Briefing

The demise of local news

The U.S. is losing newspapers at the rate of more than two a week, at a steep cost to our communities — and our democracy

The U.S. is losing newspapers at the rate of more than two a week, at a steep cost to our communities — and our democracy. Here's everything you need to know:

How bad is the problem? 

The U.S. has lost more than 2,500 newspapers since 2005 — or 25 percent of the total — and is on track to lose a third by 2025, according to a 2022 report by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The result is a growing number of Americans, now approaching 70 million, who live in a "news desert" — a community with no local news source. Most of those shuttered papers are weeklies covering smaller communities, but larger daily papers are dying as well; in 2019, Youngstown, Ohio, became the biggest U.S. city without a newspaper when the 150-year-old Vindicator went belly-up. And many surviving papers and digital start-ups have been left with skeleton staffs that lack the resources to do much digging and serve as community watchdogs. Nearly 60 percent of newsroom jobs have been lost since 2005, according to Medill. With many papers cutting print schedules, even large cities such as Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans no longer have a daily print newspaper. "This is a crisis for our democracy and our society," said Penelope Muse Abernathy, author of the Medill report.

Why is this happening? 

The main driver, of course, is the shift to online readership, which destroyed the advertising revenue that once helped make newspapers profitable. Most of those ad dollars now go to Google, Facebook, and other sites. Newspaper revenues plummeted from $49 billion in 2006 to $14 billion in 2018, according to Pew. As many newspapers became vulnerable, Wall Street hedge funds and other investors bought them up at a discount and drastically cut staffs in pursuit of short-term profits. Half of America's daily papers are now owned by hedge funds, private equity firms, and other investment companies, according to a Financial Times analysis. One hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, has become notorious for cutting staffs to the bone, selling off assets, shuttering offices, and telling remaining staff to work remotely. Alden has left major papers such as The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and The Orange County Register struggling to cover the news with a small fraction of their former staffs. Alden papers in some locales, including Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and Vallejo, California, have been reduced to a single reporter. The phenomenon has given rise to the term "ghost newspaper," for publications that still publish but are essentially dead.

Why is this important? 

For centuries, newspapers have played a crucial role in the nation's public life. They bind communities together, promote civic engagement, tell citizens how their tax dollars are being spent, and root out malfeasance by public officials. An informed citizenry is key to a functioning democracy. Studies have shown that communities without local news have lower voter engagement and social cohesion and fewer candidates running for local offices. One study suggested that a lack of local news contributes to political polarization and intense partisanship. Local newspapers "serve as a central source of shared information, setting a common agenda," the authors wrote, while national news "emphasizes competition and conflict." Some point to the recent election of serial fabricator U.S. Rep. George Santos as an example of what can go wrong without a vigorous local press.

What's the connection? 

If press scrutiny had brought Santos' lies to light before the November election, he almost certainly wouldn't be in Congress now. A small Long Island, New York, weekly paper, The North Shore Leader, did sound the alarm about discrepancies between his claims and the public record. But no other media picked up on its reporting, including the Long Island daily Newsday, whose once-large and aggressive staff has been decimated over the past two decades. In years gone by, "there'd have been 20 follow-ups from Newsday," said Leader owner Grant Lally. Santos' opponent, Robert Zimmerman, said he tried to bring "red flags" to reporters' attention, but many said "they didn't have the personnel, time, or money to delve further." 

Can anything be done? 

A growing number of entrepreneurs, veteran journalists, and philanthropists are searching for new business models for both print and online journalism. One result is a proliferation of nonprofit news operations, from Mississippi Today to the Baltimore Banner, started by a billionaire who made an unsuccessful bid to buy The Baltimore Sun from Alden Capital. The American Journalism Project, a "venture philanthropy" focused on local news, is helping to build nonprofit news startups like the new Ohio Local News Initiative. The nonprofit Report for America places hundreds of journalists in underserved communities. Last fall, California allocated $25 million to fund journalists working in understaffed newsrooms. All these developments are welcome, said Tim Franklin, director of the Medill School's Local News Initiative, but as newspapers continue to shrink and die at a rapid rate, a more comprehensive way to fund local journalism is needed. "The need to innovate is urgent," he said.

A proliferation of 'pink slime'

It was a head-turning story that caused a sensation in conservative media. The West Cook News, a small newspaper covering the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, reported that teachers in the local high school would start adjusting grades based on "skin color or ethnicity." The story was false, however. The West Cook News is one of a proliferating number of local news outlets that pretend to be doing journalism, but instead are propaganda tools funded by right-wing groups to promote conservative candidates, smear opponents, and advance a distinctly partisan agenda. Most of their stories are algorithmically generated or reprinted press releases from Republican officials, while a small fraction are written by low-paid freelancers. Journalist Ryan Zickgraf coined the term "pink slime" — a reference to a meat byproduct added as cheap filler to ground beef — to describe such sites. More than 1,200 have been identified, from the Maine Examiner to the Mobile Courant, published by groups including Star News Digital Media and Metric Media. "As traditional newspapers continue to die off," said Zickgraf, "pink slime outlets are rapidly filling the gaps."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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