As Local News Outlets Shutter, Rural America Suffers Most

April Simpson November 1, 2019

In the United States, 225 counties do not have a locally based newspaper. Nearly half of all counties, 1,528, have only one newspaper, usually a weekly. This graphic uses data from the University of North Carolina Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media’s Database of Newspapers and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Editor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by State­line, an ini­tia­tive of the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts.

Jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Pen­ny Muse Aber­nathy lives in a news desert. She says there’s lit­tle local media cov­er­age of Scot­land Coun­ty, North Car­oli­na, among the poor­est in the Tar Heel state. Her tele­vi­sion news broad­casts come from neigh­bor­ing South Carolina. 

As a result, it’s dif­fi­cult to find local news or infor­ma­tion on rel­e­vant state issues that she could vote on, Aber­nathy said.

A vibrant free press, pro­tect­ed from gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence by the First Amend­ment, can hold the pow­er­ful to account and empow­er read­ers to make informed deci­sions on major issues. News­pa­pers and oth­er local media out­lets reflect com­mu­ni­ty val­ues, and when they go under, there is less cov­er­age of the high school sports and com­mu­ni­ty events that bind peo­ple together.

Amid the steady decline in local news, some states are con­sid­er­ing step­ping in to sup­port the Fourth Estate. But crit­ics wor­ry that doing so might under­mine the press’s role as a gov­ern­ment watchdog.

There’s this adver­sar­i­al rela­tion­ship that exists and needs to exist,” said Al Cross, direc­tor of the Insti­tute for Rur­al Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ty Issues at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky in Lexington.

News deserts — com­mu­ni­ties with lim­it­ed access to cred­i­ble and com­pre­hen­sive news — are espe­cial­ly preva­lent in rur­al Amer­i­ca. More than 500 of the 1,800 news­pa­pers that have closed or merged since 2004 were in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, accord­ing to a 2018 report, The Expand­ing News Desert,” writ­ten by Aber­nathy for the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill’s Cen­ter for Inno­va­tion and Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Local Media.

Rur­al news­pa­pers have been buf­fet­ed by the same head­winds fac­ing news­pa­pers in all areas. More Amer­i­cans are con­sum­ing news dig­i­tal­ly, typ­i­cal­ly turn­ing to news aggre­ga­tion sites and social media for infor­ma­tion, instead of get­ting it from local media outlets.

Rev­enue from clas­si­fied and oth­er print ads has declined pre­cip­i­tous­ly as adver­tis­ers have moved online to accom­mo­date those chang­ing habits.

But the peo­ple with the least access to local news are rur­al res­i­dents, who are typ­i­cal­ly poor­er and less edu­cat­ed than the aver­age American.

As rur­al coun­ties lose pop­u­la­tion, they often become unable to sup­port a news­pa­per wor­thy of the name, Cross said. There just isn’t enough dig­i­tal or print rev­enue in some rur­al com­mu­ni­ties to pay for pub­lic ser­vice jour­nal­ism, accord­ing to the 2018 UNC report.

At the same time, many larg­er news­pa­pers are clos­ing their sub­ur­ban and rur­al bureaus to save money.

In a report released ear­li­er this year, the Pew Research Cen­ter found that about half of U.S. adults (47%) say the local news they get most­ly cov­ers an area oth­er than where they live. (The Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts funds the research cen­ter and State­line.)

With­out reli­able infor­ma­tion on their own com­mu­ni­ties, there’s a poten­tial for cor­rup­tion, Aber­nathy said. Peo­ple won’t be armed with the infor­ma­tion they need to hold their pub­lic offi­cials account­able and to make edu­cat­ed deci­sions when they vote.

She cit­ed the recent case of a North Car­oli­na cam­paign con­sul­tant who ran a net­work that ille­gal­ly col­lect­ed absen­tee bal­lots, and some­times com­plet­ed them, to boost a Repub­li­can con­gres­sion­al candidate. 

Elec­tion offi­cials even­tu­al­ly detect­ed the fraud, over­turned the elec­tion results, and ordered a new vote. But in the mean­time, thou­sands of North Car­oli­na vot­ers, includ­ing those in Scot­land Coun­ty, were with­out representation.

The res­i­dents of the 9th Dis­trict have been deprived of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Con­gress for almost a year,” Aber­nathy said, because of sig­nif­i­cant elec­tion fraud that flew under the radar of severe­ly under­staffed local and region­al news­pa­pers, as well the state’s broad­cast and dig­i­tal outlets.”

On a recent Fri­day, the front pages of news­pa­pers in two most­ly rur­al states fea­tured sto­ries unlike­ly to mer­it a men­tion in nation­al papers such as The New York Times and the Wash­ing­ton Post: The Anchor­age Dai­ly News led with a piece on a man accused of killing two Alas­ka Native women and dump­ing their bod­ies to cov­er his crimes, while the Arkansas Demo­c­rat-Gazette informed its read­ers of an agree­ment to phase out live grey­hound rac­ing at the West Mem­phis track where they have been held for 63 years.

Some believe state and local offi­cials must act to pre­serve the flow of that information.

A lot of peo­ple think about media and pub­lic pol­i­cy and they get squea­mish — This is a hands-off thing. We can’t do any­thing about it,’” said Melis­sa Mil­ios Davis, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Den­ver-based Gates Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion. But in real­i­ty, this is an indus­try, just like any oth­er. It’s a busi­ness, and the mod­el is in crisis.”

The foun­da­tion sup­port­ed research pub­lished ear­li­er this month on pub­lic poli­cies for sup­port­ing local news in Col­orado, which lost 33 news­pa­pers, about a fifth of the total, between 2004 and 2019.

In Mass­a­chu­setts, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich and Sen. Bren­dan Crighton, both Democ­rats, have intro­duced a bill that would estab­lish a com­mis­sion to study jour­nal­ism in under­served com­mu­ni­ties and make pub­lic pol­i­cy recommendations.

Sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tions are hap­pen­ing among advo­cates and leg­is­la­tors across the coun­try, includ­ing in New Jer­sey, New York and Ohio.

Poten­tial solu­tions include more mon­ey for pub­lic broad­cast­ing, pro­vid­ing tax incen­tives to per­suade media out­lets to close local news gaps and fol­low­ing the path of New Jer­sey, which in 2018 cre­at­ed a fund to bring news and infor­ma­tion to under­served communities. 

There also is inter­est at the fed­er­al lev­el. Cal­i­for­nia U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a Demo­c­rat, has pro­posed amend­ing the fed­er­al tax code to make it eas­i­er for news orga­ni­za­tions to claim non­prof­it sta­tus. And Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island wants to allow news orga­ni­za­tions to col­lec­tive­ly nego­ti­ate with news aggre­ga­tors such as Google and Face­book on the dis­tri­b­u­tion of their content.

States Look to New Jersey

In 2017, the state of New Jer­sey had a wind­fall. It won $332 mil­lion in the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion spec­trum auc­tion for sell­ing off two pub­lic tele­vi­sion sta­tions in the Philadel­phia and New York mar­kets. It was the largest pay­out to any pub­lic broad­cast­er in the auction.

Free Press, a left-lean­ing orga­ni­za­tion that advo­cates for press free­dom and local jour­nal­ism, held a lis­ten­ing tour through­out the state to col­lect ideas on how the spec­trum pro­ceeds could be used to meet res­i­dents’ news and infor­ma­tion needs. 

Free Press’ work led to the New Jer­sey Civic Infor­ma­tion Con­sor­tium, the result of a bipar­ti­san bill that cre­at­ed an inde­pen­dent 501©3 pub­lic charity.

A col­lab­o­ra­tion among five of the state’s lead­ing pub­lic high­er-edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions, the nonprofit’s mis­sion is to strength­en local news cov­er­age and boost civic engage­ment. It will award grants to projects that train stu­dents and oth­ers in jour­nal­ism, sto­ry­telling and media pro­duc­tion, and help media out­lets find steady sources of rev­enue, among oth­er goals.

But despite the spec­trum wind­fall, and an ini­tial request by Free Press and Sen­ate and Assem­bly Democ­rats of $100 mil­lion, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Phil Mur­phy has allo­cat­ed just $2 mil­lion for the consortium.

Mean­while crit­ics wor­ry that state-fund­ed report­ing is bound to wors­en the cri­sis in local jour­nal­ism, rather than ame­lio­rate it.

The fact that the consortium’s rul­ing body is top-heavy with gov­ern­ment lead­ers and employ­ees should give us pause,” media writer Jack Shafer wrote in Politi­co. How can a non­prof­it news orga­ni­za­tion direct­ed by peo­ple in the gov­ern­ment even pre­tend to be independent?”

Nev­er­the­less, the Col­orado Media Project ear­li­er this month point­ed to New Jer­sey as a mod­el in a report that pro­pos­es four strate­gies to close local news gaps: increas­ing gov­ern­ment trans­paren­cy, increas­ing sup­port for libraries and high­er edu­ca­tion, empow­er­ing com­mu­ni­ties to raise tax­es to pay for local news, and help­ing com­mer­cial media out­lets con­vert to a non­prof­it model.

The report includes inno­v­a­tive, wor­thy ideas, such as increas­ing sup­port to pub­lic broad­cast­ing, but it also goes too far, said Uni­ver­si­ty of Kentucky’s Cross.

It’s high­ly unlike­ly that the pub­lic pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Col­orado or any oth­er states are going to adopt these types of rec­om­men­da­tions because they’re too far-reach­ing for a lot of pol­i­cy­mak­ers to swal­low,” said Cross, who over­sees the Rur­al Blog, an aggre­ga­tor of rur­al news.

Still, advo­cates argue there is no future in local news with­out some form of pub­lic fund­ing. Besides, pub­lic fund­ing mod­els have exist­ed since Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son signed the Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Act of 1967 and set up the Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing, a pub­lic-pri­vate cor­po­ra­tion, to fill the gaps left by com­mer­cial media. 

Some point to phil­an­thropy as a pos­si­ble solu­tion, and non­prof­it news web­sites sup­port­ed by foun­da­tions and indi­vid­ual con­trib­u­tors have sprung up around the coun­try. But few of them focus on rur­al issues, and even if they did, rur­al res­i­dents often lack high-speed inter­net access.

There’s not going to be one fix,” Aber­nathy said. The prob­lem that we’ve got — and this is what I wor­ry about the most — is the tran­si­tion. How do we get through the next 10 years?” 

Rur­al Pub­lic Media

Some advo­cates say pub­lic broad­cast­ing can help fill the gaps. Col­lab­o­ra­tions among sta­tions, such as in Ken­tucky, Ohio and West Vir­ginia, report on eco­nom­ic and social change in Appalachia.

Pub­lic broad­cast­ers are work­ing along­side near­ly three dozen dig­i­tal and print news­rooms in Col­orado, Ida­ho, Mon­tana, New Mex­i­co and Wyoming to expand cov­er­age of the Moun­tain West. 

While the print media indus­try is shrink­ing, some pub­lic broad­cast­ers are grow­ing. Col­orado Pub­lic Radio, for exam­ple, is build­ing a 9,000-square-foot news head­quar­ters in down­town Den­ver and plans to add an inves­tiga­tive team. In the absence of state mon­ey, it has relied on gen­er­ous major gifts and suc­cess­ful fundrais­ing campaigns.

But some state leg­is­la­tors are mov­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. Alas­ka this year elim­i­nat­ed state fund­ing of pub­lic broad­cast­ing, and sta­tions are scram­bling to make up for the short­fall. Fif­teen states, includ­ing Col­orado, don’t set aside mon­ey for pub­lic media. The loss of state mon­ey threat­ens the Alas­ka broad­cast­ers’ abil­i­ty to qual­i­fy for fed­er­al match­ing funds.

Alas­ka Gov. Michael Dun­leavy, a Repub­li­can, used a line-item veto to elim­i­nate more than $2.7 mil­lion in fund­ing for the state’s pub­lic sta­tions, which typ­i­cal­ly cov­er large geo­graph­ic areas with small rur­al pop­u­la­tions. They have weath­ered cuts before, but nev­er faced a total loss. 

The more of us that lose staff, or that might end up going off the air, the weak­er it makes the pub­lic media sys­tem as a whole,” said Jen­ny Ney­man, gen­er­al man­ag­er of KDLL in the Cen­tral Kenai Penin­su­la. The sta­tion airs local news, music pro­gram­ming and enter­tain­ment. It lost $74,000 — a third of its bud­get — in state funding.

I grew up in one of those small bush com­mu­ni­ties where pub­lic radio is the only radio for a com­mu­ni­ty like that,” Ney­man said. It would be quite a blow to not have that ser­vice anymore.” 

Jeff Turn­er, a spokesman for the gov­er­nor, did not return a request for comment.

April Simp­son reports on rur­al issues at State­line. Before join­ing Pew, April was asso­ciate edi­tor of Cur­rent, where she cov­ered pub­lic broad­cast­ing and non­prof­it media. April was a Ful­bright fel­low in Botswana and East­ern Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go fel­low with the Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Media Foun­da­tion. She has writ­ten for the Seat­tle Times and the Boston Globe, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. April is a grad­u­ate of Smith Col­lege and the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Polit­i­cal Science.
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