Even be­fore virus, com­mu­ni­ties were feel­ing loss of news­pa­pers

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By David Bauder

NEW YORK — If Penelope Muse Aber­nathy can take any so­lace in her grim work of count­ing how many news­pa­pers across Amer­ica have closed, it’s that more peo­ple are be­com­ing aware of the problem.

TheNorth Carolina jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor’s lat­est re­port out last week de­tails the in­dus­try’s de­cline from 2004 through 2019, a pe­riod that saw the loss of more than 2,000 news­pa­pers and a 44% drop in cir­cu­la­tion over­all.

The re­sult has left many com­mu­ni­ties with­out a lo­cal paper, a shift she said is be­ing rec­og­nized by a broad range of peo­ple who no­tice a lack of strong lo­cal news cov­er­age con­trib­utes to so­ci­etal di­vi­sions and an ero­sion of trust in in­sti­tu­tions.

“I see a big dif­fer­ence in aware­ness of the is­sue by com­mu­nity ac­tivists, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, by or­di­nary cit­i­zens and politi­cians,” said Aber­nathy, pro­fes­sor at the Huss­man School of Jour­nal­ism and Me­dia at the Univer­sity of North Carolina and au­thor of “The Ex­pand­ing News Desert” re­port.

The re­port does not cover the coro­n­avirus shut­down, which has led to 35 news­pa­pers across the country shut­ting down the past few months. Also lost: a chain of 14 com­mu­nity news­pa­pers around Chicago, ac­cord­ing to the Poyn­ter In­sti­tute think tank.

They in­clude the Jour­nal News in Knoxville, Iowa, founded by a Civil War vet­eran who was a friend of Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln, and the Ed­mond Sun, in Ed­mond, Ok­la­homa, which be­gan in 1889, Poyn­ter said.

Other clo­sures in­cluded the Hen­dricks County Flyer in In­di­ana, the Merkel Mail in Merkel, Texas, the

Havre Her­ald digital site in Havre, Mon­tana, and the Mesquite Lo­cal News in Mesquite, Ne­vada. The Water­bury Record in Ver­mont started in 2007 to fill a lo­cal news void but found good in­ten­tions only count so much.

“That never trans­lated into wide­spread ad­ver­tis­ing sup­port,” pub­lisher Greg Popa told read­ers.

Aber­nathy’s re­search shows the harsh en­vi­ron­ment many out­lets were fac­ing be­fore COVID-19 spread through­out the U.S. Among the find­ings:

The num­ber of news­pa­pers in the United States de­clined from 8,891 in 2004 to 6,736 at the be­gin­ning of this year. Most are in small com­mu­ni­ties.

Total news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion sank from 122 million in 2004 to 68 million at the end of last year, and that in­cludes digital read­er­ship.

In the United States, 198 of the na­tion’s more than 3,000 coun­ties — 108 of them in the South — have no news­pa­per.

The 71,640 re­porters and ed­i­tors work­ing at news­pa­pers in 2008 were cut by more than half in 10 years. The bulk of those cuts came in larger re­gional news­pa­pers, some now called “ghosts” be­cause of their di­min­ished pres­ence.

If so­ci­ety be­lieves that it’s im­por­tant to boost lo­cal news, an in­flux in pub­lic money is al­most cer­tainly needed, Aber­nathy said. Politi­cians in both par­ties have made sug­ges­tions, but haven’t co­a­lesced be­hind spe­cific ideas.

In one en­cour­ag­ing sign, the re­port said 83 digital news op­er­a­tions be­gan op­er­at­ing in 2019. Yet an equal num­ber of such sites shut down. Most were in ur­ban ar­eas, of­ten started by over­bur­dened re­porters work­ing 80 hours a week, when they re­ally need some­one work­ing an equal amount of time to make it a suc­cess­ful busi­ness, Aber­nathy said.

“It’s just very hard to get trac­tion,” she said.

Digital out­lets also have lim­i­ta­tions, since many peo­ple in poor and ru­ral ar­eas are un­able to count on re­li­able high-speed in­ter­net, she said.

With more Amer­i­cans now say­ing they get news from so­cial me­dia in­stead of news­pa­pers, Aber­nathy’s re­searchers ex­am­ined “Today in,” Face­book’s ef­fort to put lo­cal news sto­ries on the feeds of fol­low­ers. In some places, the lack of lo­cal news out­lets able to pro­vide those sto­ries hin­dered that ef­fort.

Dur­ing two months last year, re­searchers found that nearly half of the sto­ries the Face­book news feeds around North Carolina were about crime or hu­man in­ter­est. It meant that there was com­par­a­tively lit­tle news on ed­u­ca­tion, health, mi­nor­ity groups, the econ­omy, the en­vi­ron­ment and pol­i­tics, the re­port said.


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