June 1, 2018

News deserts are ominous to democracy, but how many there are and how fast they’re spreading has been a mystery — until now: Coverage of at least 900 communities across the nation has gone dry since 2004, preliminary new data shows.

The alarming data also confirms the view that less-than-affluent communities, where local economies and civic health may already be stumbling, are likelier to have become news deserts: places where little or no original reporting is done, where people have trouble finding out what’s going in local government and other institutions that affect their lives and citizenship decisions.

When the term news desert first entered the future-of-journalism discourse seven years ago, it seemed to be a relatively sunny metaphor.

But as fake news and partisan attacks have made the media landscape ever more toxic, the sinister side of the metaphor has become clearer: Deserts not only produce nothing nutritious for people, they also attract snakes, scorpions, vultures and cactuses armed with prickles.

Most fake news is about national politics but now smaller-scale deceptive efforts like the Tennessee Star are taking root in several states; Politico describes the Star as one of several new online publications dressed up as traditional newspapers that in reality are mini-Breitbarts “aimed at influencing local politics by stepping into the coverage void left by the collapsing finances of local newspapers.”

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“Democracy itself demands that we find ways to build new and healthy news oases to revivify the deserts,” said Gar Alperovitz, author, political economist and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, in an interview. “When reliable local reporting dries up, voter turnout falls, and so does the number of candidates for local office.”

Searchable database

The new data on news deserts is being painstakingly compiled from many sources by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina. The center plans to make it available in late June as the first publicly searchable online database that tracks both newspapers and online news sites.

Penelope Muse Abernathy, UNC’s Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics and director of the study that’s developing the new data, said that the database would track online news sites as well as newspapers and be buttressed with demographic data including household income and poverty levels by county. Maps will be available as well.

The study itself will be shared online when the database goes public and published in hardcopy in September.

Abernathy testified in April before the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy that researchers had determined that more than 1,800 newspapers have died or merged since 2004. She said later that about 300 weeklies have started up in the same period, making a net loss of 1,500 papers. Research continues about online news efforts, newspaper circulation data, and county-by-county demographic information.

Meantime, Matt DeRienzo, executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, a nonprofit association that supports online publishers, said in an interview that LION had compiled a list of 600 online news sites.

Many of them serve communities that still have newspapers, so the 600 online sites have not brought original reporting back to fully 600 of the 1,500 communities that have lost their newspapers since 2004. Thus, at least 900 communities lost newspapers without gaining online news effort to fill the gap. Several factors could make this number worse:

  • Online sites tend to flourish in affluent suburban areas such as northern New Jersey, southern Connecticut, and the East Bay in California; multiple sites serve some upscale places.

  • UNC researchers are discovering what Abernathy calls ghost papers: The newspaper names still adorn the top of print products but they no longer offer original news; they’ve become all-ad publications called shoppers, or publications with ads wrapped around boilerplate features and distributed for free.

  • The researchers are also discovering newspapers that have died without the industry noticing.

On the positive side, DeRienzo said he believes that his young organization has yet to find and enroll lots of operating online news efforts. And, he said, more online sites are being launched all the time.

Less affluent, harder hit

Preliminary analysis of the UNC center’s new data amplifies long-held anecdotal evidence that less-than-affluent places have been hardest hit as newspapers have withered — and that affluent places have gained most from the emergence of local online news sites.

Rural areas, as well as minority neighborhoods in big cities, have long been cited as particularly arid news deserts.

Abernathy said the center’s researchers have found 195 counties with no weekly or daily newspaper and are searching for more. The 195 counties’ population totals 3.1 million, their average poverty level is 17.5 percent, nearly five points higher the national average. These 195 counties’ median household income is $45,363, nearly 23 percent lower than the national average.

DeRienzo said he worried that many online sites struggle in less-than-affluent communities, but that there are lots of examples that are working. He cited Racine, Wisconsin, and Flint, Michigan.

“But,” DeRienzo continued, “the path is not as easy, and in some places might need outside intervention to work – foundation investment, for example. Funding models for less affluent communities would be a worthy area of study.”

Meanwhile, as the civic desolation of new deserts spreads, the informed electorate shrinks and the number of people misinformed by fake news grows.

“As civic health fades,” Alperovitz said, “local economies suffer. Large enterprises take over politics and city funding; other programs lose out. Healthy civic engagement at the community level is more crucial now than ever.”

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