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When the Federal Communications Commission called for research on the “critical information needs of communities,” Philip Napoli, public policy professor at Duke, was surprised by the response to his scholarly efforts.
“People thought the government was putting their nose in newsrooms,” he said. “I found myself on Fox News with my donations laid out, including all of $500 for Obama,” he said.
However, he recently lauded the way governments in Norway, Sweden and Canada subsidize newspapers. Government intervention looked appealing in the wake of his study revealing “news deserts” around the U.S; where communities lack local news that meets “critical information needs.”
Lewis Friedland, Napoli and several colleagues, had identified those needs in a 2012 study for the FCC. They defined critical information as “those forms of information that are necessary for citizens and community members to live safe and healthy lives; have full access to educational, employment, and business opportunities; and to fully participate in the civic and democratic lives of their communities should they choose.”
The eight categories of essential news they identified were “emergencies and risks, health, education, transportation systems, environment and planning, economic development, civic information, and political life.”
Napoli’s 2018 study then found that 20 out of 100 randomly sampled U.S. communities had no local news, and eight had no articles addressing critical information needs in the seven days that news stories were analyzed. As online news and ads divert subscription and ad revenue from newspapers, many have limited resources for local reporting and rely on state and national wire stories — or papers collapse and close.
“What’s scary is what people don’t know they don’t know,” said Napoli.
News deserts tend to develop in communities with certain characteristics, he found. The closer a community is to a large media market, the more likely their local news will be minimal, as residents rely on neighboring media. Pivotal decisions made by town councils and school boards go unreported. In his research travels, Napoli saw examples among New Jersey towns bordering New York City, and he encountered a tiny New Jersey newspaper, whose staff met in Starbucks, having no office.
His study also found that locales with large Hispanic communities tend to produce little local news.
“They have less interest locally, more in international news,” he said. “I don’t know how we can change that.”
Small states also tend to lack local news.
“It’s easier for news organizations in those states to be regional,” Napoli said.
News desert residents are more likely to get the details of Prince Harry’s wedding than information about local health hazards, school conditions, and zoning changes that will affect their neighborhoods. In Napoli’s sample, only 43% of the news stories provided by local media were produced by that outlet, and only 17% of stories were about the local community.
In contrast, the more colleges a community has, the more “robust” the local news is, Napoli said. Those are places where residents have more education and usually more money.
“Journalism goes where there’s revenue,” he said. “There’s been a geographic redistribution of journalism jobs toward national, not local news.” Consequently journalism jobs are concentrated in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles.
“Akron and Cleveland peaked in news jobs in 2004,” he said. “It falls off a cliff from there.”
Napoli cites research showing that local news declines lead to less civic engagement, less community cohesiveness, less election participation, and higher government spending. Filling the void, partisan news sites multiply, parading as impartial.
However, he also notes a recent announcement that Facebook will invest $300 million in local journalism projects. One grantee, Report for America, places reporters in news deserts for a year or more, splitting salary costs with local news organizations. The Democracy Fund, created by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar, also funds research and innovations to revitalize local news. These entrepreneurs, whose inventions weakened local news, now attend to the consequences. But the millions they invest in local news is “just a drop in the bucket” compared to the billions newspapers have lost annually in advertising and subscriptions in the last 15 years, Napoli says.
In the past 15 years, one in five newspapers has closed or merged, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, in her recent report, “The Expanding News Desert.” The number of dailies and weeklies fell from 8891 in 2004 to 7112 in 2018, according to her findings. Half of all counties have only one paper, often a weekly; 171 counties have no paper, she found.
Newspaper chains that are components of large corporate entities and hedge funds acquired many failing newspapers and squeezed them for profit by combining them, cutting staff, centralizing production, and selling property. Digital First Media, owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, owns many, if not most newspapers in northern California. DFM combined eight newspapers there into two in 2016, while cutting 20% of staff, Abernathy reports. DFM cuts elsewhere were also severe, as 12 papers reported 52% staff cuts between 2012 and 2017, Abernathy said.
In the spring of 2018, the DFM-owned Denver Post began a revolt with a front page editorial condemning Alden’s tactics. They were joined in picketing by Digital First employees around the country, but their show of fury resulted only in firings, and more layoffs followed, said Abernathy. She also cites a Philadelphia Inquirer story about the staffs of two DFM suburban Philadelphia papers, who work at home because their building was condemned for mold, as maintenance suffered from cost cuts. But shrunken staffs were also displaced because Alden was selling newspaper buildings for substantial profits, as a Washington Post investigation revealed
From this mire, Abernathy says she hopes to see a diversity of news organization models emerge, whether nonprofit, for profit, or hybrid, “as long as they have a sustainable business model.” She was concerned about recent findings that 90% of news desert start-ups in the last decade were located in metropolitan areas, leaving rural areas with high poverty levels without intervention.
“With no business community vibrant enough to support local journalism, news organizations would need to look to philanthropic or government support to close the gap,” said Abernathy.
Government support could include tax breaks for hiring reporters and more investment in public radio and television broadcasting in those rural communities, she said. Breaks on bulk mailing costs have also been a form of government support, she noted, an opportunity already pursued by Michelle Ferrier in southeast Ohio.
For those particularly parched news deserts in low income rural areas, Ferrier coined the term “media desert.” She is dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. As principal investigator of her Media Deserts and Media Seeds Projects, she led her students in “mapping” media access in southeast Ohio towns, most with populations from 300 to 5000. They found that many residents lacked any sources of daily information about their communities, as internet and cell phone access is scarce, and newspapers tend to offer “pablum,” Ferrier said. In these isolated areas, where many residents commute an hour and a half to work, the library is often their source of internet access.
She and her students used the “junk mail” Every Door Direct Mail postal service program to survey residents about the kinds of information they need. Then Ferrier’s group used an online portal they built to provide news they announce in headlines with web links on post cards they mail to residents. Matt Morris, a participant in the Media Seeds entrepreneur program, reports the news, working with the portal, local radio shows, and other platforms.
“We’re running experiments like Report for America,” said Ferrier. “But this is a grow your own program. We develop southeast Ohio high school students. We educate them and send them back into the community.”
However, for Morris, previously a truck driver, this is a second career, she says. He has six more months supported by the program.
“We are toward the end of the project, identifying community partners willing to take on the site,” said Ferrier. “Some people have become wary of Matt, as he sheds light on old boy family networks that control government initiatives. He puts out stories, and we distribute them. I can’t predict what will happen. We continue to believe in sunlight.”
“What tends to lead to success is collaboration,” says Teresa Gorman, Local News Associate for the Democracy Fund Public Square Program, a funding source for Media Seeds. She praises Ferrier’s strategies. “Michelle Ferrier looks at where people get their information, whether the library, museum, or Facebook, and learns how to work with them. She may have a library event addressing an important news topic or put information on billboards or free printouts.”
Collaboration helps stretch resources when news organizations employ just one or two people, which is all many news deserts can support, Gorman says. She sees promise in new business models that include cooperation between news outlets and building revenue from events and memberships.
However, she says, “I don’t think these strategies will bring back newspapers. In the future, we’ll see networking between newspapers, radio, and Spanish language media.”
As for what newspaper readers want, Jesse Holcomb had a chance to find out in his decade at the Pew Research Center in Washington as associate director of media research, before recently becoming assistant professor of English and communication arts at Calvin College. He followed newspapers’ struggles to adjust to digital technology and business models.
“It’s important for local papers to have a website that’s clean, usable, and mobile friendly, with a newsletter to develop relationships with readers,” he said. “There’s a mythology about news videos. People who consume news on the internet want to read, not watch videos. We’re past the days of needing fancy news products. Research shows that deeply reported articles with strong story telling attract reader attention — young, old, and communities of color.”
Jessica Cohen is a freelance journalist based in New York.