December 7, 2023

The magnificent (and depressing) report from the Local News Initiative of the Medill Journalism School helps us understand so many facets of the local news crisis, and the efforts to address it. If you go deeper in the data, it also provides useful information about the political landscape of news deserts.

Some 83% of the counties that have either no news source or are on Medill’s “watch list” (in danger of becoming a desert) voted for Donald Trump in 2020, according to analysis that Rebuild Local News has done.

(Data by Medill Local News Initiative, graphic by Rebuild Local News)

If you look at this map, you can see the location of these vulnerable counties, with the red-tinted ones being Republican and the blue counties being Democratic.

(Data by Medill Local News Initiative, graphic by Rebuild Local News)

The Medill study tends to somewhat understate the severity of the problem in urban areas where there may be a handful of publications — so they don’t count as pure deserts lists — but have far too few reporters given the large population blocks.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that some of the most vulnerable areas are in Republican areas, especially in rural America. The states that stand out as being in particularly bad shape:

  • Texas
  • Georgia
  • Kentucky
  • Arkansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Louisiana
  • South Dakota
  • Missouri
  • Idaho

All but one is solid red (Georgia being purplish).

There are two erroneous interpretations one could make — wrong substantively, politically and morally:

By cynical Republicans: Well, we’re winning in these areas without there being local news, so let’s keep it that way.

The residents of these counties are suffering as a result of a lack of news: They lack news about their school, health care and dangerous traffic intersections. For those who are wary of the government, having less local reporting will actually make corruption more likely, not less, leading to higher taxes and worse municipal services. Just as important, they lack community coverage — high school sports, local theater, obituaries — that help bind a community together.

The residents of these areas are the victims of a local news system in which large chains based in New York and tech companies based in California do quite well. Saving local news ought to be a big cause in red states.

By cynical Democrats: People are voting Republican because they’re ignorant. If we get some left-leaning journalism in there, they’ll vote Democratic.

The voters in these areas tend to be more rural, older, and whiter — and those groups have been trending Republican for quite a while. Those factors won’t change just by adding a local news outlet. Sorry Democrats, these voting patterns are unlikely to flip if local news gets stronger.

What might happen is more split-ticket voting (studies have shown that), and higher participation in civic organizations like the PTA. And political decisions might be less driven by misinformation and social media.

What’s more, efforts to fund partisan local news outlets (pushed on both the left and right) will end up undermining trust in local news as a reliable news source for a wide range of people.

It’s also worth noting that many of the blue counties in the South are in the “Black Belt” that includes many low-income, rural African Americans. When Democrats hear “rural,” they shouldn’t assume that means “MAGA.”

In other words, strengthening local news would have broad civic benefits that would make it easier for people to address their problems, more likely they understand their neighbors, and more inclined to think their voices are being heard. It could lead to happier, healthier communities, whether red, purple or blue.

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Steven Waldman is president of Rebuild Local News and co-founder of Report for America.
Steven Waldman
Lori Henson, Ph.D., joined Rebuild Local News this fall as Government Advertising Policy Manager. Her role is to help direct government advertising budgets to local…
Lori Henson

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