In the U.S., the consolidation of giant media companies and the tanking of advertising revenue have taken their toll. A quarter of newspapers, mainly local, have shut down since 2004.
Although poorer, less educated, and more rural areas are more likely to be news deserts, the decline of metro and community news affects wealthier and poorer communities alike. And in addition to these total news deserts are the parched news environments: half of U.S. counties are served by only one newspaper, mostly a weekly paper.
In you live in an area that’s under-covered by the press, you might only learn of local events in neighboring or larger media outlets when they’re particularly scandalous or salacious. This creates a skewed sense of what’s newsworthy, or even what’s happening on your own home turf.
Alternative News Sources
So where do people go when print periodicals don’t cover their communities? There’s the internet, of course. But the rise of online news hasn’t offset the losses from print. Local digital news faces the same crisis of funding as local print publications.
Student newspapers might be an alternative as well. High school and university journalists in news deserts have broken important stories. Yet this isn’t a sustainable solution to the local news crisis. Students staffing news outlets will invariably move on within a few years, and student reporters aren’t always taken seriously. In addition, relying on the unpaid labor of students, no matter how dedicated they are or how valuable this training can be, isn’t an ideal model to scale up.
“Ethnic” and foreign-language publications are an important option as well. But overall these remain niche and under-resourced.
Without reliable publications serving their communities, readers often turn to social media. Social media has received a boost in advertising dollars even as newspapers see their ad budgets dry up. Facebook groups, for instance, can usefully spread local news and foster a sense of community. Yet the lack of journalistic standards among people who are essentially volunteers, and the rampant spread of misinformation, makes social media a potentially risky source of news.
Impacts of Missing Media
The reliance on social media runs in parallel to the declining confidence in institutions. Hostility to so-called “fake news” has filtered down even to local news outlets, which tend to be more trusted than national ones. Partisanship is contributing to decreased trust in local news sources.
Some researchers argue that the loss of local news outlets diminishes not just knowledge of local happenings and politics, but also ties within a community. The result is a simultaneous erosion of civility and less engagement in democracy close to home. This manifests in fewer people running for office (and less knowledge of the candidates who are running, even when they’re rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). It also shows up in fewer people voting.
One effect of insufficient media to hold local authorities to account is more negligence, including enforcement failures and mismanagement of public funds. Local governments become less efficient, and public borrowing costs rise. So the loss of local press can impact taxpayers.
The whittling away of local news has even created space for partisan networks that disguise political propaganda as news articles. In the most extreme cases, this “pay-for-play” model of faux news can confuse both readers and employees as to the nature of what they’re reading.
COVID-19 has also dramatically shown the importance of local news to understanding public health within the area. This is especially significant for communities that are underserved by national institutions, including multilingual or tribal communities.
From weakened public health to anemic democracy, the dissolution of local news is troubling. Many people have noticed, and have urged more philanthropic and government support for local journalism. But this support has to be ramped up massively to stem the damage.