(NewsNation) — Despite efforts to address the issue, local news in the United States is declining rapidly. An average of 2.5 newspapers shut down each week in 2023, which was up from two per week in the previous year.
This decline is attributed to a worsening advertising climate, especially affecting weekly publications in areas with limited news sources, according to Northwestern University’s The State of Local News report.
Since 2005, the U.S. has lost one-third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its journalists.
The recent Northwestern University study predicts that at the current pace, the country will witness the closure of 3,000 newspapers within two decades. Meanwhile, 43,000 journalists, mostly from daily publications, have lost their jobs due to the collapsing advertising market.
Research shows the decline in local news contributes to increased political polarization, political corruption and the spread of misinformation.
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“The significant loss of local news outlets in poorer and underserved communities poses a crisis for our democracy,” said Medill visiting professor Penny Abernathy, a co-author of this year’s report, who has been studying local news deserts for more than a decade. “So, it is very important that we identify the places most at risk, while simultaneously understanding what is working in other communities.”
The impact of the local news crisis is widespread, with 204 counties lacking a local news outlet, and 1,562 having only one, typically a weekly newspaper. Texas, the second most populous state, has grown by 50% since 2005 but has lost 65% of its newspaper journalists.
Both traditional newspapers, digital-only startups and TV news face challenges competing with tech platforms in attracting advertisers and subscribers.
In 2021, Australia introduced the News Media Bargaining Code, requiring platforms like Google and Meta to pay news outlets for hosting news links. The code aimed to address the power imbalance between platforms and news media, supporting the sustainability of traditional outlets, according to the Lowy Institute.
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There are about 6,000 newspapers remaining, the vast majority of which are weeklies. While digital outlets have emerged, they are closing at a similar rate to new ones starting.
Despite discussions about public financing and increased philanthropic support, the trajectory of the decline remains unchanged.
Major media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Jezebel, NPR, and The Associated Press, are not immune, facing financial challenges and job cuts.
The pandemic led to a temporary increase in local news readership, emphasizing the importance of community information during urgent times.
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The Alliance of Audited Media reported that paid print and digital circulation at 504 audited newspapers in 2023 was 10.2 million, a significant drop from over 50 million in 2005.
Rural and impoverished areas are disproportionately affected, as new local digital sites mainly emerge in affluent suburban communities with strong broadband access.
Based on the demographics and economics of current news desert counties, the report estimated that 228 counties are at an elevated risk of becoming news deserts in the next five years. Most of those “Watch List” counties are in high-poverty areas in the South and Midwest, and many serve communities with significant Black American, Hispanic and Native American populations.
Residents of news deserts depend on national media, leaving them uninformed about local issues. Research has connected the decline of local newspapers to problems like corruption, misused taxes and government inefficiency.
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Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the nation, eliminated 600 jobs just last summer.
Northwestern University suggested public broadcasting as a potential solution for more local news, while also recognizing the funding challenges faced by NPR and PBS.
“We are at a moment of great loss but also great possibility for local journalism,” said Sarah Stonbely, the other co-author of the report and the director of the State of Local News Project.
The researchers noted positive developments and innovations in the local news industry amid a challenging environment for local journalism.
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“We profiled 17 local news organizations, both startups and legacies from across the country, whose models are showing promise for the future,” Northwestern Medill Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin said.
The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina has added 27 new reporters in markets across the state and hopes to have enough digital subscribers to support a statewide newsroom by 2025.
The Recorder, covering Bath, Highland and Alleghany counties in Virginia, was close to closing after more than 140 years when it doubled its subscription price to $99 in 2018. Readers stuck with it and responded with donations to keep the newspaper afloat during the pandemic, the report said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.