August 30, 2022

This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

News deserts are not a new phenomenon. Throughout the country’s history, there have been places so small or isolated that the community could not support a local newspaper or any other media outlet. There have also been urban and suburban communities that have been traditionally overlooked, ignored and redlined by local and regional newspapers and broadcasting outlets.

Whether rural or urban, most were poor communities, often with large minority and ethnic populations. Residents in those communities were compelled to develop communication workarounds to get the news and information that would affect them personally.

But the 21st century is different. The internet and mobile phones today are so ubiquitous — 85% of adults owned a smartphone in 2021— that even residents in traditionally underserved and isolated communities have easy access to a wealth of information, as well as misinformation and disinformation on politically charged topics that tear at the fabric of communities and country.

Simultaneously, the collapse of the print newspaper business model — and the failure of many news organizations to develop alternative revenue sources — has destroyed more than a fourth of all the local newspapers since 2005, creating many more news deserts.

Today, this is a nation divided politically, economically, digitally and, increasingly, journalistically. Seventy million residents — or a fifth of the population — live in communities without easy and affordable access to the sort of critical and credible local news and information that holds together our democracy and society at the grassroots level.

Whether seeking to revive local news in longstanding news deserts or newer ones, stakeholders — including policymakers, industry executives, venture capitalists, philanthropic organizations, universities, scholars and ordinary citizens — are confronted with multiple challenges. The geography of the country and population distribution, for example, complicate matters. More than 95% of the land mass in the U.S. is rural, yet only 20% of the population lives outside major urban areas.

There is no single solution. Reversing the loss of local news requires developing different journalistic and business strategies to address the disparities between the resources available in rural and urban areas, as well as in longstanding news deserts. Solving the problem requires a coordinated, multi-pronged approach that includes:

  • Identifying areas within each state that are without local news, or in danger of losing it.
  • Designing policies and incentives at the state and national levels to address the disparity and availability of news in these communities.
  • Increasing — as well as redirecting — venture and philanthropic funding toward news organizations that seek to deliver reliable and comprehensive local news and information to residents in news deserts.
  • Rethinking journalistic practices to compensate for the dramatic loss of almost 60% of newspaper journalists in recent years.

In-depth research to identify at-risk communities

There are multiple ways to track the loss of local news, and what it means for residents who live in communities that have lost the news.

The State of Local News 2022 tracks trends in the number and location of local newspapers and digital-only outlets down to the county level in each state, as well as the number of journalists employed by local newspapers. Recent research by scholars at other universities has analyzed the quantity and quality of local news in specific communities, and the impact of the loss of local news on society — including a decrease in voter participation, the spread of misinformation and disinformation and declining trust in our democratic institutions.

All of these efforts reveal important trends, based on data from previous years. But the news landscape is changing so fast — and the country is so vast — that more focused and predictive research is needed in order to craft solutions that address the unique information needs of residents in specific communities.

Several state legislatures have taken steps to set up such a process that will inform actions going forward. For example, the Illinois Local Journalism Task Force, established in 2022, is tasked with researching the state of local news in Illinois and making policy recommendations to strengthen the industry.

Nonprofit and nonpartisan organizations, as well as universities, have also stepped forward.

  • In 2018, the Colorado Media Project — a collection of funders, civic leaders and journalists — produced Local News is a Public Good, which compiled data on the number of news outlets and newsroom employees in Colorado, interviewed dozens of stakeholders and made a series of policy recommendations that could be implemented by both local municipalities, as well as by state agencies.
  • In advance of the 2024 elections, the League of Women Voters in Washington state has undertaken an extensive audit of local and regional news outlets.
  • Elon University and the University of North Carolina are partnering to survey and benchmark the diversity of newsrooms in North Carolina, compiling data on staffing levels and cross-referencing it against census data on specific communities.
  • Other nonprofit groups, such as the National Trust for Local News, have undertaken extensive surveying, and listening sessions, to understand the gaps in local news coverage in specific communities.

Yet there are still major gaps in what is known. As Robert Picard, senior fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and author of “The Economics and Financing of Media Companies,” puts it, “There is a need to identify every community and area within a state that is without a local news provider (or in danger of losing one). We need to understand how people in those communities are currently getting information about local issues. Is it from a neighbor — or from a source outside the community, such as social media?”

Commercial models “may not be viable in some communities — especially rural areas,” said Picard. “So, you need to consider other options, such as public or philanthropic funding. But, first, we need to understand what led to the current situation, so we can determine how to attack the problem.”

Designing policies to support local news

Although the U.S. spends much less per person to support public media than any other Western-style democracy, local news organizations have historically benefitted from indirect taxpayer support.

As policymakers at the state and national levels have looked for ways to support local news, they have relied not only on historical precedent — including postal subsidies that date back to 1792 — but also on lessons learned from European and Asian counterparts who are pioneering new approaches.

Two bills before Congress in 2022 reflect the dual approach. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act draws on Australian legislation passed in 2021, which mandated that Meta and Google had to negotiate with news organizations and come up with a formula for compensating them for use of their content.

News organizations estimate that these negotiations have injected $200 million in Australian dollars into the budgets of the country’s news outlets — although it is unclear how much went to the two dozen smaller local newspapers that participated. Supporters are hoping Congress will vote on the U.S. version of the bill, which has bipartisan support, this fall.

While the JCPA bill is modeled on legislation crafted abroad, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would have provided $1.7 billion in tax credits to news organizations that hire journalists to cover local news and events, built on the U.S. tradition of using both federal and state subsidies and tax credits to support certain industries.

Although the LJSA was cut from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, supporters are hoping to bring it back in a revised version in 2023. In the meantime, it has inspired several state legislators to introduce similar proposals. A bill in Wisconsin with bipartisan support would provide tax credits to local businesses that advertise in local newspapers. Legislators in a handful of other states have proposed credits for taxpayers who subscribe to local newspapers and digital sites.

Given the highly charged partisan politics in both Washington and many state capitals, Steve Waldman, founder of Rebuild Local News, a coalition of 17 industry organizations, is looking at existing federal and state policies that would support local ownership of news outlets, especially in low- and moderate-income communities, as well as minority communities.

To that end, Rebuild Local News is urging the Federal Reserve to utilize the Community Reinvestment Act to provide financial assistance to struggling small, independent for-profit and nonprofit news organizations located in economically struggling areas. Many of those organizations have difficulty getting credit and equity financing that will keep their businesses viable. Waldman notes that at least 1,500 locally owned newspapers and dozens of digital outlets serve low- or moderate-income communities. In addition, there are more than 400 local outlets in Black communities and more than 600 in Hispanic communities.

“I’m convinced that there are a lot of existing policies and regulations that can come to the aid of local news organizations,” said Waldman. “In addition to pursuing new legislation, we need to identify current programs and make the case that local news needs to be funded because it is essential to the health of a community.”

Media scholar Picard, who has consulted with media organizations around the globe, endorses rethinking U.S. communication policies and regulations to “incentivize” media companies to invest in local news. However, he adds, “The key is making sure that any incentive actually is used for what it was intended — supporting and improving local news — and doesn’t go toward paying bonuses to executives.”

In addition to focusing on efforts to save local newspapers, he said, “we should be insisting that both radio stations, and television stations beef up their local news coverage. A broadcast license is a privilege and should come with requirements for serving the community where it is located.”

Increasing and redirecting funding to news deserts

Outside of several dozen large cities, we are a nation of small towns and communities. Seventy five percent of the nation’s 20,000 incorporated cities have fewer than 5,000 residents; 40% have fewer than 500 residents.

Many of the 2,500 papers lost since 2005 have been small weeklies and dailies serving these communities. Most are not large enough to support either a for-profit newspaper or nonprofit digital startup, according to Picard, who estimates a news organization needs at least 1,000 subscribers — and the strong financial backing of either advertisers or deep-pocket philanthropists — to be viable.

While there has been a significant increase in financial support for local news in recent years, the vast majority of the venture and philanthropic money has gone to outlets located in major urban areas — not to communities “lacking a critical mass of reporters,” according media scholar Nikki Usher, author of “News for the Rich, White and Blue.”

Both the Institute for Nonprofit News and LION Publishers: Local Independent Online News — which provide support to hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit news organizations — have developed extensive workshops and material to help legacy and digital operations diversify their revenue streams and craft sustainable business models. But many of the tactics they suggest — such as increasing subscriber revenue — are of limited value in smaller markets, where most outlets remain dependent on advertising — or major grants and donations — for as much as 80% of their budget.

Complicating matters for those who rely on philanthropy for their funding, there is a significant disparity between size of the endowments of community foundations in large metro areas compared to those in small and mid-sized communities. This significantly limits the amount of money that foundations in smaller communities can distribute to worthy causes, such as journalism.

Additionally, many community and family foundations have bylaws or practices specifying that grants can only be made to nonprofit organizations. Yet, as a report published by Report for America notes, “in some communities … for-profit news organizations are the only providers of local news.”

To get around the philanthropic funding constraints in smaller markets, an increasing number of for-profit and nonprofit news organizations are looking to large national and global foundations to fund specific reporting projects, on topics such as education, criminal justice or health.

However, the bigger opportunity, said Anna Brugmann, manager of policy development for Rebuild Local News, is getting large foundations with bylaws that prioritize funding specific projects around education or health, for example, “to consider journalism as a horizontal (funding opportunity) that supports their vertical funding priorities. Newsrooms help educate the public and provide critical information to residents and businesses,” she points out. “By investing in journalism, foundations are more likely to achieve their goals in the vertical areas — such as education and health — that they prioritize.”

The Border Belt Independent, established in 2021 to cover the news in four of the poorest counties in North Carolina with large minority populations, is an example of the “horizontal” funding approach. Funded by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, which typically supports projects aimed at improving the health of residents in rural, low-income areas, the site covers not only traditional health news, but also criminal justice, economic development, education and politics — all related to the long-term “health” of communities in the area.

Until more philanthropic organizations embrace “horizontal” funding of local news organizations, Picard suggests foundations should “focus on funding statewide news outlets, with a requirement that the reporters for those providers identify and cover the communities where there are critical information gaps, and tackle issues that span multiple communities in a region.”

Rethinking journalistic and business practices

Much thought has been given over the past decade to rethinking the practice of journalism to address the critical gaps in the flow of news and information that have emerged.

Technology is providing opportunities to deliver journalism to previously isolated communities in a variety of ways; engage and measure the behaviors of current and new customers; capture sporting and business statistics and then produce basic news stories; scan massive troves of documents; and assemble the data so investigative reporters can see the big picture more clearly.

Simultaneously, nonprofit groups, universities and traditional media are stepping up to provide journalism coverage in areas that have none.

  • The Institute for Nonprofit News has a goal of supporting a network of 20,000 nonprofit journalists by 2030 who would provide “a new backbone of civic coverage,” according to Sue Cross, CEO and president.
  • Report for America has already placed several hundred reporters in newsrooms in all 50 states since 2017 and plans to continue expanding.
  • Legacy news organizations, such as The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, are working with reporters at much smaller newspapers and sites in South Carolina to produce award-winning investigative pieces.
  • And an increasing number of universities, such as the University of Kansas and West Virginia University, are developing programs that provide current and future journalists with the knowledge and experience to either create their own local news outlet or purchase an existing one.

New for-profit, nonprofit and hybrid business models are also taking hold. Industry organizations, nonprofit groups and universities, such as the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University (which produced the State of Local News 2022 report) are tracking and analyzing those models and providing real-time insights that guide decision-making at these news organizations. An increasing number of recently established, independent local and statewide sites in large cities have annual budgets of $1 million or more, while sites in mid-sized markets have budgets of $500,000 or more.

All this promises to bring more news to traditionally underserved communities — especially those in larger markets. However, many rural communities and suburban neighborhoods still lack the technological, financial and journalistic resources to take advantage of recent innovations and establish either a for-profit or nonprofit news organization.

“Most of the thought so far has gone into asking, ‘How do we replace the reporters we’ve lost?” said media scholar Picard. “But even if we find the resources to add back all the journalists we’ve lost recently, we won’t have enough journalists to cover the government meetings and events in the thousands of small, incorporated communities in this country. How do we create a journalism model that supports communities that are not large enough to financially support a local news operation?”

While policy and philanthropy can address some of the issues, both Picard and Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, suggest that much more needs to be done to address the information and technological deficit facing rural communities, many of which lack high-speed digital infrastructure.

The journalism solutions need to be cost-effective and “easily implemented tomorrow” by owners of legacy and start-up news organizations, Picard said. One potential solution involves reviving a journalistic practice that dates back two centuries.

“Until recently,” he said, “community newspapers relied not only on ‘professional journalists,’ who covered the important government meetings, but also a network of ‘correspondents’ who submitted weekly columns about neighborhood news and events — church suppers and the like — and were paid by the word.

“We need to bring back those community correspondents and train them to be the eyes and ears of the professional journalists who can’t be there,” he said. “The only way we are going to know what is going on in these communities — what is important to people living there — is to have someone in the community. “

As both Picard and Cross suggest, technology only takes the industry so far. Rethinking journalism today is not only about creating new products, but also about revisiting past practices that connected us to one another.

“The best local news organizations introduce us to people we don’t know, who share our concerns and aspirations,” said Cross. “It connects people in a community to one another and to the outside world.”

Reviving local news is not about reviving print newspapers. Rather it is about reviving the historic function of strong local journalism. At its best, as Cross suggests, local journalism in the 21st century will help us come together to solve our problems and achieve our dreams.

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Penelope (Penny) Muse Abernathy is a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Abernathy, a former executive with The…
Penelope Muse Abernathy

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