July 6, 2022

We have known for some time that the decline of local news hurts local communities — lower voter turnout, more corruption, higher taxes, etc. What’s now clear is that the spread of news deserts is happening unequally. It has hurt poorer and older communities most — and is creating a nation of local news haves and have nots.

What’s more, the solutions we are pursuing may be locking in this divide.

An important new study by Penny Abernathy, the leading chronicler of news deserts, puts it like this: “Most communities that lose newspapers and do not have an alternative source of local news are poorer, older and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service that allows residents to access the important and relevant journalism being produced by the country’s surviving newspapers and digital sites.”

The study, produced through the Medill School at Northwestern University, showed that the spread of news deserts continues at an alarming rate — an average of two newspapers close every week. By 2025, Abernathy estimates, the nation will have lost a staggering one-third of our local newspapers, many of them smaller weeklies.

The closings have tended to happen more often in poorer and older communities, she found.

About 20% of the residents in news deserts have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 38% in the U.S. as a whole. The average poverty rate for those communities defined as a news desert is 16%, compared to the 11% national average, Abernathy reports.

The pattern appears to cut across political lines. Among those especially hard hit are red-voting rural areas and blue-voting low-income urban areas.

Indeed, the trend will not merely exacerbate the income divide of local news, it will worsen the cultural and ideological divide. Local news vacuums tend to get filled by national news — which is more partisan and more ideological — or through social media. Abernathy noted that those in areas without broadband instead “get their local news — what little there is — mostly from the social media apps on their mobile phones.”

As we know, the crisis emerged because the internet broke the business models of local news, primarily because local businesses moved their advertising spending to Google, Facebook, Yelp, Amazon, etc, instead of the local newspaper.

Some digital-first local startups have successfully emerged, but the Center for Cooperative Media found that 96% of the thriving outlets were in moderate- or high-income areas. “Being situated in and/or serving a community that has at least a moderate level of affluence was key to success,” reported research director Sarah Stonbely and professor Tara George.

Affluent communities are also in a better position to respond positively to the latest effort to improve the business models of local news: pushing digital subscriptions as a primary source of revenue. This makes total sense as a strategy but it may end up drawing more affluent subscribers, since the prices are pretty high. For instance, The Boston Globe has had one of the most successful efforts to grow digital subscriptions — but they charge $360 per year.

And what about the areas that don’t have good internet access? They have less access to digital subscriptions or digital-first startups. While almost all middle- or upper-income people have access to broadband, 43% of lower-income people do not.

Indeed, for all its problems, an advertising-based local news system tended to spread its news around to more low-income areas than a subscription-based system will. Most Black newspapers, for instance, subsist on advertising.

While some truly extraordinary nonprofit news organizations have sprung up to fill the gaps, including some covering low- and moderate-income areas, such as MLK50, Outlier, Documented, Sahan Journal and FlintBeat. But in her book “News for the Rich, White and Blue,” scholar Nikki Usher concluded that, in aggregate, news philanthropy was concentrating in areas that already have more reporters. “To me, this relationship is a stunning indictment of the philanthropic mission of journalism,” Usher wrote.

Of course, it’s not like there was ever a golden egalitarian age. Wealthier communities always had more news choices. But at least moderate- and low-income communities had a baseline of solid local news providers. Now, increasingly, they don’t.

That will make those communities sicker — literally and figuratively. We know that poorer communities are more likely to get their information from social media, which is more likely to provide misinformation. They will also become less healthy democracies. Studies have shown that communities with less local news have less competitive elections, more corruption, more pollution, higher taxes and less resident involvement in civic institutions.

The decline in local news will make all communities worse. But it’s also becoming increasingly clear that it will making poorer communities — both conservative and liberal — suffer more, and it will exacerbate the divisions in the country.

Correction: This article was updated to correct Sarah Stonbely’s name and title.

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Steven Waldman is president of Report for America, which places journalists into local newsrooms, and chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition.
Steve Waldman

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