If it is doing its job, a newspaper is a reflection of the community it serves — good, bad and ugly. It is the eyes and ears of the public, it serves as the public trust and it is the watchdog — all at the same time.
In the absence of a free press, the shift is appreciable. Local newspapers like this one ask questions that need to be asked in order for readers (also known as citizens) to make educated decisions.
Not all communities are so fortunate.
The Columbia Journalism Review has been tracking the increasing number of “news deserts” nationwide — that is, communities that have no local newspaper to report daily news.
A recent report titled “The Expanding News Deserts,” published by University of North Carolina journalism professor Penny Muse Abernathy, indicates that 171 U.S. counties have no local newspaper, and nearly half of all counties in the United States have only one newspaper — and that’s usually a weekly.
Research identified a net loss of almost 1,800 local newspapers nationwide since 2004, including more than 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weekly newspapers. Other papers have become “ghosts,” shells of their former selves, the report pointed out.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections last November, the increasing number of news deserts was a growing concern not just for media companies, but for politicians as well.
Research shows that newspaper closures affect civic engagement in many ways, including affecting election results at the state Senate and House level, as well as in congressional races.
With less vetting of candidates by newspapers and more confusion about what was on the ballot, the concern was that voters were woefully uninformed going into November’s elections.
Multiple studies have shown that when a community loses a local newspaper, voter participation drops. As Abernathy notes, “This is bigger than a news industry problem. This is a problem for democracy.”
“There’s been a huge diminishment of what is available, especially in terms of public-service journalism, the very sort of journalism that you need as you’re going into a very crucial election and need to decide what issues are important,” said Abernathy in a recent interview.
Over the past decade and a half, the number of regional papers that would typically carry coverage of local and state races has drastically decreased, leaving voters without a steady stream of stories about candidates and propositions.
Journalism veteran Tom Stites first coined the term “news desert” in 2011.
“A huge part of the American people, the less-than-affluent majority, is civically malnourished due to the sad state of U.S. journalism — and that the nation’s broad electorate is thus all but certainly ill informed,” Stites wrote.
In communities where there is a news desert, “a lot of people really don’t know what’s going on,” Stites cautioned.
For sure, more Americans have cellphones with access to Facebook and other websites, but social media do not fill the void left by local reporters. If anything, social media create more confusion.
Without independent reporting about candidates, “you’re left with whatever comes in the direct mail and what you happen to see from your friends on a Facebook page,” Abernathy said.
This struggle is real. Traditionally, newspapers generate revenue from advertising or subscriptions. But many advertisers feel they can be more effective using Facebook (even though newspapers have thousands of people willing to pay to see local content and ads). Subscriptions are the other major source of revenue. But again, only certain demographics of a population want to read a newspaper. Young people are more willing to get information online and for free.
Meanwhile, newspapers — like ours — charge for online content. But most people believe that news is information and should be free as a public service. (Although, they willingly pay a lot of money each month for cable or satellite television in order to get news.) Many newspapers have paywalls to help offset the cost of vetting facts and writing articles.
Abernathy, a former executive at The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, says she understands why sites are trying to charge subscriptions. But as a practical matter, she said, “if we are going to rely on readers to pay for the news that we create, we’re only going to be able to offer it to the most affluent areas.”
That’s a conundrum, among many for this industry.
Regardless of how you receive your news, you need the news.
“The fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism,” the authors of the report wrote.
Fortunately, around Vermont, we drink news from the well of plenty. There are no news deserts here, and for that we should all be grateful.