Journalism profession engages with prominence of news deserts, study finds

Story by The Daily Tar Heel
Originally published Oct. 22, 2018, on dailytarheel.com

Thousands of local newspapers have turned into ghosts of their former selves, according to a new study from UNC's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the School of Media and Journalism. The study defines these 'ghost newspapers' as having diminished quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content.

The two-year news desert research study, made possible by grants from the Knight Foundation and UNC's Office of the Provost, also found that almost 200 counties in the U.S. don’t have a local newspaper, and 1,800 local newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004.

The counties hit with the greatest loss of local news tend to be low-income, less educated and older, said Penelope Abernathy, report author and Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics. Most of the counties without newspapers often came from rural areas in the South.

“They're exactly the kind of communities that need strong news to help them see the way to the future,” Abernathy said. “So my first priority is trying to help prioritize both nonprofit, as well as for-profit spending and research into developing business models for those communities most at risk.”

The study brought industry databases together along with several UNC graduate and undergraduate researchers. Junior Natasha Townsend, a copy staffer for The Daily Tar Heel, became involved with the project this summer. As an aspiring journalist, she said she found the report disheartening for newspapers.

“There's just a lot that are disappearing, and I don't know if people realize that the newspaper industry is disappearing as fast as it is, but as a student that does want to do reporting in her future, it's kind of scary honestly to see that newspapers in the future," Townsend said. "If I end up working at a newspaper in the future, it won't be what a newspaper would have been like 10 years ago or even today."

Although Deb Aikat, a professor in the School of Media and Journalism, said rural people are getting a raw deal and their life line to information is being cut, he finds some optimism in the study’s findings. 

“This study assumes that the newspapers are the sole savior of information needs,” Aikat said. “I personally think that this study highlights important opportunities where there are other people, other entrepreneurs, who can utilize this deficit.”

Abernathy also said the report demonstrates a need of local newspapers to develop into the digital age with more effective business models.

“The future of local journalism depends on developing business models for news organizations in even struggling communities that allows them to have a vibrant media ecosystem because that is essential to developing a vibrant vision and a vibrant future for those communities,” Abernathy said.

The report calls into question what will fill the gap for counties without local news sources, Townsend said. For small communities, she said this has severe consequences on the ability of the people to be informed.

“I think the major implication is probably that without local journalism, without local newspapers, people are less informed,” Townsend said. “They're less able to speak about topics of public concern and public interest, and that affects politics in a major way to where newspapers are supposed to hold government officials accountable, and if they're not there to be the watchdog and hold these people accountable, then who is?”

Aikat said the passing of traditional society relates to the loss of these local newspapers in the changing world.

“The way we are using some of our resources is not like how our grandfathers did, so obviously there are changes,” Aikat said. “And this study does a great job of highlighting the changing world that we are living in, especially in a world which we are not aware of.”