,” Gibbs explains, “you can read about another newspaper shutting its doors, or moving from daily to weekly, or hollowing out its newsroom until it’s little more than a skeleton staff bulked up with j-school students. Study the maps made by Penny Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University and an expert on dwindling sources of news, and you can see the dead zones — the 200 or so counties with no local paper. About 1600 other counties have only one.”
Gibbs elaborates, “Local news is the oxygen of democracy, the most trusted source for the most essential information. And we’ve long known why dying newsrooms damage communities. But look at the maps again, and another alarming picture comes into focus: The very places where local news is disappearing are often the same places that wield disproportionate political power.”
In June 2020, Poytner’s Tom Stites lamented that “the relentless spread of news deserts” was “speeding up even before the coronavirus incapacitated local economies” and that “since then, the rate” had “accelerated some more.”
Stites noted a report published that month by Penelope Muse Abernathy and her colleagues at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The report was titled, “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?”
Stites lamented, “Since the fall of 2018, the report says: 300 more newspapers have failed, bringing the death toll to 2100, almost 25 percent of the 9000 newspapers that were being published 15 years ago. The number of communities that had their own newspapers in 2004 and now have no original reporting whatsoever, in print or digitally, has grown to 1800 from 1300. These are news deserts, with no coverage of issues ‘such as the quality of schools in that community or the spread of an infectious disease.’ Many are in economically challenged rural places, but news deserts are now also invading wealthy suburbs.”
Stites’ article and Abernathy’s report were published two and one-half years ago. And the state of local news hasn’t gotten any better since then.
Gibbs, in her Washington Post op-ed, notes that in South Dakota, for example, “about half of” the state’s “66 counties have only a single weekly newspaper,” adding that “seven counties” in South Dakota “have no newspaper at all.”
“You could do the same math for residents of Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont or Delaware, all states with similarly enhanced political clout,” Gibbs observes. “But finding reliable local news sources is much harder in the first three — geographically larger, rural states with dispersed populations, which are much more likely to lack high-speed internet as well. In contrast, Delaware’s three small counties have 13 newspapers; Vermont’s 14 counties have 39. By now, we know quite a bit about why this matters. The citizens whose votes count the most might have the hardest time learning about the issues and candidates running in their communities — because there’s no longer anyone reporting on them.”
Gibbs argues that the shortage of local news encourages reflexive partisanship.
“If you’re a Democrat hoping to stand a chance of winning in a red state, or a Republican in a blue one, it helps if voters get to know you personally, see you at ribbon cuttings and town halls, hear where your views depart from party orthodoxy,” Gibbs warns. “That’s a lot harder to do without local reporters providing reliable coverage, no matter how many targeted Facebook ads you buy. By the same logic, winning candidates are accountable to the voters who elevate them — unless no one knows what they ran on or what they are doing with their power, beyond whether they have an R or a D on their jersey. If you weaken the connection between voters and their representatives, you empower their donors, lobbyists and conflict entrepreneurs.”
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