As I’m writing this, the new State of Local News study from Penelope Muse Abernathy and Sarah Stonbely at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Media predicts that we will have lost a full one-third of the local newspapers in the U.S. (based on 2005 numbers) by the end of 2024. In most counties that have lost a newsroom, it won’t be replaced — even digitally.
We mourn the loss of papers, newsroom staff and full beats in metro areas, but the small towns and rural counties feel most of the pain of this loss. Of the 6,000 newspapers left nationwide, nearly 80% publish weekly — not daily. The counties that are news deserts or at most risk for becoming news deserts are predominantly located in high-poverty areas in the South and Midwest —and often those with significant Black, Hispanic and Native American populations.
Yes, new publications come in hoping to take up the slack, but the rural communities are still left out. Abernathy and Stonbely state, “The footprint for alternative local news outlets — approximately 550 digital-only sites, 720 ethnic media organizations and 215 public broadcasting stations — remains very small and centered around metro areas.”
All this weighed on my mind as I received our Shoptalk article from the News Desert U group — Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas, Meg Heckman of Northeastern University, Amanda Bright of the University of Georgia, and Pamela Walck of Duquesne University. I attended their first “News Desert U” gathering virtually last fall. This October, however, they came back with a “News Desert U: Solutions” conference that didn't fit my schedule. The group was gracious enough to write a report on some of their findings for our December issue.
According to the full report (which is available for download), News Desert U: Solutions gathered together “the best minds in local news from around the world to brainstorm practical solutions for what academia can do to help the news desert crisis.”
Those solutions were broken into three topics — Research, Teaching and Service. The participants acknowledged the challenges as well as brainstormed solutions in each area.
This was not a pie-in-the-sky meeting. As one participant, Joey Young, of Kansas Publishing Ventures, said, “Something is better than nothing. Our industry is in crisis, so training kids for a world where there is separate fact-checking (department) and four lines of editing (on each story) … it just does not exist.”
I applaud the News Desert U group's efforts to find solutions for our growing news deserts. I believe the answers are out there, but it will take a huge commitment from our industry, academia, philanthropy and local communities to find what will work and make it happen.
As 2023 draws to a close, I hope that those solutions come quickly and our collective commitment remains strong. The crisis is upon us, and what hangs in the balance is one of the most essential rights of our democracy. It's worth our fight.
Finally, however you choose to celebrate this holiday season, we at E&P wish you joy and peace. Thank you for your reading and participating with us in 2023. Here's to success in 2024 for us all.
Robin Blinder is E&P's editor-in-chief. She has been with E&P for three years. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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