Every week, two more newspapers close and the “information deserts” grow

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Penelope Muse Abernathy is perhaps the nation’s foremost expert on the media researchers call them “information deserts” – and she’s worried.

Information deserts are communities without an information source providing meaningful and reliable local information on issues such as health, government, and the environment. It’s a void that leaves residents unaware of what’s going on in their world, unable to fully participate as informed citizens. What is their local government doing? Who deserves their vote? How is their tax money spent? So many questions that remain unanswered in a desert of news.

Local newspapers are not the only sources of information capable of doing the job, but they have traditionally fulfilled this role. And they disappear.

A third of US newspapers that existed about two decades ago will be closed by 2025, according to a study released Wednesday by Northwestern University’s Medill School, where Abernathy is a visiting professor.

Already, some 2,500 dailies and weeklies have closed since 2005; less than 6,500 remain. Every week, two more disappear. And while many digital-only news sites have popped up across the country, most communities that have lost a local newspaper won’t get a print or digital replacement.

“What’s disheartening is that this trend is playing into and deepening the whole divide that we see in America,” Abernathy, the report’s lead author, told me this week.

The most needy areas – those that are the most remote, the poorest and the least wired – are the ones that suffer the most. Much of the new investment and innovation flowing into the media sector, valuable and necessary as it is, does not reach these regions.

As the report bluntly states: “Invariably, the economically challenged and traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain print or digital news outlets.

And as a result of this loss, the information deserts continue to expand. Seventy million Americans now live in areas without enough local news to support grassroots democracy, research shows.

Democracy is at stake in the medium term. The media should convey it.

Even in areas that still have newspapers or other media outlets, local newsrooms have become much less robust. A large number of journalists were fired, never to return.

This harms the profession and individual journalists, of course, but it is far from the main problem. As local news disappears, bad things happen: voter turnout drops. Corruption, in business and government, finds more fertile ground. And misinformation is spreading wildly.

“People often turn to Facebook groups where rumors grow,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and director of the Medill Local News Initiative, which seeks to empower new business models and empower news outlets, start-ups as well as long-established publications, the tools they desperately need in a new media environment.

“The need to innovate,” he said, “is urgent.”

Beware of proponent “pink slime” sites posing as local news

For example, Franklin praises the new approach of WBEZ, the Chicago public radio station, which acquired the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper earlier this year, creating one of the world’s largest nonprofit news organizations. country. And he noted that some for-profit news organizations are figuring out how to survive and thrive, including some old-school newspapers that embraced the digital age and launched successful websites and used tools like email newsletters. email to reach their audience.

He finds it encouraging that Americans have raised awareness of the local news crisis in recent years, and praises the philanthropy and innovation that has, for example, helped the Baltimore Banner launch a new digital site in recent weeks. . It came after Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum tried to buy the Baltimore Sun to keep it out of the clutches of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund notorious for laying off journalists and losing money. assets in the newspapers they buy; when his initial effort failed, he turned his attention and funding to creating this digital model.

But what about the vast swaths of America, outside of urban areas, that don’t attract this kind of investment or new thinking? More than 200 US counties no longer have a local newspaper, and in most cases nothing has come to replace those that once served their communities, according to the report.

This is what worries Abernathy the most.

“We already live in a polarized country, and part of that polarization stems from our digital divide and our local news divide,” she told me. “We need to think about how we reach people who are not digitally connected and how we can support efforts that go beyond the city.”

This rural news start-up has two reporters and an editor without broadband. Already, it has had its effect.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky does a good job on this; much more is needed.

Awareness is crucial, which is why this research is so important. This is the fifth time since 2016 that Abernathy’s “State of Local News” report has been updated. Much good – including many millions in philanthropy – has come from the increased awareness that local news is in crisis.

Now is the time to tackle the neglected spots that are hurting the most.

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