CONSEQUENCES: WHAT ARE WE LOSING?
The decline of local journalism has been quick and devastating. According to a University of North Carolina study, "[b]etween 2004 and 2018, nearly 1,800 dailies and weeklies closed. Today, half of U.S. counties have only one newspaper while 200 counties have none." From 2008 to 2020 , there was a 26% decrease in U.S. newsroom employees, newspaper employment fell 57% within the same time frame, according to the Pew Research Center. From 2004 to 2019, newspaper circulation decreased by 54 million. As with many crises, the ones most affected by this loss are ethnic minorities, those living in more impoverished areas with less access to education, and those not in major metropolitan areas. Lack of local news is not only bad news for journalists or their readers, the absence of local news effects politics, environment and the overall health of a community. This is the birth of a news desert.
“All of us have a stake in nurturing a strong local news environment.”
—Penelope Muse Abernathy, specialist in news deserts
The commercial model of journalism would sell advertising to businesses for a profit. With the revenue they got from advertisers, they could staff their newsrooms, provide journalists with adequate resources and still turn enough of a profit to provide readers with a subscription that was a small fraction of the cost it took to make the paper. Readers would get community and government news, announcements of employment opportunities, ads on services or consumables, and entertainment for the small price of a newspaper subscription. Newsrooms would then take the readers who were subscribing to their paper and sell them to advertisers in the form of ad spots businesses would buy to be printed in the local paper. When the Internet became widespread, media giants such as Craigslist, and eventually Google and Facebook, could provide similar services to readers and advertisers for free. Newspapers were slow to adapt to the new media landscape. They couldn't compete with the media giants and eventually the business model that was used to sell newspapers for decades no longer worked. With less revenue, newspapers had to lay off staff, cut resources, sell to larger media companies, or stop printing all together.
When newsrooms lay off staff and cut resources, the capacity to provide constant quality news is strained. Journalists that once could specialize in one area of reporting became "one-man-band" or "do-it-all" journalists, fulfilling multiple newsroom roles to cut costs in staffing. Newsrooms that could once pour thousands of dollars into in-depth stories that took substantial time to produce no longer had the resources to provide that level of coverage.
Meanwhile, newsrooms have become more concentrated to a single geographic area. As small local dailies or weeklies ran into business trouble, they were bought out by news outlets or printing companies, often located in densely populated, urban areas with more resources than the small communities the local paper served. While these buyouts kept newspapers in business, they often led to the local stories not being covered. This is one of the causes of "ghost newspapers", or papers that have become shells of their former selves.
Local newspapers and reporters within a community affect politics in two ways: acting as a "scarecrow" to government officials and providing information to the voter. “The very presence of a reporter in a city council meeting can discipline behavior,” says Phil Napoli, the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy in a governing.com article. “That’s harder to measure.” When government officials see a reporter at meetings, they may think more about what the reporter may publish to the public and act more favorably and responsibly toward the community they are serving. This, coupled with the information a citizen is given from local news, helps hold government officials accountable rather than pursuing their own agenda.
While citizens are well informed on national issues through social media, they are less informed on what is happening within their own community. Less information on local issues, or national issues in a local context, causes less split-ticket voting (when a voter votes for candidates from both Democratic and Republican parties), evidence of greater polarization. It may also affect if people vote or engage with civic life at all. Studies have shown that communities with a decline in local news have a decline in mayoral candidates and political competition. There is also evidence that lower staffing in newsrooms results in lower voter turnout.
Trust in U.S. media by its citizens is also at an all time low. Many Americans say that the media is purposely biased and misleading. Citizens say that the news is not covering people like them fairly and when you don't trust the news' depiction of your community, you don't trust the news. This could also be due to the increased reliance on national news as opposed to local news. If you are reporting on someone you know of personally, the community that person is a part of may feel more justly represented and heard.
According to the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, having reporting on corporations also lowers toxic emissions. When a corporation has fear of public criticism and concern, they are more likely to make decisions more favorable to the public so they don't lose business or run into regulation issues. When no one is there to tell the story, no one takes notice, and corporations can act in their own self interest without fear of repercussions.
Not often talked about in scholarly articles, but a common concern reported by citizens was the loss of community. Occasionally the role of newspapers in keeping community up to date on upcoming events and community milestones are replaced by Facebook groups, but they are not always up to date or accessible by members in a community. Especially in rural communities that do not always have reliable Internet access. In my interviews for the documentary Untold Times, citizens emphasized the importance of local sports reporting, community event information and stories on local people.