• A new report on the state of local journalism found that more than 65 million Americans currently live in counties with only one or zero local newspapers.
  • This is concerning because informed citizens are essential to the health of America’s democracy, yet the number of reporters covering local government is in decline
  • Policy options for reviving local journalism involve providing more public funding for the industry, and addressing the way giant online platforms undercut the local news business model. 

A new era of news deserts

After a decade and a half of dramatic technological and business upheavals in the news industry, local journalism is facing a crisis. That’s the conclusion, at least, of a report from the Brookings Institute earlier this year titled “Local journalism in crisis: Why America must revive its local newsrooms.”

The figures in the report are dire. Citing data from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, it found that one in five U.S. local newspapers has disappeared since 2004. That’s a total of over 2,000 newspapers across the country over the past 15 years. Their closure has left over 200 U.S. counties without any local newspaper. As a result, today more than 65 million Americans live in counties with only one or zero local newspapers.

This is a problem, the report argues, in no small part because national outlets have become increasingly disconnected from communities across the country due to the fact they can no longer rely on local reporting to inform their own coverage. This vacuum of local news coverage has driven readers to national news outlets, many of which have a strong partisan bent (or at least focus heavily on partisan conflict). As a result, the report found, voters tend to be more politically polarized in areas where news consumers cannot balance their news diet with local alternatives.

To make matters worse, coverage and accountability of local government in the U.S. has suffered due to the decline of local newspapers. From 2003 to 2014, for instance, the number of journalists reporting from statehouses dropped 35 percent. In 2014 only 30 percent of daily newspapers in the U.S. sent at least one newsroom employee to the statehouse. Given the ongoing challenges to the local news industry, the number of reporters covering state lawmakers has almost certainly declined even further since 2014.

“Informed citizens are too essential to the health of America’s democracy to let the local news industry that has long been responsible for performing this important task die off,” the authors of the report conclude.

The digital age and plummeting revenues

What is the cause of this local journalism crisis? The simplest explanation is a sharp decline in revenue over the past decade. From 2006 to 2016, the U.S. newspaper industry experienced a staggering $31 billion loss in advertising revenue — from about $50 billion to less than $20 billion. Online revenue grew during that time, but it was not nearly enough to offset the decline in print ad revenue.

The drop in revenue is due largely to the emergence and immediate accessibility of online platforms. Craigslist allows people to post classifieds for free insteading of paying for space in a newspaper, for instance, and Facebook and Google have grown dramatically to soak up 58 percent of digital advertising revenue nationally. These companies put local newspapers in a bind, because while they help aggregate and share publishers’ news content, they also account for 77 percent of ad revenue in local markets, putting the financial squeeze on local news publishers, according to the report.

Faced with this stiff digital competition, some the nation’s largest local newspaper holding companies have exacerbated the problem, the report argues, by pursuing short-term survival at the cost of long-term viability. Newsrooms staffs have been slashed in half to cut costs and make local newspapers profitable in the face of declining revenue, but fewer reporters means that local newspapers increasingly lack the ability to conduct in-depth investigations or follow leads from local citizens. This makes them less appealing to an audience of readers that has increasingly abandoned local news for national news outlets.

What Americans can do about it

The report lays out a number of policy options for helping to reverse the trend of local journalism’s decline. These policy options fall into two general categories: first, provide more public funding for local journalism, and second, address the way giant online platforms undercut the local news business model. 

Public funding could come in several forms. Tax deductions for personal subscriptions to local news outlets could incentivize more citizens to pay for local news. The tax code could be changed to be more favorable to news outlets, either offering offsets for production expenditures incurred by newsrooms or encouraging more newspapers to act as nonprofits so that their revenue would be tax exempt. Finally, a public fund for local journalism could fund local reporting fellowships or be granted to local newsrooms to hire more investigative reporters or experiment with new models of reporting. 

Proposals to address the business model that has allowed online platforms to undercut local news include the following: 

  • Tax online platforms for displaying publishers’ content, thereby forcing online aggregators to share profits with content creators.
  • Give news publishers a temporary exemption from antitrust laws so they can negotiate a fairer, more balanced relationship between publishers and online platforms.
  • Conduct an antitrust investigation into Google and Facebook to determine whether their dominance in the market is due to anti-competitive behavior and digital market practices that unfairly disadvantage news publishers. 

The report concludes with a call for Americans to renew their commitment to journalism at every level:

“A constitutional and public commitment to a free press on its own does not ensure the economic viability of local news, but possible public intervention can help sustain and support local independent media for every community in the U.S.”

Read the full report, Local Journalism in Crisis, here.


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