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WAPO: What Happens to Democracy When Local Journalism Dries Up?

November 30, 2021

It has been our great privilege to bring you news from Stoneham and Woburn over the years,” read the announcement. “We regret to inform you that this will be the final edition of the Sun-Advocate newspaper.” The Massachusetts weekly, as of August, is no more.

It is an increasingly familiar story across the United States. Already in a sharp downward spiral, the local news industry was hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic. The worst blows were taken by newspapers — businesses that, as a group, had never recovered from the digital revolution and the 2008 recession. Between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers closed their doors. Since covid struck, at least 80 more papers have gone out of business, as have an undetermined number of other local publications, like the California Sunday Magazine, which folded last fall — and then won a Pulitzer Prize eight months later.

Those papers that survived are still facing difficult straits. Many have laid off scores of reporters and editors — according to Pew Research Center, the newspaper industry lost an astonishing 57 percent of its employees between 2008 and 2020 — making these publications a mere specter of their former selves. They are now “ghost newspapers”: outlets that may bear the proud old name of yore but no longer do the job of thoroughly covering their communities and providing original reporting on matters of public interest.

In many regions of the country, there is no local news coverage at all, or next to none. These areas have come to be known as “news deserts” — a term used by academics and researchers to refer to areas where coverage of the community by local news outlets is minimal or nonexistent. It’s in such places that the collapse of local news is being felt most dramatically.

Then again, even if you don’t live in a defined news desert, you may have noticed that your regional paper long ago ditched actively covering your community if it is outside the immediate city and first-ring suburbs.

A Vast Landscape of Lost Newspapers

Between January 2005 and December 2020, about a quarter of U.S. local print newspapers ceased publishing, according to data that Northwestern professor Penny Muse Abernathy collected while at the University of North Carolina. By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local print newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.

 

 

 

 

Since 2005, about 2,200 local newspapers across America have closed. The country’s remaining daily newspapers are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest.

This trend in local news has been life-changing, of course, for the employees who lose their jobs and incomes. But even more concerning is what happens to the communities they used to serve — and, more broadly, what happens to our society and our ability to self-govern when local news dries up.

An extreme case of the withering of local news over the past decade is Youngstown, Ohio, where the beloved 150-year-old daily newspaper, the Vindicator, abruptly went out of business in 2019.

As I researched my 2020 book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” I traveled to Youngstown just after the shocking announcement. Residents had gathered at a quickly called public meeting, and many were in tears as they contemplated the future of their city and region without this institution.

While it was still in business, the Vindicator was relatively lucky because it was owned by a local family for 132 years. Many other newspapers have fallen out of local hands and under the control of large chains, some owned by private equity firms or hedge funds.

It’s not just watchdog journalism that suffers when news organizations shrink or die. The decline affects civic engagement and political polarization, too. Studies show that people who live in areas with poor local news coverage are less likely to vote, and when they do, they are more likely to do so strictly along party lines. To put it bluntly, the demise of local news poses the kind of danger to our democracy that should have alarm sirens screeching across the land.

Then there’s the matter of public trust. In general, people trust the mainstream news media — or as I prefer to call it, the reality-based press — far less now than they did several decades ago.

Most studies show that there is one exception to this steady decline in trust: Americans find their local news sources significantly more credible than national news sources. Yet these are the very same outlets that are rapidly disappearing. That’s especially worrisome at a time when conspiracy theories and misinformation are rampant.

Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor and author of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” has called the loss of local news “the essential problem of our republic.” When local news goes away, then our sense of what is true shifts from what is helpful to us in our daily lives to what makes us ‘feel good,’ which is something entirely different.”

There is no single answer to this crisis. Any solution, if there even is a solution, will require a multifaceted approach. But before local news can be saved, or successfully reinvented, one thing is absolutely necessary: American citizens must understand the existential threat local outlets are facing — and the incalculable value that their journalism brings to our democracy.

Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post.

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