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In Era of News Deserts, No Easy Fix for Local News Struggles

by David Bauder
Wednesday Jan 16, 2019
The logo for Facebook appears on screens in New York's Times Square.
The logo for Facebook appears on screens in New York's Times Square.  (Source:AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The local news industry hasn't been the subject of much good news itself, lately.

Newspaper circulation is down sharply, and so is employment in the newspaper industry. Financial cutbacks have led to the shutdown of nearly 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers since 2004.

Two developments this week brought the issue into further focus. Facebook, whose success has contributed to the news business' decline, announced Tuesday it would invest $300 million over three years in news initiatives with an emphasis in local coverage. More ominously, the hedge fund-backed Digital First Media, known for sharp cost-cutting strategies, bid to buy Gannett Co. , the publisher of USA Today and several daily newspapers across the country.

"It's a struggle every day," said Charles Sennott, a former newspaper beat reporter who co-founded The GroundTruth Project , a foundation that funds the work of journalists. "Every day we are facing the fact that American journalism is in crisis."

Sennott was buoyed this week to meet with Obed Manuel, a young reporter at the Dallas Morning News whose coverage of Hispanic immigration is paid for in part by The GroundTruth Project.

Yet there was a pall over the newsroom they toured. The Dallas Morning News announced 43 layoffs last week, 20 of them newsroom employees, to cope with persistent declines in readership and advertising revenue.

That's a familiar dynamic in the local news industry, where a positive development like Manuel's hiring can feel like a tender shoot of green struggling to rise in a barren late-winter landscape.

The statistics are numbing: U.S. weekday newspaper circulation is down from 122 million to 73 million in 15 years. The number of working newspaper journalists has been cut in half since 2004. Nearly 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers have been lost in the same period, down to a little more than 7,000.

The tally is compiled Penelope Muse Abernathy, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, whose study of the topic has given rise to new terminology: news deserts, refers to communities that are no longer covered by daily journalists; and ghost newspapers is a reference to publications that have become a shadow of their former selves in terms of circulation and ambition.

Social media behemoths like Facebook have cut into news readership and revenue. But Abernathy said business decisions of newspaper owners are more to blame. Metropolitan and regional newspapers cut circulation in outlying suburban and rural areas, while many weekly newspapers simply shuttered, she said.

"The country feels very divided and I think a lot of the divisiveness in the country is because people feel they are not being heard," Sennott said. There are fewer local reporters around to listen to and report on their concerns, he said.

The challenge for the news business is convincing the public — many of whom aren't particularly enamored with journalists anyway — that this loss hurts them, too, in terms of how connected they are to their communities when there is less opportunity to know what's going on.

"We are really at a tipping point now," Abernathy said. "Can we revitalize the news industry?"

Facebook is donating $2 million to Report for America, an offshoot of Sennott's GroundTruth Project that has helped pay for reporters at news organizations in Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Report for America pays part of their salaries, the news organization pays part, and donations are also solicited from the community. There are 13 reporters in place now, with a goal of 50 working by the end of the year.

Facebook is giving a $5 million grant to the Pulitzer Center for "Bringing Stories Home," which will fund at least 12 in-depth local reporting projects. Much of Pulitzer's previous work has gone to helping pay for international journalism, particularly as it affected local communities.

"This isn't going to solve the challenges facing smaller news organizations and the communities they serve but at least it's a step in the right direction," said Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center.

Noted Abernathy: "It's a start."

There have been some 500 digital start-ups attempting to replace coverage offered at the 1,800 newspapers that have closed in the past decade and a half, Abernathy said. The problem is these sites mostly serve urban areas, since that's where there is enough business to provide advertising, she said. She's encouraged by foundations that support news, although much of that funding goes to international projects.

Some large news outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post have provided models to succeed in the new environment, said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst at Harvard's Nieman Lab. The formula includes a healthy investment in journalism, the creation of innovative digital and mobile products and asking readers to help pay for them.

It helps that the Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. Few smaller newspapers have anywhere near the resources or determination, he said.

Many companies that own newspapers are motivated by the typical business imperative — making money — and don't necessarily recognize or care too deeply about the public service aspect of journalism, Abernathy said.

"If you believe that (journalists) are a critical part of a functioning democracy, you cannot run this business like you run a widget factory," she said.

Some companies offer a way out, she said. The Minnesota-based Adams Publishing , in business only five years, has viewed the newspapers it has bought as long-term investments, she said. She also pointed to owners of the Pilot, in Southern Pines, North Carolina , who help fund the newspaper by buying or starting other businesses in the community like a bookstore, an arts publication and telephone listings.

"This is very much a long-term game," Sawyer said. "It's why over a third of our budget and staff is devoted to our work in middle and secondary schools, universities and community colleges. The next generation is the one we have to reach, and we believe that compelling, credible journalism is the key."

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