The Threat of News Deserts & Ghost Newspapers

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

“The fate of communities and local news organizations are intrinsically linked - socially, politically and economically.”

Penelope Muse Abernathy
Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics
University of North Carolina

Just this past week we wrote about the vital role newspapers play in their small rural communities. We certainly didn’t plan on writing about it again this week until we read a deeply disturbing story on a report from the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism by Tom Stites.

In his story titled “About 1,300 U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage,” Stites writes about the unexpected extent of developing news deserts in America and growing threat the loss of newspapers means to our nation.
The UNC study shows that:

“About 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers in the United States — about 1,800 — have gone out of business or merged since 2004, when about 9,000 were being published. Hundreds more have scaled back coverage so much that they’ve become what the researchers call ‘ghost newspapers.’”

Television news and cable access stations, along with internet websites, blogs and social media are trying to pick up the coverage lost when newspapers disappear.  In this observation, UNC researchers makes the all-too-common assumption that there is something else out there that will replace newspapers.

Further, he conflates supposed answers for big city, metro, areas with what will provide for small-town America. We don’t have radio stations, cable access stations, blogs, or internet websites that cover our communities. We are simply too small. What are the consequences of all this lost news coverage?

 “The stakes are high,” the researchers say in their report. “Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished. In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism.”

With the largest concentration of newspapers in metropolitan areas of the country it is no surprise that the report shows 70 percent of those lost since 2004 were in big cities. However, these cities also tend to have far more media options for their citizens. In small town, rural America, it is often just the newspapers, so when they are gone so is the trusted, steady, source of a community’s news.

 The study also observes that “state and regional papers have also pulled back dramatically, and this ‘has dealt a double blow to residents of outlying rural counties as well as close-in suburban areas.’”

We’ve seen this with the West Central Tribune as it has faded. With a less robust staff, it has a more challenging time covering the communities it serves regionally. This puts a more significant burden on small communities newspapers to expand their coverage of topics at the same time they face many of the same financial pressures to stay vital to their readers. Further, the statewide daily newspapers that cover Minnesota are increasingly becoming focused on the metropolitan Twin Cities region.

UNC ‘s new database of newspapers created for its study shows “that of the 3,143 counties in the United States, more than 2,000 now have no daily newspaper, 1,449 have but one newspaper of any kind, and 171 counties, with 3.2 million residents in aggregate, have no newspaper at all.” These numbers may be even worse than their data shows, researchers at UNC say.

As citizens needing information about our local governments, the actions of our elected officials, the challenges and threats our communities face, and the stories that bind us together the disappearance of newspapers is just part of the problem. We are also seeing many newspapers fade away in front of us becoming “ghost newspapers.”

 “Ghosts are ‘pared-down-to-nothing papers (or even single-page inserts) that are the remnants of once-robust local publications,” according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC who directed the year-long study.

 “The quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content is significantly diminished,” the UNC report says of the ghosts. “Routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided.”

UNC researchers applauded the efforts of start-up online news sites to fill in the news coverage vacuum left by closed and “ghost” newspapers. Most are in affluent metropolitan communities with media rich environments, yet struggle for financing. About one in four fails. This leaves most weak, with small staffs, that don’t come close to making up for the coverage a newspaper once provided its community.

Now if big city online sites can’t make it with population bases in the millions, how is one to survive in rural America? It won’t.

 “The fate of communities and local news organizations are intrinsically linked — socially, politically and economically,” Abernathy told the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy last April. “Trust and credibility suffer when local news media are lost or diminished. We need to make sure that whatever replaces the 20th century version of local newspapers serves the same community-building functions.

“If we can figure out how to craft and implement sustainable news business models in our smallest, poorest markets, we can then empower journalistic entrepreneurs to revive and restore trust in media from the grassroots level up, in whatever form — print, broadcast or digital.”

While everyone points out the challenges and the dire consequences of lost news coverage in our communities, their view, and thus their solutions, are designed for metropolitan markets – not small town rural America.

Tom Stites is the founder of the Banyan Project, a pioneering co-op model for community journalism.

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