This is a nation increasingly divided journalistically, between those who live and work in communities where there is an abundance of local news and those who don’t. Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain either print or digital news organizations.
The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens. In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.
This is a crisis for our democracy and our society. Troubled by the potential consequences, journalists, policymakers, philanthropists, industry executives, scholars and concerned citizens have stepped up efforts to save local news. Philanthropic donors, as well as venture capitalists, are funding more journalistic endeavors. Government officials are considering new regulations and public subsidies to address the issue. And many newspapers and digital organizations are adapting and finding success, especially in larger markets or affluent communities, where there are more funding options.
Timely interventions—backed by a combination of for-profit, nonprofit and public dollars—averted the demise of many news organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, the decline in local newspapers continued, while digital alternatives, once seen as the savior, remain nonexistent in most communities that have lost a newspaper. Commercial broadcast and public media have not been able to fill the void.
Understanding what is working and where there are still gaps in the flow of reliable and timely news and information helps individuals and organizations devise solutions to rebuild and sustain local journalism in those communities that, so far, have been overlooked by entrepreneurs and potential funders. This is very much an industry in transition, with much at stake. There is an urgent need to not only arrest the continuing decline in local newspapers, but also revive local journalism in those communities without it.
An earlier report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication examined the challenges confronting local journalism in democracies around the world. This Medill Local News Initiative report documents the state of local news in this country, post-COVID-19, focusing on the health of both local newspapers and digital sites. Here are some of the key findings:
Newspapers are continuing to vanish at a rapid rate. An average of more than two a week are disappearing. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025. Even though the pandemic was not the catastrophic “extinction-level event” some feared, the country lost more than 360 newspapers between the waning pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022. All but 24 of those papers were weeklies, serving communities ranging in size from a few hundred people to tens of thousands. Most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a digital or print replacement. The country has 6,377 surviving papers: 1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies.
Digital alternatives remain scarce, despite an increase in corporate and philanthropic funding. Over the past two years, the number of new digital-only state and local news sites, 64, slightly exceeded the number of sites that went dark. In 2022, there are 545 digital-only state and local sites; most employ six or fewer full-time reporters. Each state has at least one digital-only outlet. However, even established local digital news organizations often fail to attract the monthly traffic of television and local newspaper sites, somewhat diminishing the impact of the stories they produce. Four out of ten local sites are now nonprofit, supported by a combination of grants, sponsorship and donations. But whether nonprofit or for-profit, the vast majority of those sites are located in larger cities, leaving much of the rest of the country uncovered.
More than a fifth of the nation’s citizens live in news deserts—with very limited access to local news—or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Seventy million people live in the 208 counties without a newspaper, or in the 1,630 counties with only one paper—usually a weekly—covering multiple communities spread over a vast area. Increasingly, affluent suburban communities are losing their only newspapers as large chains merge underperforming weeklies or shutter them entirely. However, most communities that lose newspapers and do not have an alternative source of local news are poorer, older and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service that allows residents to access the important and relevant journalism being produced by the country’s surviving newspapers and digital sites. Instead, they get their local news—what little there is—mostly from the social media apps on their mobile phones.
The surviving newspapers—especially the dailies—have cut staff and circulation significantly as print revenues and profits evaporated. This has sharply reduced their ability to provide news to communities that lose a weekly newspaper, further exacerbating an information gap not only in rural areas, but also in suburbs surrounding a city. Since 2005, when newspaper revenues topped $50 billion, overall newspaper employment has dropped 70 percent as revenues declined to $20 billion. Newsroom employment has declined by almost 60 percent, with on-staff photographers declining by 80 percent. Only employees in production and distribution and advertising sales fared worse on a percentage basis than journalists. Accountants and operational managers, charged with making sure expenses did not exceed revenue as profits plummeted, had the most job security.
The largest chains control the fate of many of the nation’s surviving newspapers. Their business strategies and decisions continue to shape the local news landscape. Recent research has shown that, even in their diminished state, newspapers still provide most of the news that feeds our democracy at the state and local level. So, who owns the country’s newspapers has a profound impact on the abundance—or absence—of local news. As the number of newspapers has declined, consolidation has increased. The largest chains—most of which are either owned by or indebted to hedge funds, private equity groups or other investment firms—have been the most aggressive in buying and selling newspapers and in shuttering unprofitable ones when they cannot find a buyer. Even after selling and shuttering 120 newspapers over the past two years, Gannett, the country’s largest chain, still owns 494 papers in 42 states. The largest 10 chains own more than half of all dailies, including some of the country’s largest and most prestigious. The largest 25 chains own a third of all newspapers, including 70 percent of all dailies. Less than a third of the nation’s 5,147 weeklies and only 10 of the 100 largest circulation dailies remain independent.
There is a new—often overlooked—media baron on the scene, aggressively buying dailies and weeklies in small and mid-sized markets. While recent headlines have focused on the strategic maneuverings of the largest chains—Gannett, Lee, Tribune and Alden, which own most of the newspapers in the country’s largest markets—privately owned regional chains have snapped up dozens of newspapers shed by the mega-chains, as well as smaller family-owned enterprises. Two-thirds of the 82 papers Gannett sold in the past two years were snapped up by two regional chains, CherryRoad Media and Paxton. Six of the 10 largest owners in 2022 are regional chains, with between 50 and 142 papers in their growing empire. Three of the largest regional chains did not exist a decade ago, while the other three have been family-operated for generations. Since 2020, the most acquisitive have been: the New Jersey-based CherryRoad Media, founded in 2020, which owns 63 papers in 10 Midwestern states; the 125-year-old, Kentucky-based Paxton Media which owns 115 newspapers in 10 Southern and Midwestern states; and the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers, founded in 1890, which owns 101 papers in 18 states stretching from New Hampshire to Hawaii.
Dailies are becoming more like weeklies, and vice versa, but their business models and strategies are diverging. Daily papers used the pandemic and the subsequent economic slowdown to begin aggressively transitioning their readers to digital delivery. The daily newspaper– printed and delivered seven days a week—has already disappeared in many markets. Forty of the largest 100 papers in the country now deliver a print edition six or fewer times a week; 11 publish a print edition only one or two or times a week and e-editions on the other days. Meanwhile, many weeklies and non-dailies have begun supplementing their print editions by publishing daily subscriber email newsletters and routinely updating their websites. While thousands of weeklies have folded since 2005, those in relatively affluent and growing markets maintain strong cash flow and still are able to command multiples of four to five times annual earnings when they are sold. In contrast to large dailies, which rely on subscribers for more than half of their revenue, weeklies continue to receive the majority of their revenue from local businesses who buy advertising and services from them and sponsor their various print and digital publications.
Despite the recent increase in both corporate and philanthropic funds, the footprint of digital-only news sites is small, and predominantly a big-city phenomenon. With staffing levels more typical of weeklies in small and mid-sized markets, successful sites must be very strategic about the issues they choose to cover and how they raise money to support their mission. Although there continues to be considerable turnover, especially among for-profit sites, approximately 100 of the 525 active sites in 2022 were founded more than a decade ago. Today, the vast majority of for-profit sites are very locally focused and tend to rely on both subscriber and advertiser funding in the markets where they are located. Most state and regional sites are nonprofit and focus on issues—such as politics, health, the environment and education—that attract the support of donors and major community and philanthropic foundations. The lack of access to high-speed internet in many communities often limits the reach and impact of the journalism produced by both nonprofit and for-profit sites.
The disparity between communities that have strong news organizations and those that don’t is primarily the result of market demographics, ownership structure and available funding. Whether print or digital, local news organizations that have entrepreneurial owners and are in affluent and/or growing communities with diverse sources of funding are much more likely to establish and maintain a successful for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid enterprise. Economically struggling and traditionally underserved communities—where residents need journalists providing transparency and oversight of local government and business decisions—are the ones most likely to lose a news organization and be overlooked by funders looking to invest in both for-profit and nonprofit news operations. That loss of local journalism exacerbates political, cultural and economic divisions between and within communities.
Getting news to those communities that have lost the news involves rethinking both current journalistic practices—as well as for-profit, nonprofit and public funding policies at the national, state and local levels. Recent legislative, philanthropic, university and industry initiatives contemplate a range of solutions—including public funding of local news, journalistic collaboration by news organizations, experimentation with new nonprofit and hybrid business models, and investments in alternative news options that target new audiences. Yet, there is much that still needs to be addressed over the coming decade. Extensive research has documented the interrelated issues that arise when local news dies or withers on the vine. Without the development of new commercial models—as well as increased nonprofit and public funding—the nation faces the prospect of local news being available only in affluent and growing communities, where residents can afford to pay for it.
Strong local news helps us understand those whose experiences and attitudes are different from us, and, in the process, brings us together to solve our most pressing political, economic and social problems. It binds our vast nation of 330 million people together, nurturing both democracy and community. Everyone in the country has a stake in the future of local news, in whatever form it is delivered.
This is the first in a series of articles that explore in detail the state of local news in 2022. In the coming weeks, we will explore in further detail:
The Rise of the Large Regional Newspaper Barons
The Future of the Daily Newspaper
The Strategies of Successful Digital-Only News Organizations
The Path Forward: The Challenges and Opportunities
The research in this report and upcoming articles was funded in part by Microsoft’s Journalism and Democracy Initiative. The findings are based on analysis of data and information on more than 8,000 newspapers and digital sites collected over the past year by Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative, a program of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The data was verified and cross-referenced using industry and government sources—including state and national press associations, national and state government audits and independent research reports—as well as news and press accounts. It builds on previous research by the University of North Carolina that documented the loss of local news from 2004 to 2020. Read full methodology details here.
Sharon Burton is an unheralded warrior in the fight to save local news. From her perch as publisher and editor of the Adair County Community Voice in south central Kentucky, she has spent the past two years rallying the four employees at the 20-year-old weekly as they confronted and overcame the economic and journalistic challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Even with COVID-19 dominating the headlines at the 3,100-circulation paper, Burton continued producing “data-driven reporting” that held local officials—the hospital board, judges and politicians—accountable for their actions, while also shining a spotlight on the other epidemic, drug addiction, in a community where more than one in five of the 20,000 residents live in poverty. As Congress considered the Postal Services Reform Act of 2022, she also worked behind the scenes with fellow newspaper publishers and Kentucky Republican Congressman Jamie Comer on a successful bipartisan effort to expand postal subsidies for rural newspapers, most of whom depend on the mail for delivery of their papers.
Burton is one of thousands of individuals—owners of newspapers, digital entrepreneurs, policymakers, philanthropists, scholars, industry researchers and concerned citizens—who are carrying the fate of local news on their shoulders.
It’s become routine for newspapers to publish their own obituaries. In recent years, an average of two a week vanish, their names and mastheads becoming historical footnotes. That equals more than 360 newspapers lost since the waning pre-pandemic months of 2019 through May 2022, and 2,500 newspapers—more than a fourth—since 2005. Some passings are announced with big headlines while others—usually those owned by larger chains—slip quietly away, merged with a sister paper often in cities and counties many miles away. Meanwhile, the number of digital-only local news sites—once considered potential saviors—has remained stubbornly constant over the past five years, fluctuating between 525 and 575, unable to fill the void in most communities that lose a newspaper.
Despite the loss of local news, however, over the past two years there has been a growing realization that the decline is not inevitable. Timely interventions—backed by a combination of for-profit, nonprofit and public funding—averted the “extinction-level” catastrophe that many in the industry feared the pandemic would inflict on local news organizations. These actions are now serving as a blueprint for not only arresting the decline of local news, but also rebuilding and sustaining it.
The next few years will be pivotal for the fate of hundreds of print and digital news organizations—in rural communities, such as Kentucky’s Adair County, as well as those in urban neighborhoods and suburban towns. If current trends continue unabated, by the end of 2025, we will have lost a third of newspapers and almost two-thirds of journalists employed two decades ago in local newspapers, with only 600 or so news sites attempting to fill the gap.
Today, there are 6,377 surviving general interest local newspapers—1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies—and 545 active sites that focus primarily on covering either local or statewide news. Most newspapers are in small- and mid-sized communities, where they are often the sole source of local news, while the vast majority of digital-only news operations—90 percent—are in either urban centers or state capitals, where there are more digitally connected audiences and more access to for-profit and nonprofit funding.
As a result, the nation has a growing—and concerning—disparity in both the quality and quantity of local news available to residents in relatively affluent, growing communities compared to those located in less affluent, digitally-challenged communities. Affluent, growing communities are more likely to have the resources to support both for-profit and nonprofit print and digital news outlets. They have well-endowed philanthropic organizations and well-off subscribers willing to write a check to support news, as well as advertisers that want to entice residents in those markets to buy their goods and services. Less affluent, smaller communities, where residents live from paycheck to paycheck, are less attractive to advertisers and have, for the most part, been overlooked by potential philanthropic funders and digital entrepreneurs.
The spread of news deserts—where residents have very limited access to credible news and information—worsens political, economic, digital and cultural divisions in this country, threatening the stability and viability of democracy. Strong local news organizations nurture both grassroots democracy and societal cohesion by providing critical information that helps residents in communities—large and small, urban and rural—craft solutions to their most pressing issues and make wise decisions that will affect the quality of their lives and that of future generations. Local journalists cover the mundane, but often consequential, school board and county commissioner meetings, as well as celebratory community events that nurture a sense of belonging.
Scholars and journalists across multiple disciplines have documented the impact on a community that loses local news, including a decrease in voter participation in local and state elections, increased corruption in both government and businesses and the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation. Troubled by the potential consequences, a variety of individuals and organizations have stepped up efforts in recent years to reinvigorate local news.
The success of COVID-19 relief loans, which enabled many smaller news organizations to remain open during the pandemic, has encouraged legislators and policymakers—as well as the news industry—to consider other subsidies and regulations. Philanthropic foundations—as well as individuals—have purchased local newspapers, invested in the start-up of news sites focused on covering previously underserved and marginalized communities, and funded the addition of reporters to depleted newsrooms. Universities are working with print and digital news organizations to research and implement new business models. Entrepreneurial, nimble legacy outlets have transformed themselves by diversifying income streams and growing reader revenue. Instead of retrenching, many newspapers—especially those still independently owned and operated—are investing in their newsrooms, looking to reconnect and engage with residents by making their journalism more relevant and accessible to the communities they serve.
How the country builds on this foundation will influence the fate of not only individual news organizations, but also the communities they cover. There is much at stake for our democracy, as the nation looks ahead to consequential and contested elections this year and in 2024. Without a concerted and coordinated effort at national, state and local levels, many more vulnerable newspapers and sites will likely disappear, leaving their communities at a loss for news.
The Local News Landscape
The local news landscape in 2022 has been shaped by two decades of major economic and technological assaults that destroyed the longstanding economic underpinnings of local newspapers while hampering sustainability of digital alternatives. The fragility of many local news organizations has been driven by five factors:
Unprecedented consolidation in the newspaper industry, which has led to the loss of both local newspapers and journalists.
The long-term impact of two major recessions—in 2008 and 2020—that wiped out the local businesses and potential advertisers that still provide most of the revenue and income to newspapers and digital outlets in small and mid-sized communities.
A vise-like grip on digital advertising revenue by Big Tech that left print, digital and broadcast outlets unable to support a large newsroom with the digital dollars they’ve been able to attract.
The lack of digital infrastructure, especially in outlying areas and traditionally underserved communities, which hampers the ability of statewide digital sites to get the news to people who need it.
The gap in the nonprofit funds needed to support struggling newspapers and digital organizations in more isolated and economically struggling communities.
In a healthy news ecosystem, the journalists at local print and digital news organizations not only cover the ebb and flow of everyday life in their communities, but also alert reporters at national and state newspapers, regional television stations and larger digital operations to developing trends and major occurrences that deserve broader attention. Journalists at these larger organizations, in turn, produce the majority of the investigative and beat reporting that prompts legislation and policies to correct problems. As cracks form in the base and local print and digital news outlets struggle to gain traction or disappear, the journalism of the national and state news organizations is also compromised.
The Local News Ecosystem
The newspaper ecosystem in 2022 consists of 150 large metro or regional daily newspapers, and 6,227 small community dailies or weeklies. The four large national newspapers—The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today—are excluded from analysis in this report which focuses on local news. However, by some estimates, as much as 85 percent of the news eventually picked up by national news organizations originates with local and state newspapers, which today employ 31,000 journalists, almost 60 percent less than in 2005.
Excluding the large national sites—such as Pro Publica and special interest sites, such as Inside Climate News and Chalkbeat—the digital news ecosystem consists of 273 independent local sites, 95 state or regionally focused news sites, as well as more than 170 local business and special interest sites, community newsletters and a growing number of “networked” local outlets, some of which span multiple states. Almost 70 percent of the local sites and community outlets are for-profit enterprises, while 80 percent of state and regional sites are nonprofit. Many of the regional news sites focus on specific issues—such as health, the environment and education—that attract funding from foundations and individuals with a specific interest in that topic. Approximately 16,000 journalists worked on digital-only news operations in 2021, however, that total includes thousands of journalists at large national sites and organizations. The typical state or locally focused news site employs fewer than six journalists.
The Federal Communications Commission has identified eight categories of information that residents in every community need in order to make wise decisions—at the voting booth or in the grocery store. That list includes information on education, health, public safety, governance and the economy. A study by Duke University, which analyzed 16,000 news items produced by local and regional outlets in 100 mid-sized markets, found that between 60 and 80 percent of the articles produced by newspapers and digital-only sites focused on one of these “critical information” topics—significantly more than radio, television or any other local medium. So, their survival is critical to maintaining a robust news ecosystem.
Over the past three years, entrepreneurs have managed to establish new newspapers in three dozen markets and eight states—including Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado—and five dozen digital outlets in more than six states, including California, Georgia, Oregon and Massachusetts. The largest states—California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas— have the most digital news outlets focused on covering either local or statewide issues. More sparsely settled Midwestern states—such as North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska—have the most community newspapers per capita.
In a digital era when scale matters, community newspapers in small and mid-sized markets, and for-profit local and neighborhood news sites, have been the most vulnerable and difficult to sustain.
All but approximately 100 of the 2,500 newspapers that have disappeared since 2005—and all but 24 of the more than 400 papers shuttered over the past three years—were small weeklies or non-dailies, some circulating only a few hundred copies in their final days. (Factoring in the three dozen papers that were started by entrepreneurs, this represents a net loss of 360 papers over the past three years.) Half of the papers that vanished ceased publishing entirely, either in print or online; the rest were merged into another paper owned by the same company. While the merged paper often maintained a website with breaking news about the community, the connection was diminished. Journalists were laid-off and the building that had housed the newspaper was sold.
In contrast to newspapers, there has been a small net gain in the number of local- and state-focused news sites since 2019. While 45 independent digital-only news outlets disappeared or became inactive, 64 new ones were established. Half of the new sites were nonprofit, while almost all the outlets that closed were for-profit sites; most were very locally focused, covering a specific urban community or neighborhood. Many of the shuttered for-profit sites relied primarily on digital advertising revenue from local merchants to fund the news operation and were dealt a fatal blow during the pandemic when restaurants and other businesses shut down.
While every state has at least one digital outlet that focuses on either state or local news, many of the sites primarily cover a single topic—such as education, environment and politics—leaving newspapers to scope out and cover general interest state and local news. Since 2005, all states have lost newspapers. Small states, such as Hawaii, Vermont and New Hampshire, lost five or less. Illinois, the sixth largest state with a population of 12.7 million, has lost the most newspapers, 200 of the 573 papers published in 2005, mostly due to the demise of several chains of weeklies in the Chicago area. However, over the past decade, Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota, have lost the most newspapers per capita, compared to the number of residents in the state.
The Spread of News Deserts
“News deserts” are communities where residents have very limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds grassroots democracy and builds a sense of belonging to a community. A fifth of the country’s population— 70 million people—either live in a “news desert”, or in a community at risk of becoming one.
The nation has 3,143 counties (and equivalents):
Four million people live in the 208 counties that have no local newspaper. The counties range in size from several hundred residents to several hundred thousand. Only six of those counties have a digital alternative that provides either state or local news. All but five states—Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, New Hampshire and Ohio—have at least one county that does not have a newspaper located within its boundaries.
More than half the counties—1,630—have only one newspaper, usually a weekly with a small reporting staff. Only 70 of these counties have a local digital alternative. Especially in the western half of the country, those single-newspaper counties, which collectively have 66 million residents within their borders, can encompass several thousand square miles, dotted with multiple small and mid-sized communities, each with their own unique governance structure and issues.
Two-thirds of the nation’s counties—2,000—have no daily paper. Fewer than 100 of these counties had a digital substitute. By necessity, the main source of local breaking news for residents in many counties without a daily paper becomes social media or television stations, often located in cities miles away, or in another state.
Texas, which has 254 counties—more than any other state—has two dozen counties without a local newspaper. Half of the counties without a newspaper—100—are in the South, which has some of the poorest states in the country.
Almost all the communities where entrepreneurs established a new newspaper were growing rapidly and had relatively affluent residents. St. Lucie and Martin, adjacent counties on the east coast of Florida, are representative. Both counties have household incomes that are comparable to the U.S. average. St. Lucie, with a population of 350,000, grew 25 percent in the past decade; Martin, with a population of 162,000 grew at a 10 percent rate. Hometown News, a multimedia agency that owns a chain of community papers in five Florida counties, established weeklies in St. Lucie and Martin counties.
Communities that have lost newspapers—and don’t have an alternative source of local news, either print or digital—tend to be the ones that most need real-time news and information. For the most part, residents of those communities are poorer, older and less educated than the average American. Sixteen percent of residents who lived in the six counties that lost their last surviving newspaper between 2020 and 2022 are living in poverty, compared to the national average of 11%. In Bamberg County in South Carolina, Raleigh County in West Virginia and Ziebach County in South Dakota, between 20 and 40 percent of people live in poverty.
More than half of the communities that have lost newspapers are in suburban or rural areas, where the population is shrinking, rather than growing. Rural counties that lost newspapers were often located 50 miles or more from a major metro market and were losing population.
Del Rio, the county seat of Val Verde County in southwest Texas, is more than 150 miles west of San Antonio as the crow flies and more than 200 miles by highway. Sixteen percent of the 49,000 people who call Val Verde home live in poverty, compared to the U.S. average of 11 percent. The Del Rio News Herald, circulation 4,400, published its final edition in November 2020, with the owner, Southern Newspapers Inc., stating that revenue for the paper no longer covered payroll.
Counties such as Val Verde are often cut off from state and regional news, as well as local news. The regional daily newspaper, once delivered to their homes, no longer circulates a print edition to residents in these outlying counties. Except when there is a rare major weather or disaster story, reporters from regional and state news organizations do not set foot in these isolated, sparsely populated counties. And, in many states such as Colorado, Kentucky and Wyoming, residents in “orphan counties,” which are usually located along a state border, receive only the signals of stations in neighboring states. As a result, they face significant obstacles in getting information on state and Congressional races in their own state. Researchers estimate as much as 10 percent of the U.S. citizens of voting age live in an orphan county.
The Digital Divide
In most of these poor and isolated counties, residents also lack reliable and affordable access to digital news sites. Various sources estimate between a fourth to almost half of the residents in rural communities, as well as some economically struggling suburban and urban areas, do not have access to reliable high-speed internet. Even when high speed internet service is available, many residents cannot afford the price, which averages between $65 and $125 a month, and can run as high as $200 or more when other fees are factored in. According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of residents with annual household incomes below $30,000 do not have access to broadband or high-speed internet services at home. Residents in those communities tend to rely almost exclusively on their smartphone for accessing news—usually on social media—and for performing other tasks, such as filling out job applications or doing homework. This lack of access to high-speed internet means that many of the in-depth and investigative articles produced by the country’s 95 state and regional sites are never read by people most in need of the information.
The 11-year-old Carolina Public Press, which began as a digital-only site covering 17 counties in the mountains of North Carolina, has expanded in recent years to cover all 100 counties in the entire state. Though broadband is widely available in the cities, the counties in the eastern and western part of the state are digitally challenged. Founder and editor Angie Newsome worries “a lot about how we get our journalism over the last mile into the home (of the person we’re trying to help).” This concern has prompted the Press to undertake a project to map news gaps by region and explore how residents in those communities prefer to receive news, including texts, and in what language (English or Spanish).
In contrast, many residents in close-in suburban and urban areas have an abundance of media options that allow them to access information on multiple platforms, using a variety of instruments. This digital flexibility also gives advertisers multiple ways to reach residents. That is why most local digital sites have clustered around metro and heavily populated areas, where they can more easily reach scale and attract both subscriber and advertising revenue. One of the most ambitious local digital projects is TAPInto, a network of 90 franchised sites in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. Founded in 2008, TapInto sites offer daily local news updates, as well as a variety of marketing and advertising services. The content and marketing services are shared by the sites. Franchisees include journalists, as well as nonprofit organizations and business development and public relations firms.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021 seeks to bring affordable broadband to those areas cut off from the digital highway. In the meantime, the country is divided between those who have digital access and those who don’t. The digital gap drives the journalistic gap in the country—between those with abundant local news options and those without. Closing the information gap in many communities depends on also closing the digital gap.
The State of The Industry
Who owns the country’s news organizations has a profound impact on the abundance—or absence—of local news. As Sharon Burton, founder and editor of Kentucky’s Adair County Community Voice puts it, “I own the business and the clock is mine,” so she can set both journalistic and business priorities and respond quickly to the needs of the community without having to consult with corporate owners. When local businesses were forced to close or curtail hours during the initial phase of the pandemic, her weekly provided free advertising space “to those in peril.” As a result, she reports, “We lost revenue, but nothing like it could have been, and all because we developed a (business) plan to help those in need.”
While most state and local digital sites are operated independent of one another and employ journalists who live in the community they report on, less than a third of the nation’s 5,147 weeklies and only a dozen of the 150 metro and regional dailies are locally owned and operated. Even as the universe of newspapers shrinks, newspaper chains have grown to historic proportions, having acquired thousands of papers in all 50 states. The largest 10 chains own more than half of all dailies in the country—including some of the largest and most prestigious. The largest 25 chains own a third of all newspapers, including 70 percent of all dailies.
As the country seeks to rebuild local news and encourage local ownership, it confronts the impact that these media barons have had on local news over the past two decades. The largest chains have been the most aggressive in buying and selling newspapers, merging or shuttering unprofitable ones when they cannot find a buyer, and cutting costs and staff at surviving papers. Most are privately held, so the owners have no obligation to explain their strategic and financial decisions, identify their largest shareholders and report yearly earnings. Yet, their decisions reverberate across thousands of communities where their dailies and weeklies are located, and simultaneously influence the business and journalistic strategies employed by smaller print and digital news outlets that compete with them for readers and advertisers.
The Giants: The Mega-Chains and Regional Barons
The largest owners are divided into two groups: the mega-chains, owned by, or indebted to, large hedge funds, private equity groups or other investment firms, and large “regional” chains, which have taken advantage of low interest rates and cash flow from other operations to accumulate hundreds of newspapers in small and mid-sized markets in dozens of states.
Most press attention over the past three years has focused on six of the largest chains—Gannett, Gatehouse, MediaNews Group (also known as Digital First), Tribune, Lee and McClatchy—all which are owned partially or in full by investment firms. Post the 2008 recession, these companies used debt—often borrowed at high interest rates from other companies in their portfolio—to gobble up financially distressed publicly traded and privately held chains. More recently, they’ve focused on buying one another. Since 2019, there have been:
In 2022, the big three surviving mega-chains—the “new” Gannett, the Alden combination of MediaNews Group/Tribune and Lee Enterprises—own more than 800 papers, including a third of all dailies, many of which are in the nation’s largest markets. Post-merger, the largest chains have been busy merging and selling papers, or shuttering papers when they could not find a new owner. Yet, even after selling and shuttering 120 newspapers over the past two years, the “new” Gannett, the country’s largest, still owns 494 papers in 42 states
While the mega-chains captured headlines, another group of newspaper chains aggressively snapped up dozens of newspapers shed by the mega-chains, as well as smaller family-owned enterprises. With newspaper valuations—especially in smaller markets—at an all-time low, they’ve been able to finance their purchases mostly with the cash flow from existing operations or short-term bank loans.
Six of the 10 largest owners in 2022 are so-called “regional” chains—with between 50 and 142 papers in their growing empire. Three of the large regional chains (CherryRoad Media, Adams Publishing and AIM Media) did not exist a decade ago, while the other three (Paxton Media, Ogden Newspapers and Boone Newspapers) have been family-operated for generations.
Among the newcomers, Adams, the fourth largest chain in the country with 142 papers, and AIM, the 15th largest with 35, began accumulating small family-owned newspaper chains, primarily in the Midwest, a decade ago. Both owners—Mark Adams and Jeremy Halbriech—have extensive media and investment experience, and often close the deals themselves. They operate with very low overhead and corporate personnel. Adams’ last purchase was the Hagadone papers in Wisconsin in 2019. As the pandemic-induced recession set in, both Adams and AIM stopped buying and focused on trimming their portfolio by merging unprofitable and struggling newspapers. Through merging existing operations, AIM has shed eight papers, including two dailies, while Adams has shed 16, including three dailies.
Unlike Adams and Halbriech, Jeremy Gulban, owner of the digital firm, CherryRoad Technologies, had no experience managing newspapers when he acquired his first weekly in Grand Marais, Minnesota, in 2020. Since then, he’s acquired 62 more community papers—including 17 dailies—in 10 Midwestern states. Two-thirds of the 82 papers Gannett sold in the past two years were snapped up by two large regional chains: CherryRoad Media bought 49 and Paxton bought four.
Paxton Media and Ogden Newspapers, the fifth and sixth largest newspaper owners are old-timers—multi-generational, family-owned firms, known for running “efficient” operations with low overhead and—for the most part—lean newsrooms. In 2021, Paxton bought the Landmark chain of 46 weeklies, while Ogden purchased the Swift Communications group in Colorado in 2021 and KPC Media in Indiana in 2022. The 125-year-old Kentucky-based Paxton Media currently owns 114 newspapers in 10 Southern and Midwestern states. The West Virginia-based Ogden Media—founded in 1890—owns 101 papers in 18 states stretching from New Hampshire to Hawaii.
Both companies tend to “buy and hold” newspapers, preferring to trim staff instead of trimming papers, but they have also merged or shuttered papers in adjacent or competing markets. After purchasing the Landmark chain in 2021, Paxton merged Landmark’s Grayson Record with the Grayson County News-Gazette, acquired from Civitas in 2017. In 2020, Ogden collapsed six weeklies in Iowa into three papers. All but one of the newspapers was located in Tama County, population 17,000. The Reinbeck Courier in Grundy County, population 12,000, was merged with the Northern Sun-Print in Tama.
The other multi-generational, family-owned chain, Boone Newspapers, has purchased more than two dozen papers since 2010. Typically, Boone purchases a couple of papers a year from other family-owners. Over the past three years, Boone has added five papers to its collection, including the Bowling Green Daily News in June 2022. Boone, with headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, currently owns 70 papers in 12 states, mostly in the South, and is the eighth largest chain.
Shrinking Newspapers and Disappearing Journalists
Once they’ve purchased papers, both the national and regional chains employ a dual strategy that involves consolidating business and editorial functions — such as sales, editing and accounting—while outsourcing printing and delivery of the paper. They often replace publishers and editors at local papers with regional publishers and editors—and then merge the small weeklies with other weeklies in the area or with a larger daily, often in another county. The largest 10 chains have been responsible for a third of the closures and mergers over the past three years, and more than half of the closures since 2005.
These strategies have led not only to the loss of newspapers but also journalists. Even when a newspaper is “saved” buyouts and layoffs inevitably occur. After round-after-round of layoffs, the hometown paper becomes a “ghost newspaper”—a mere shell of its former self, with diminished and depleted newsrooms. Newspapers have traditionally employed more journalists than any other medium. But, the decline in newsroom employment in newspapers has been so unrelenting that in 2017, the number of journalists employed by regional television stations surpassed those employed by newspapers.
A comparison of the data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrates how dramatic the decline in local journalists has been since 2005, when newspaper revenues topped $50 billion. By 2021, total newspaper revenues had declined 60 percent to $20 million. During the same period newspaper employment dropped 70 percent, from 375,000 in 2006 to 104,000. Accountants and operational managers, charged with making sure expenses did not exceed revenue as profits plummeted, had the most job security, declining by less than 50 percent, while employees in production and distribution were most likely to be severed. Total employment in production and distribution declined 80 percent as newspapers significantly cut back on circulation in outlying areas and outsourced printing and delivery.
Meanwhile, the number of journalists declined in lock-step with revenue decreases — by almost 60 percent from 75,000 in 2005 to 31,400 in 2021. The vanishing journalists included investigative reporters, assignment and copy editors, editorial writers, beat and regional reporters employed by the metro dailies, who covered outlying communities, as well as issues of statewide importance, such as education and politics. Staff photographers declined even more than reporters and editors—by 80 percent—as newspapers began relying on freelance and wire photos. Many of the chain-owned state and metro dailies that employed several hundred journalists in 2005, had only a few dozen in their newsrooms in 2022.
While employment of journalists employed by digital-only news operations has risen by 10,000 since 2008, it has not compensated for the loss of 34,000 newspaper journalists. Even the largest local and state news sites typically employ fewer than a dozen journalists, and many are solo operations. Overall, New York and California have the most newspaper and digital journalists—5,100 and 3,500 respectively—while Delaware, Rhode Island and Alaska have the least, approximately 100 in each state. Since 2005, New Jersey and Texas have lost the most newspaper journalists per capita.
Recent research has quantified how the loss of journalists at newspapers has translated into the loss of local news. Many of the vanquished journalists were among the most senior editors and reporters. At the state and regional dailies, this has led to a decrease in major investigative pieces that change policy, expose corruption and save lives, as well as major analytical and contextual beat reporting on education, health, the state legislature and politics. At the smaller papers, it has resulted in many fewer bylined local news stories.
A Return to Local
The dramatic loss of local reporters—and the subsequent loss of local news— has prompted entrepreneurs, philanthropists and deep-pocket investors to underwrite both newspapers and digital sites, as they seek to reinvigorate local ownership. With a dramatic drop in valuations of newspapers– many of which sell for only a fraction of revenue in 2022—many weeklies, especially in smaller markets, can be purchased for less than the cost of funding the establishment of a digital-only operation. Recent research has shown that, even in their diminished state, newspapers still provide the majority of the news that feeds our democracy at the state and local level. Plus, a newspaper comes with an existing audience. So, instead of spending money on building an audience from scratch, the owner of a recently purchased newspaper can focus on engaging current readers, while also developing strategies to grow the audience.
In 2021 the National Trust for Local News purchased 24 weeklies in the Denver suburbs and has set up a nonprofit conservancy that consolidates the business functions for all of the papers but leaves in place separate newsrooms to engage with residents in each community. It is a model that founder Elizabeth Hansen believes can work in rural areas, as well as suburban markets. West Virginia University, through its NewStart program created in 2020, is hoping to inspire a generation of journalists to either buy local papers or start news sites that serve marginalized communities. So far, according to the program director, Jim Iovino, 13 students have completed the year-long program; eight have started either for-profit or nonprofit news sites or publications, and five have entered into talks to purchase community newspapers.
While many of those purchasing newspapers are going small, other investors are going big, establishing well-funded digital-only news operations in major cities. Frustrated in his attempt to purchase the Baltimore Sun from Alden Capital, Stuart Bainum, instead, is investing $50 million to establish the Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit online-only newspaper, which launched June 15, 2022. The American Journalism Project is pioneering a hybrid “venture” model that has so-far funded the establishment of multi-million-dollar digital operations in Cleveland, Houston, Wichita and Kansas City. The AJP matches community donations one-for-one.
Increasingly, a consensus is emerging that reviving local news in the 21st century involves reestablishing some form of local ownership that is accountable to the community where the news outlet is located. Yet, that also presents some challenges. While large chains lack the organizational flexibility to respond to the unique needs of a community, they are better able than independently owned newspapers and sites to negotiate on price with vendors and offer national and regional advertisers’ access to multiple markets. They can operate more efficiently by consolidating similar activities—such as production and sales—in a regional hub that serves multiple papers and sites.
That is why some digital-only outlets are experimenting with new models, creating formal networks that either encourage journalistic cooperation or centralize sales and other business arrangements. The Colorado News Collaborative is a statewide network of 170 news organizations that work together on stories and offer training and resources to journalists at smaller outlets.
Other networks focus on either building an audience across multiple neighborhoods or multiple cities that will attract advertisers and sponsors, or on offering technology services to other businesses. To date, such for-profit networks are based exclusively in metro areas. Examples include NOLA Messenger, which operates three neighborhood sites in New Orleans, and WhereBy.Us, with five daily email newsletters in Miami, Seattle, Portland, Pittsburgh and Orlando. The D.C.-based Axios, with daily email newsletters in two dozen cities, is focusing on rapidly building a network that attracts national and regional advertisers and sponsors. The 14 Axios Local email newsletters in operation in 2021—all in major metro markets—had approximately $5 million in advertising revenues. Axios Local plans to expand to 50 or more cities over the next few years.
Converging and Diverging Models
Two decades after the collapse of the for-profit business model that sustained local newspapers—and local news—in the 20th century, new for-profit, nonprofit and hybrid models are gaining traction in many communities. As a result, there is not one dominant business model for local news, but many, depending on the community where the news organization is located and the objectives of the owners.
Whether a community has a strong news organization is largely dependent on three factors: the demographics of the community, the ownership structure of the news outlet and the availability of capital. Local news organizations that have entrepreneurial owners and are in affluent and/or growing communities with diverse sources of funding are much more likely to have a successful print or digital enterprise. Economically struggling and traditionally underserved communities—where residents most need journalists providing transparency and oversight of local government—are the ones most likely to lose a news organization and be overlooked by funders looking to invest in both for-profit and nonprofit news operations.
To a degree, strong leadership by an owner, who is both creative and disciplined in their business decisions, can overcome market and funding limitations. Independently owned and operated news organizations have been more experimental than those embedded in large chains. Often to secure for-profit or nonprofit funding, owners must “break out of jail,” as one publisher of a weekly in North Carolina put it, by looking beyond the geographic confines of their hometown for new funding opportunities.
The strategies used by large dailies and weeklies—as well as those for nonprofit and for-profit sites—are diverging. The large dailies and nonprofit sites are relying more and more on readers and members to pay the bills, while the for-profit local sites are adopting strategies more like weekly newspapers, which still rely on advertising for most revenue.
What exactly is a daily newspaper in a digital age? How much are readers willing to pay for local news? What other sources of funding—commercial, nonprofit or public—can support the revitalization of print or digital news organizations in low-income, traditionally underserved communities? These are just some of the questions that need to be resolved as news organizations seek sustaining business models.
The Newspaper Models
The country has lost many fewer daily newspapers than weeklies. Only four of the approximately 100 dailies closed or merged since 2005 had circulation above 100,000—and all were in two-newspaper cities. The average circulation of the 24 dailies that disappeared since 2019 was 13,000, with the majority serving impoverished, isolated communities. Only six ceased publishing entirely; the rest were merged with other dailies in nearby counties.
Even though the closure of a daily newspaper has occurred with much less frequency than that of weeklies, the surviving dailies—both small ones and large metro papers—have been forced to make difficult choices and take drastic steps as they attempt to survive a steep decline in advertising revenue and low single-digit profit margins. They’ve outsourced production and distribution of the paper to printers in faraway markets, resulting in early deadlines that prohibit coverage of nighttime meetings and sporting events. They’ve cut back on journalists in their newsroom, resulting in fewer news stories to engage readers, while simultaneously raising the price of a yearly subscription to as much as $600 a year. They’ve cut back on circulation in counties outside the city or town where they are located—leaving loyal subscribers in outlying regions with no choice but to consult their webpages for up-to-date news.
Most recently, they’ve begun reducing the days they are printed and distributed. Small dailies owned by the regional chains got a head start. Many began trimming their print days after the 2008 Great Recession, moving from publishing six days a week to only four or five times. They then used the economic fallout from the pandemic to reassess and trim again. In 2021, six small dailies in Kentucky owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI), the nation’s seventh largest newspaper chain with 92 newspapers, cut back publishing a print or e-edition from five days a week to three days or less, and effectively became weeklies, according to the definition used by the Kentucky Press Association.
For much of the past decade, Advance Publications, which owns 16 dailies, was an outlier among newspaper chains. It began phasing out the daily distribution of many of its dailies, in such cities as Ann Arbor in 2009 and New Orleans, Birmingham and Huntsville in 2012, with mixed results, often incurring the wrath of local readers and advertisers.
However, as advertising print revenues have continued to decrease and the cost of printing and distributing a daily to a dwindling number of print subscribers has increased, other large chains have begun paring back days. Over the past two years, two of the largest chains—Gannett and McClatchy—announced that most, or all, of their dailies would convert to a six-day-a week print schedule. Lee Enterprises converted several of its dailies—including some of its largest—to four times a week or less. In contrast to many small dailies that trim print distribution, most large metros still produce an e-edition each day, and so qualify as a “daily.”
Forty of the 100 largest circulation papers in the country now deliver a print edition six or fewer times a week. Eleven publish a print edition only one or two times a week and e-editions the other days. Three independently owned and operated dailies have been the most aggressive and experimental. The Tampa Bay Times and nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune publish print editions only two days a week and only e-editions on the other five. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which opted to purchase iPads for its 60,000 print subscribers so they could more easily access the e-edition seven days a week, publishes a print edition only on Sunday.
Digital subscribers at dailies rose more than 50 percent in 2020 and 2021, fueled in part by intense interest in local pandemic-related news. The vast majority are sticking around, according to research by the Medill Local News Initiative and the Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University. With the price of newsprint, gas, labor and other expenses skyrocketing in 2022, many dailies are expected to collapse their print schedules even further.
Subscriber revenue exceeded advertising revenue at the country’s largest dailies for the first time in 2020. Some strong regional dailies, like the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer, have significantly grown reader revenue and used that revenue to build robust local newsrooms. However, many other dailies are deeply discounting the price of a digital subscription in order to entice print subscribers to convert. The key to the long-term financial success of the digital-only daily paper will be retention of digital subscribers at undiscounted rates. By purchasing iPads to its subscribers, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was able to convince its print subscribers to convert to digital delivery and retain them at the same rate—$34 a month—as they were paying for seven-day delivery of the print edition.
Amid the push to digital, it is difficult to get accurate and up-to-date numbers on total (print and digital combined) circulation for dailies. The Editor and Publisher dataset list total 2021 daily circulation as 26 million, compared to 50 million in 2004 and 28 million in 2019. Other data is more conservative and appears to be more up to date. Individual metro papers that reported a couple of hundred thousand in circulation in 2005 are now reporting total circulation of between 60,000 and 80,000. The 504 daily papers audited by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) between July 2021 and March 2022 reported circulation of 11.1 million, while the marketing firm, SRDS, tallied 18.5 million for all 1,230 dailies in the country in 2021. Both numbers indicate that the reach of metros has decreased significantly over the past two decades, as they have lost print subscribers and failed to attract enough digital-only subscribers in sufficient numbers to compensate. While the number of visitors to the websites of dailies is often in the millions, there currently is no widely accepted and easily accessed tracking system of online readership.
The total print and digital circulation of weeklies is even more difficult to ascertain, since most weeklies and non-dailies choose not to be audited and, instead, “self-report” their circulation. According to Editor and Publisher, the circulation of weeklies declined from 72 million in 2004 to 26 million in 2021. SRDS tallies the current circulation of the country’s surviving 5,147 weeklies as 32.5 million; however, that number includes shoppers and free alternative weeklies.
As dailies cut back on the number of days they publish a print newspaper, they are looking more and more like weeklies. And weeklies are looking more like dailies, with many of them publishing daily email newsletters and routinely updating their sites for breaking news. However, their business models are diverging significantly.
Many weeklies have very small circulations (under 10,000)—and they charge much less for a yearly subscription than dailies, typically $35 to $100 a year for home delivery—by mail—of the print edition. In contrast to the metro dailies, they remain much more reliant on print advertising revenues to pay the bills. At many weeklies, subscription revenue accounts for only a third of total revenue. Currently, most publishers do not see subscriber dollars reaching 50 percent in the near-term.
While thousands of weeklies in economically struggling communities have folded over the past two decades, those in relatively affluent and growing markets maintain strong cash flow and still are able to command multiples of four to five times annual earnings when they are sold. The most successful have been able to diversify their revenue sources, introducing a variety of print and digital publications (including email newsletters and magazines) that retain current customers and capture new ones, while also attracting advertising and sponsorship revenue from local businesses.
The Pilot, a 100-year-old, family-owned twice-weekly in eastern North Carolina with 13,000 in circulation, serves a fast-growing community that backs up on the large military base of Fort Bragg. The owner has aggressively diversified revenue over the past two decades, becoming a regional media enterprise that publishes lifestyle magazines in four of the state’s largest cities and a monthly business journal, producing two free daily email newsletters focusing on news and events in the community, creating an in-house digital ad agency to serve businesses in the region, convening conferences and conventions that attract business leaders from throughout the South, and buying a bookstore that serves as a gathering place for the community. Most recently, The Pilot established two streaming radio stations playing music from the 1980’s and 1990’s, and a daily paid subscriber-only newsletter that focuses on state politics and policies. Today, only a third of total revenue comes from the newspaper, but because the company is able to spread the cost of operations over multiple products, all ventures are profitable.
The Digital Models
The business model of successful for-profit local sites is very similar to that of successful weeklies—with the majority of revenue coming from advertising and the sale of other marketing services. Lookout Santa Cruz, founded in 2020 to serve Santa Cruz County (population 276,000) in California, has a total staff of 13 employees, including 10 journalists. Founder Ken Doctor reported that after 18 months of operation, 60 percent of total revenue came from advertising, including display, sponsorship, branded content and classifieds. The other 40 percent came from memberships. In the coming years, Doctor hopes to include philanthropy in the mix. This hybrid model (that incorporates grants and donations from philanthropic organizations and readers to underwrite journalistic projects) has been successfully used by the independently owned The Seattle Times to finance some of its major series.
Currently, 40 percent of the digital-only news operations that provide local or state news coverage are nonprofit. Like most for-profit sites, successful nonprofit ones have sought to diversify and grow their funding sources, so they are less dependent on grants from foundations, and more reliant on donations and membership fees, as well as sponsorship fees. With staffing levels more typical of weeklies in small and mid-sized markets, successful local and state sites—whether for-profit or nonprofit—have to be very strategic about the issues they chose to cover and how they raise money to support their mission. There continues to be considerable turnover in local digital operations, especially among for-profit sites. However, more than 100 of the 545 active sites in 2022 were founded more than a decade ago. Most of these longstanding sites are for-profit, such as the Tribeca Citizen, established in 2010. The majority of the newer sites, established in the past three years are nonprofit, such as the Indiana Citizen, established in 2020.
A small, but increasing, number of digital-only operations have added a print component to their mix. Even in areas with high broadband penetration, a weekly newspaper or a monthly magazine allows the digital outlet to reach a wider audience with the news it produces and provide local businesses with an advertising option that either reinforces their message with cross-over audiences or introduces that message to print readers. Print advertising also sells for much more than digital, bringing in more revenue, at a higher profit margin.
The nonprofit Highland Current in Cold Spring, New York, began as a website in 2010 with a goal of providing “balanced reporting of the news and events of Hudson Valley.” In 2012, a weekly print edition was added. Since then, the paper, which serves an affluent New York City area community of 100,000 with high broadband penetration, has received more than 75 awards from the New York Press Association, as well as more than 70 from the National Newspaper Association. More recently The Fallon Post in Nevada, began as a “virtual online daily paper” in 2019, serving Churchill County, 90 miles from Reno, with a population of 25,000. Beginning in 2021, subscribers who pay $9.95 a month can also receive a weekly print edition.
In many markets, there is not enough for-profit or nonprofit money available to support a strong news ecosystem. Communities that lack a vibrant commercial base—businesses that want to advertise and residents who can afford to pay—usually lack philanthropic support as well, since most well-endowed community and family foundations are based in large cities.
Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, are examples of this dual disparity in both nonprofit and for-profit resources. Four news sites have either been established or announced plans to launch in the past two years in Cleveland, including The Land, a nonprofit that reports on neighborhoods in and around the city and Capital B, which is supported by the American Journalism Project and tackles issues around race and equity. Most recently, The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization, established a local news outlet to focus on criminal justice issues. The Cleveland Foundation has an endowment of more than $3.2 billion and supports numerous organizations in the city. In contrast, 75-miles away in Youngstown, Ohio, which lost its daily newspaper in 2019, the Community Foundation of Mahoning Valley has an endowment of only $65 million and struggles to meet the many demands on its funds. One in three people in Youngstown live in poverty. In the three years since the Youngstown Vindicator closed, only one digital outlet, Mahoning Matters, has been established. It has three full-time journalists; The Vindicator had more than 30 journalists.
The funding disparity also affects the ability of organizations, such as Report for America (RFA), to place reporters with newspapers and sites covering economically struggling areas, since news organizations in those communities must contribute at least half of the journalists’ salary.
All this points to a need for new policies to address the gap. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, if passed by Congress, would provide tax credits to print, digital or broadcast news organizations that hire journalists. Several states are also considering legislation that would provide tax credits for readers who subscribe to a newspaper or businesses that advertise with local news organizations. Other states, such as Illinois, have established bipartisan task forces to identify at-risk communities and suggest a range of polices and funding to correct the issue. The challenge will be getting public funding to the communities and news organizations that need it most.
A Path Forward
At a summit on rural journalism, Tom Silvestri, former publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, wryly observed that sometimes there seem to be “more people trying to save local journalism than actually employed in local journalism.”
As executive director of The Relevance Project, Silvestri is one of those trying to save local journalism. Funded by state and national press associations, the Relevance Project seeks to strengthen the connection of local news organizations to their communities through in-person and virtual forums that bring together leaders and ordinary citizens to identify and help solve problems.
Extensive research has documented the interrelated issues that arise when a community loses local news. Without a coordinated and targeted response among individuals, organizations and institutions, the nation faces the prospect of local news being available only in affluent communities, where residents can afford to pay for it.
Getting news to those communities that have lost the news, or are in danger of losing it, involves rethinking both current journalistic practices, as well as commercial, nonprofit and public funding policies at national, state and local levels. Recent legislative, philanthropic, university and industry initiatives contemplate a range of solutions and offer a potential roadmap. Yet obstacles and questions remain:
Philosophically and politically, there are issues about whether and how to significantly increase public funds to make broadband service widely available and affordable in digitally challenged regions, while also supporting the revival of local news operations in underserved communities. Compared to other Western-style democracies, the U.S. spends exceedingly little on public media, and most of those taxpayer funds support national news and entertainment programs, such as PBS NewsHour and Masterpiece Theater. Is there an appetite among politicians and policymakers—as well as concerned citizens—to change that?
For philanthropic organizations and venture capitalists, there are questions about whether their funds are helping the communities who most need support. Even though philanthropic organizations have significantly increased support of local news in recent years, most of the funds are currently being dispensed in the media-rich, urban areas. How can for-profit and nonprofit funding be reallocated to support the revival of local news in media-poor communities?
For both newspapers and digital-only news operations, there are questions about how best to bring the news to the digitally unconnected and the disengaged. Can they collaborate more effectively with one another—and with universities—to identify communities at risk of losing the news and then develop new journalism and business models for rebuilding and sustaining local news organizations in those communities?
In 2021, Les High sold the 10,000-circulation-weekly in Whiteville, North Carolina, that had been in his family for three generations. The newspaper, under the stewardship of his grandfather, had received the Pulitzer Public Service Medal in 1953 for a courageous two-year crusade against the Ku Klux Klan. Seven decades later, the grandson is taking on a different journalistic challenge. With financial support from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, High has established the nonprofit Border Belt Independent, an online outlet that is covering the news in four of the state’s poorest counties. Minority groups—Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics—account for a majority of the population in three of the four counties, all of which have low broadband penetration. Instead of competing with local newspapers, which have depleted news staff, the Border Belt Independent is offering its news and features free and collaborating with reporters at other newspapers on major investigative pieces. “We’re not about competing with existing newspapers,” says High. “We’re about getting the news to people who need it.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, the family-owned Post and Courier has put together a network of 17 news organizations, many of them struggling newspapers, to produce “Uncovered”, a series of investigative pieces that expose corruption and hold officials in news-deprived communities accountable for their actions. South Carolina has lost 10 newspapers in recent years; two of its 46 counties have no paper. Each of the five Post and Courier journalists on the “Uncovered” team is assigned a region in the state and then works with reporters on community newspapers to identify local stories they don’t have the time and resources to pursue. The paper then provides funding—including legal fees for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests– so reporters on the smaller news organizations can work with the Post and Courier team to produce major investigative pieces that would otherwise go unreported. Readers support this investigative reporting project by donating to the paper’s Public Service and Investigative Journalism Fund.
Everyone in the country has a stake in the future of local news, in whatever form it is delivered. Strong local news helps us understand those whose experiences and attitudes are different from ours and brings us together to solve our most pressing political, economic and social problems. The Border Belt Independent, with funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, and the Charleston Post and Courier, with donations from readers, are providing real-time, entrepreneurial examples of how individuals and organizations, working together, can identify communities at risk and then reimagine how to get the news to people who don’t have it. The success of their efforts—and those of thousands of other entrepreneurs, policymakers, industry leaders, philanthropists, venture capitalists, scholars and ordinary citizens—will determine how the local news landscape evolves in coming years.