Local journalism has faced extraordinary challenges over the last two decades, leading to the closure or consolidation of nearly 20% of local papers since 2004.
As a result, almost 1,400 communities throughout the U.S. have been left without any local newspapers, creating news deserts, according to a report by the University of North Carolina’s journalism school.
In the age of endless free media at our fingertips, it can be easy to barely notice the demise of local journalism, but its effects will reverberate throughout our communities for years to come.
Perhaps more revealing than the number of newspapers shutting down is the number of employee layoffs. Since 1990, the total number of jobs in the newspaper industry has fallen from 455,000 to 183,200 — 248% less than it was three decades ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When newspapers are reduced to a skeletal staff, it becomes incredibly difficult to have reporters embedded in local communities reporting on local issues.
Local government loses its accountability without reporters. Without anyone checking on budgets and staffing changes, town councils are often left to make decisions with impunity.
Research conducted by the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago found a causal link between a decline in local journalism and a rise in government inefficiency.
Without someone to hold the local government accountable, government waste increases.
As a result, investors are less likely to fund necessary infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and railroads. By contrast, a single dollar spent by a local paper yields hundreds of dollars for the local community, according to James Hamilton of Stanford University.
Part of the problem is that local communities don’t know what’s at risk. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that while 71% of people believe their local papers “do well financially,” only 14% of respondents indicated that they paid for local news in the last year.
While those with a lower income may face challenges in affording a subscription, the average price of a digital newspaper subscription is only $3.11 a week, according to the American Press Institute.
That’s just slightly more expensive than a gallon of gas and a small — yet necessary — price to pay to ensure that your local government spends your tax dollars wisely.
Another byproduct of the decline of local journalism is decreased civic engagement.
After The Cincinnati Post closed down in 2007, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “fewer candidates ran for municipal office … incumbents became more likely to win reelection, and voter turnout and campaign spending fell.”
Additionally, once these candidates have been elected to the House, they become less likely to advocate for the needs of their constituents, and federal spending in these areas falls.
Without local papers analyzing the intricacies of candidates’ platforms, many voters “turn to national sources like cable news and apply their feelings about national politics to people running for the town council or state legislature,” helping to drive the political polarization rampant within society today.
They’re not turning to their local paper for coverage of a Trump press conference — they have The New York Times or The Washington Post for that.
In the aftermath of papers closing before the 2012 elections, instances of people splitting their ballots between parties fell by almost 2%, according to Harvard University.
While this paints a bleak picture for the state of journalism in communities around the U.S., there are ways to counteract these trends and maintain accountability for local politicians.
Local papers need to focus on what readers value.
They’re not turning to their local paper for coverage of a Trump press conference — they have The New York Times or The Washington Post for that. They’re looking for a recap of the school board meeting, a rundown of the town budget or coverage of local campaigns.
Newsrooms need to adapt with this in mind. They need to focus their remaining staff on covering these stories and leave Washington to the national news outlets.
And for readers, there’s an easy way to help fix this issue ourselves: buy a subscription to your local newspaper.
Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an intended international relations major from Lido Beach, New York. Got a different approach to combating local journalism’s demise? Email him at email@example.com.