November 16, 2023

The rate of local newspaper closures has accelerated to 2.5 a week in 2023, according to a new report from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University released Thursday.

More than 130 papers have closed or merged this year, and the country is on track to lose a third of its papers since 2005 by the end of next year, the report found. Over half of counties in the United States have just one or no local news outlets.

Co-authored by Northwestern visiting professor Penny Abernathy and project director Sarah Stonbely, this year’s report marks the sixth edition of the “State of Local News” project. The researchers found that since 2005, the U.S. has lost nearly 2,900 newspapers and 43,000 journalists. Alternative local news outlets, like digital-only sites, ethnic media organizations and public broadcasting stations, tend to be small and clustered around metro areas, so when communities in less affluent or less densely populated areas lose their local newspaper, they often do not get a replacement.

“It really is still a country of journalism haves and have-nots in a lot of ways,” Stonbely said. “In a lot of rural and less affluent counties, there just isn’t any local journalism at all.”

Driving the acceleration of newsroom closures are two trends, Medill Local News Initiative director Tim Franklin said. One is a wave of independently owned newspapers that have finally given up after years of struggling with pandemic-era economic stressors. The other is large newspaper chains selling off or closing properties in the face of declining revenue and large debt burdens.

“The loss of (newspapers and journalists) has not only short-circuited the flow of news and information across news organizations but has also made it harder for people to hold their state and local elected officials accountable,” the report reads. “With fewer journalists covering city halls and state government, the average citizen knows less and less about what their local government officials are doing.”

For the first time, the State of Local News project also created a “watch list” of 228 counties that are at risk of becoming so-called news deserts. Researchers used demographic and economic characteristics — like poverty rate, educational attainment, ethnicity and age — of current news deserts to predict which areas are at high risk of losing their last local news outlet.

The “watch list” counties include two million people and are predominantly located in the South and Midwest. Many of them have significant racial minority populations, and the average poverty rate is 22%.

“This provides a bit of a roadmap for where investment is most urgently needed for local news,” Franklin said, noting that philanthropists and policymakers in those areas could work proactively to prevent them from becoming news deserts.

The project’s researchers also constructed a “bright spots” map that documents 164 news startups from the last five years. The map includes 17 additional points that signify news outlets (both legacies and startups) highlighted by project researchers as having “promising” business models. In choosing the 17 outlets, researchers sought to create a list that was diverse both in terms of geography and business model.

Among the highlighted outlets are large daily papers like The Boston Globe and The Seattle Times, as well as newer digital outlets like Block Club Chicago and Mississippi Today. All of the 17 outlets are privately held and controlled, and all but one are locally owned. For each outlet, researchers constructed a profile that includes what’s working, what’s still to be done, key takeaways and a Q&A with an executive at the outlet.

“One of the hopes is that people will read these profiles and get ideas and could be inspired to make changes or to adopt models that might work in their own markets,” Franklin said.

Much of the State of Local News project examines the loss of news outlets, and Franklin said in the future, he hopes they can also study the loss of coverage. While constructing the report, researchers found that there were 36 markets owned by newspaper chains Gannett and Lee Enterprises that did not list any local journalists on staff — often called ghost newspapers. That, Franklin said, suggests the state of local news is even worse than it appears since some places may technically have a newspaper but lack original local reporting.

Still, researchers outlined areas of hope. One is the amount of federal, state and local legislation that has been proposed to help local news. They include efforts to increase broadband access and to incentivize news organizations to hire journalists. The report also highlights the Press Forward initiative, which encompasses 22 philanthropic organizations that have pledged to invest half a billion dollars in local news over the next five years. The public seems to be increasingly aware of the issues local journalism is facing, Stonbely said.

“It’s a very exciting time,” Stonbely said. “As depressing as it is, it’s also a very exciting time to be in the local news space.”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at or on Twitter @angelanfu.
Angela Fu

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