Despite growing awareness of the problem, the United States continues to see newspapers die at the rate of two per week, according to a report published Wednesday on the state of local news.
Areas of the country that find themselves without a reliable source of local news tend to be poorer, older and less educated than those that are well covered, said Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications. .
The country had 6,377 newspapers at the end of May, up from 8,891 in 2005, according to the report. Although the pandemic hasn’t quite brought about the toll some in the industry feared, 360 newspapers have closed since the end of 2019, with all but 24 weeklies serving small communities.
An estimated 75,000 journalists worked in newspapers in 2006, and now it’s down to just 31,000, Northwestern said. Annual newspaper revenues have fallen from $50 billion to $21 billion over the same period.
Even though philanthropists and politicians have given more attention to the issue, the factors that led to the collapse of the industry’s advertising model have not changed. The encouraging growth of the digital-only news sector in recent years has not been enough to offset general trends, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Medill and lead author of the report.
Many digital-only sites focus on single issues and are clustered in or near major cities near the philanthropic money that provides much of their funding, according to the report.
Information “deserts” are on the rise: the report estimates that about 70 million Americans live in a county without or with a single local news agency.
“What’s really at stake is our own democracy, as well as our social and societal cohesion,” Abernathy said.
True “daily” newspapers, printed and distributed seven days a week, are also on the decline; The report says 40 of the nation’s top 100 newspapers publish digital-only versions at least once a week. Inflation is likely to hasten the move away from print editions, said Tim Franklin, director of the Medill Local News Initiative.
Much of the industry’s turnover is due to the growth of newspaper chains, including new regional chains that have purchased hundreds of newspapers in small to medium-sized markets, according to the report.
Less than a third of the country’s 5,147 weekly newspapers and only a dozen of the 150 major metropolitan and regional dailies are now locally owned and operated, Medill said.
Abernathy’s report pointed to a handful of “local heroes” to counter the pessimism provided by the raw numbers. One is Sharon Burton, publisher and editor of Adair County Community Voice in Kentucky, where she pushes her staff toward aggressive journalism while successfully lobbying to expand postal subsidies to rural newspapers.