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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Local news deserts expanding despite some ‘bright spots,’ Medill report says

Shun Graves/The Daily Northwestern
Local and regional newspapers, like these on sale Thursday at the Chicago-Main Newsstand in Evanston, have fallen deeper into a crisis, a new report by Medill researchers found.

Local news in the U.S. has fallen further into a crisis this year, with an average of 2.5 publications shutting down every week and journalists numbering ever fewer, according to a report released Thursday by the Medill School of Journalism.

The State of Local News report by Medill’s Local News Initiative tallied more than 130 print and digital outlets that have closed or merged this year. When legacy outlets close in smaller cities and rural areas — especially if they have high poverty rates — the region often sees no replacement, creating what researchers call “news deserts.”

The researchers also highlighted positive developments and innovations in the local news industry that serve as “bright spots” amid a bleak picture for local journalism.

“We profiled 17 local news organizations, both startups and legacies from across the country, whose models are showing promise for the future,” Medill Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin, who is also the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News, said at a news conference Thursday.

The highlighted publications range from South Carolina’s The Post and Courier, which has helped fund reporting at small newspapers across the state, to the startup website Mississippi Today, which won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.

But since 2005, the U.S. has lost nearly a third of its newspapers and more than 70% of their employees, the researchers found. The troubles extend beyond printed newspapers. Digital-only outlets have struggled as well, Franklin said.

“In the past five years, the number of local digital startups has roughly equaled the number that shuttered,” Franklin said.

People living in news deserts are forced to rely on national media for information, leaving them in the dark about local issues. Studies have linked the demise of local newspapers to corruption, squandered taxes and government inefficiency.

More than half of U.S. counties have either one or no remaining local outlets. Using a model created this year, Medill researchers predict more than 200 counties could join the list of news deserts within the next five years.

“I’ve seen us increasingly move toward a country in which we are journalistically divided between those who tend to have multiple sources of local news and those who do not have even a single source of reliable local news,” Medill visiting professor Penny Abernathy said.

Franklin pointed to consolidation by owners like Gannett to blame for loss of journalists, which owns many of the state’s daily publications outside of Chicago. Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, cut 600 jobs last summer alone.

Both newspapers and digital-only startups have struggled with attracting advertisers and subscribers. Franklin highlighted bipartisan legislation proposed in Congress this year to provide tax credits to small businesses that advertise in local publications.

Chicago-Main Newsstand in Evanston has witnessed both the decline of print circulation as well as dropping interest in regional publications. Sales of The New York Times’ Sunday edition have remained strong unlike those of local newspapers, newsstand manager Eric Ismond said.

But in addition to the Chicago newspapers, Evanston still has multiple digital and print outlets.

“In an area like this, we have a lot of options for the bigger papers,” Ismond said. “In smaller towns — the local newspaper, if that goes away, there are not very many options.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @realShunGraves

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