The growing problem of “news deserts” in local communities

NORTH CAROLINA — Americans living in “news deserts” with few or no local news outlets may be in a bind now that it’s time to vote in the midterm elections.

Fewer and fewer reporters are employed by the papers that typically cover community and state-level races. More and more of the papers are going out of business altogether. As a result there is less vetting of candidates and more confusion about what’s on the ballot.

“There’s been a huge diminishing of what is available, especially in terms of public service journalism, the very sort of journalism that you need as you’re going into a very crucial election and need to decide what issues are important,” said Penny Abernathy, the lead author of a new report, “The Expanding News Desert.”

Abernathy shared her findings on this week’s “Reliable Sources” podcast. Over the past decade and a half, the number of regional papers that would typically carry coverage of local and state races has drastically decreased, leaving voters without a steady stream of stories about candidates and propositions.

Abernathy’s report –— released by University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media — found that the US has lost almost 1,800 newspapers since 2004, including more than 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weekly newspapers. Other papers have become “ghosts,” shells of their former selves, the report pointed out.

Journalism veteran Tom Stites popularized the term “news desert” in a 2011 column for NiemanLab.

“The Chicago journalist Laura S. Washington introduced me to the desert frame, and she credits a South Side community organizer for originating it,” he wrote.

They took the well-known idea of a “food desert” -— urban areas in which nutritious food is too expensive or difficult to find — and applied it to regions in which news and information is in short supply.

“A huge part of the American people, the less-than-affluent majority, is civically malnourished due to the sad state of U.S. journalism — and that the nation’s broad electorate is thus all but certainly ill informed,” Stites wrote.

Seven years later, Stites is even more certain. In an interview with CNN, he likened the collapse of local papers to an earthquake.

Reams of research show that newspaper closures affect civic engagement. The impacts on elections, Stites said, are likely more significant at the state Senate and House level than at the congressional district level.

Candidates for US Congress and governors’ mansions still generate a baseline level of news coverage. But state Senate seats? Mayoral races? Ballot propositions? Some of these go unnoticed.

Stites, now the founder of the Banyan Project, lives in a Massachusetts town that still has a daily paper. But in nearby Haverhill, he said, “Twenty years ago, it had two daily papers that were competing like mad and beating each others’ brains out. Haverhill now has only two reporters total.”

The result? “A lot of people really don’t know what’s going on,” Stites said.

Americans have new tools in their hands — cell phones with access to Facebook and other websites — but social networks don’t fill the void left by local reporters. If anything, these sites just create even more confusion.

Without independent reporting about candidates, “you’re left with whatever comes in the direct mail and what you happen to see from your friends on a Facebook page,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy not only studies this problem, she sees it happening first-hand in her hometown. She grew up on a farm in Scotland County, North Carolina, a rural part of the state near the border with South Carolina. Back then, her family had access to TV stations in Charlotte and Raleigh, as well as three regional newspapers and an independent local newspaper. When Abernathy moved back to the state in 2008, after being away for 30 years, she was surprised by just how much local news sources had diminished.

“I’m most definitely in a news desert,” she said.

The only local TV station signals she receives are in South Carolina, which means they rarely if ever cover North Carolina races. The local paper has suffered at the hands of multiple different owners. The regional papers in the state have “pulled out” of her area, she said.

“Even though I go looking for the information, it’s still very very difficult to access,” she added, pointing out the proliferation of paywalls.

Abernathy, a former executive at The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, understands why the sites are trying to charge subscriptions. As a practical matter, she said, “if we are going to rely on readers to pay for the news that we create, we’re only going to be able to offer it to the most affluent areas.”

Abernathy pointed to the 2008 recession as a significant factor in local news deterioration. After 2010, especially, she said, the retail base supporting local journalism was “wiped out.” Profit margins of local papers shrank while tech giants like Google and Facebook took over the advertising marketplace.

Multiple studies have shown that when a community loses a local paper or a regional paper pulls out of a rural market, voter participation drops.

“This is bigger than a news industry problem,” Abernathy said. “This is a problem for democracy.”

Historically, the editorial boards of local and regional papers have also interviewed candidates and made recommendations about how to vote. Abernathy’s parents used to tear the voting guides out of the Charlotte Observer and bring the information with them to the ballot box.

They “depended on them to vet lesser well-known state offices such as the commissioner of agriculture, such as the state treasurer, such as the state auditor,” she said.

“It was not just a matter of saying ‘vote for this person, vote for that person,'” she added. “They actually sat down with the candidate and reviewed where they stood on various issues and made a point in the editorials of saying ‘this is why we’re recommending this person.'”

Much of that local-level work is missing now. Digital startups get lots of attention, but in most communities there’s still something fundamentally missing.

In North Carolina, for instance, “I’m an informed resident who wants to make a good decision,” Abernathy said. “I want to see where candidates stand and… it’s very difficult for me to even go looking for it in an educated way.”