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Commentary By Judith Miller

News Deserts: No News Is Bad News

Editor's note: The following is the fourth chapter of Urban Policy 2018 published by the Manhattan Institute.


Rarely in U.S. history has there been a greater need for quality, objective, fact-based news. Yet America’s daily and weekly newspapers—the traditional lifeblood of local reporting since before the country’s founding—are buckling under extraordinary financial and structural pressures. An increasing number of urban and rural communities—at least 1,000, according to a recent University of North Carolina study—are without a single outlet for reporting local news.1 The crisis in local news that has developed over the past few decades poses a far-reaching danger to civic engagement, the accountability of government, and, many analysts argue, democracy itself. While a number of promising experiments to fill the void are under way throughout the nation, none has emerged as a viable alternative to the industry’s traditional for-profit business model.

The Spread of News Deserts

After a decade of shrinking circulation, disappearing advertising revenues, and declining profits, the number of local newspapers in the U.S. has dropped from 8,972 in 2004 to 7,112 in 2018. Of these, only 1,283 are dailies; the rest are weeklies or biweeklies.2 Of the surviving papers in 2018, some 75% have a circulation of 10,000 or fewer. Between 2004 and 2018 alone, at least 1,800 newspapers shut down or merged, and more than 100 shifted from daily to weekly publication.3

Meanwhile, both television and newspaper ownership is increasingly concentrated, another source of concern. “Concentrated ownership displaces local control of media and shifts editorial decisions to people without a stake in particular local communities,” says Martha Minow, former dean and a professor at Harvard Law School. “It also risks reducing the diversity of views and opinion.”4 The largest 25 newspaper chains, which in 2004 owned 21% of the nation’s newspapers, now own almost a third of them, including more than half the nation’s dailies—a historically high level of consolidation.5 Most purchases were of small newspaper chains and dailies in small and midsize markets. But growing structural and bottom-line pressures affect large newspaper owners as well—whether they are solo billionaires, newspaper chains (privately owned or publicly traded), hedge and pension funds, or private or publicly traded equity firms.

“Underlying the newspaper industry’s dramatic decline are a series of technological, economic, social, and even political changes...”

According to research by the Columbia Journalism Review, the pace of closures, downsizing, and consolidation is accelerating.6 The result is the spread of so-called news deserts—communities with no outlet for locally reported news. Such deserts were once concentrated in smaller communities and in rural areas. But a recent University of North Carolina report shows that while poorer communities were the first to lose community and local newspapers, eight of the newspapers that have closed or whose staff and resources have been drastically cut back since 2004 were in larger, economically vibrant cities such as Denver, Honolulu, New York, and Seattle. While the dramatic downsizing of the Denver Post and New York Daily News were well covered by the mainstream press, the deep cuts at papers in Honolulu, Seattle, and other cities have received less attention.7

Penny Muse Abernathy, who holds the Knight chair of journalism and digital economics at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media, estimates that for every paper that has closed, 10 have been so hollowed out that they exist in name only. “While there are now about 200 news deserts,” she says, “there are far more ‘ghost papers’ which pretend to report the news but lack the resources to do so”—at least 1,000 and perhaps as many as 2,000 of them.8

Obsolete Business Model

Underlying the newspaper industry’s dramatic decline are a series of technological, economic, social, and even political changes, few—if any—of which appear to be reversible. Most date back to the emergence of the Internet and the flight of newspaper subscribers and advertising dollars to it. Early on, Craigslist, the online website, helped decimate classified ads, once the major source of newspaper revenue. Robert Seamans (at New York University’s Stern School of Business) and Feng Zhu (at Harvard Business School) concluded in their groundbreaking 2012 study that Craigslist was responsible for the loss of $5 billion in ad revenue during 2000–2007. A more recent study reaffirmed this finding, concluding that newspaper closures are nearly 10% likelier within 30 miles of a city with a Craigslist.9

Craigslist is hardly the only disrupter of the industry’s traditional business model. A decade ago, notes Nicco Mele, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, subscriptions accounted for 20% of revenue; 80% came from advertising. Thanks largely to the Internet, that ratio has flipped, but most newspapers have failed to find a viable alternative model. Despite the unending decline in print revenue, more than 70% of revenue for most newspapers (for the New York Times, as well as for small community papers) still comes from print; digital revenue, on average, accounts for only 15%–20%.10

With the rise of the Internet, the 2008 recession, and the complacency with which too many newspapers have responded to the Internet’s digital challenge, free online competitors have driven 80%–90% of online advertising dollars (an estimated $83 billion in 2017), largely to Google, which got over 40% of it, and Facebook. Newspapers, magazines, and virtually everyone else fight for the remainder. As a result, newspaper ad revenue has fallen 63% in the last decade while newspapers have lost nearly 40% of their daily circulation.11

Though television news jobs have increased by 4.9% in the past 10 years, newspaper jobs during the same period have fallen by almost half, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017. In the past 26 years, 60% of newspaper jobs have vanished, a faster and deeper job decline than in some of the nation’s most notoriously collapsing sectors—coal mining, steel manufacturing, and fishing. And while job losses in steel and other U.S. manufacturing have begun to level off, or even turn around, newspapers have continued shedding about 1,000 jobs a month.13

Meanwhile, the price of newsprint has soared since March, when President Donald Trump levied a tariff of up to 30% on Canadian uncoated paper, making it difficult, if not impossible, for some cash-strapped papers to print their product. Because for many papers, newsprint is generally the largest budget item after labor, argues Steve Forbes, chairman and editor in chief of Forbes Media, this “needless tax on journalism,” as he called it, would force “dozens” of publications to close “or be reduced to shadows of their former selves.”14

In a unanimous decision in late August 2018, the U.S. International Trade Commission, a government agency that reviews unfair trade practices, overturned the administration’s newsprint tariffs, ruling that American paper producers were unharmed by imports. While the National Newspaper Association, which represents about 2,300 community papers, welcomed the ruling, the group’s president said that “a lot of damage” had already been done: newspaper closures, newspaper staff reductions, and cuts in the number of days that papers are printed.15

Where will it all end? “Within the next 36 months,” Mele predicts, “one-third to one-half of the nation’s remaining dailies will no longer be in print.”16 Warren Buffett, the legendary Berkshire Hathaway investor who bought 28 mostly smaller newspapers in 2011, agrees. Acknowledging at his company’s shareholder meeting in May that the circulations of his papers had fallen sharply, Buffett predicted that all but three of the nation’s newspapers—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and perhaps the Washington Post—were doomed. “It’s difficult to see how the print product survives over time,” he said.17

Why It Matters

The financial distress of local papers has broad ramifications. As the main source of news for both readers and viewers, newspapers have long been indispensable to an informed public. While local TV stations have tried to fill the vacuum and provide some hard-hitting local news and investigative reporting to viewers, most of the news broadcast on TV still originates in newspapers. Moreover, although a recent Knight Foundation study found that 50% of all adults say that they “often” get local news from television and a quarter from radio, TV ratings have also declined, particularly among middle-aged viewers, voters who traditionally value real news.18

According to Marty Kaplan, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, TV news, rather than supplement vital local news lost through the death of papers, has aided and abetted the spread of advertiser-driven broadcast news deserts throughout the nation. His studies have shown that in a typical 30-minute news broadcast in L.A., coverage of city and county government—such as budget issues, education, transportation, health care, immigration, law enforcement, new regulations, and voting procedures—usually accounts for some 22 seconds of airtime. Crime stories, by contrast, the broadcast equivalent of Internet cat videos, take up some three minutes, usually at the top of the show. “There is too little effort spent trying to make the important interesting,” he says.19

The disappearance of local news ultimately affects the entire news ecosystem, says Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times. Groundbreaking investigative reporting that gains national attention and wins prizes, he notes, often emerges from humble “beat” reporting—the mundane coverage of city hall, the local police, and school and zoning boards. When local newspapers close or are forced to reduce such coverage dramatically, he says, “the often stenographic task” of covering the town council, zoning meetings, bond issues, and the routine purchase of goods and services does not occur, or occurs on a much reduced scale. Because these proceedings and transactions take place “out of sight,” corruption more readily flourishes. So local news coverage not only trains cub reporters and keeps politicians honest; it fuels investigative stories of broader trends and impact from the bottom up. “Without that,” he says, “the news chain itself suffers.”20

UNC’s Abernathy cites evidence of a statistical correlation between the consumption of local news and voter turnout, and civic participation in general.21 According to a Pew Research Center study, “the roughly one-in-five U.S. adults (19%) who feel highly attached to their communities demonstrate much stronger ties to local news than those who do not feel attached—revealing a link between personal connection to the area and a desire to stay more informed about current issues and events.”22

Scholars have recently documented other adverse effects of the decline of local news coverage in print, radio, and TV. Economists at the University of Chicago and at Notre Dame have shown that even the cost of municipal borrowing increases significantly when a local newspaper shuts down. According to their survey of “1,596 English-language papers serving some 1,266 counties at some point between 1996 and 2015,” whenever a local paper closed, or reduced publishing to fewer than four days a week, or was absorbed by another news outlet, municipal borrowing rates, that is, the cost of municipal bonds, increased within three years by 5–11 basis points—a statistically significant rise. The study found 300 instances in which a newspaper’s merger, downsizing, or death led to substantially higher borrowing costs. The Internet and other alternative media sources, the authors conclude, are no substitute for a newspaper’s watchdog role.23

Newspapers and other civic watchdogs also affect a city’s payroll. The median county saw its total government wages increase by $1.4 million a year after its local newspaper closed. Not only did the number of government employees increase; individual taxpayer bills rose, on average, $85 a year. Local governments, too, appear to become less efficient without oversight.24

The spread of news deserts may have other perverse effects. John Brownstein, a cofounder of HealthMap, a 12-year-old disease-detection project operated by researchers from Boston’s Children’s Hospital, notes that real-time reporting in local newspapers of outbreaks of global infectious disease is crucial to spotting and stopping their spread. Local media are “the bedrock of internet surveillance,” he says, noting that the proliferation of news deserts is already lessening the amount of data that HealthMap has been gathering from undercovered regions of the country. Social media cannot fill the gap, adds Alessandro Vespignani, a professor at Northeastern University who models epidemics. Twitter provides only what he called a “signal that may not be precise.” Plus, social media reports were often wrong, “rather by accident or design.”25

Growing news deserts and the disruption of the traditional news food chain have been accompanied by a pernicious parallel. Social media platforms that have usurped the most ad dollars earn money by filtering and distributing information about what users prefer to read and watch. Their business models rely on secret algorithms that maximize viewers. Broad distribution of such uncurated or unverified information has accelerated not only the trend toward “click” journalism but also the spread of eye-catching misinformation. The Russian “kompromat” and disinformation on Facebook cited by Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election were meant to be politically destabilizing. And Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy may be just the “tip of the iceberg,” warns Harvard’s Minow.26 Mele agrees. “While the traditional business of news is vanishing,” he says, “new ways of manipulating the news and the public are proliferating. What are we to do?”27

The Quest for a New Business Model

Media analysts largely agree that because there is no single solution to the newspaper industry’s dramatic, ongoing consolidation and contraction, we must consider the possibility that a successful alternative business model may not emerge—in either the for-profit or nonprofit sectors. An alternative business model has yet to emerge that is likely to replace newspapers’ traditional, and increasingly obsolete, revenue formulas.

While dozens of experiments are under way, most of them, says Adam Ragusea, a journalist in residence at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism in Macon, Georgia, seek either to “fill gaps” in news coverage resulting from newspaper closings and cutbacks, or “raise the bar” by improving the quality of news articles and television broadcasts to attract more readers and viewers willing to pay for their production. Ragusea argues that there are some practical remedies for what ails a key part of the broadcast media. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the taxpayer-supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and National Public Radio (NPR), was intended to fill news gaps and raise the quality news bar. Given the newspaper industry’s dire straits, he stated, “filling the gap, particularly in local news, should be public broadcasting’s priority for the next few years.”28

Howard Husock, a Republican CPB board member and my colleague at the Manhattan Institute, has proposed a relatively straightforward way to address the absence of local radio and broadcasting news in so many cities. CPB’s trustees, he argues, should require their nationwide network of some 364 television and 1,048 radio stations, most managed by independent licensees and located in every state and major city, to spend far more reporting locally generated news of interest to the communities they cover and serve.

While public radio stations have increased spending on local journalism in recent years, locally generated content still represents what Husock calls “a small portion of a typical NPR station’s overall spending and effort,” most of which remains committed to purchasing national programming and content produced by NPR stations in New York and Boston. Requiring NPR and PBS stations to devote more money developing “high-quality, reporting-based local journalism,” he says, would not only provide more information of interest and value to people in states often ignored by the national media; it would help NPR attract a greater diversity of listeners in more states. Husock has also urged Congress to change the Public Broadcasting Act to “shift toward local journalism” by no longer requiring local stations to spend 23% of their federal appropriation—some $313 million—on dues to Washington to acquire programming and on other purposes that have little or nothing to do with local news production.29

Solutions for what ails print journalism are more complex and elusive. Several alternative models are emerging to finance quality print journalism—and local print journalism, in particular. One is a membership model, adopted in part by Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. Others following this model include such web-based organizations as ProPublica, the Voice of San Diego, and the Texas Tribune. “Asking readers to send money if they believe in what we do makes sense,” says Pope. “It’s working for several news outlets with a loyal following and a diversified source of revenue.30

A variant on this model is a for-profit institution or outlet like London’s Guardian newspaper, which is owned by a trust but seeks public contributions for its journalism. Another model relies heavily on foundations and philanthropies to support responsible news outlets. This model has many strengths, argues Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica, the nonprofit, investigative powerhouse that now employs 75 reporters and engages in ambitious, collaborative investigations with papers and broadcast outlets throughout the country.31

While ProPublica has won prizes and praise for its high-quality, in-depth investigative reporting, such funding is usually not politically neutral. ProPublica, for example, was created by liberal Democrats: Bay Area billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler, who pledged $10 million a year for the first three years in seed money. Its website now lists as “larger donors” some 33 other major foundations. While Engelberg, a former New York Times editor with whom I worked closely for years, insists that his donors’ political agendas do not affect the selection or content of stories, some insiders say that it has not been sufficiently transparent about its funders. ProPublica did not disclose, for instance, in or at the end of its 2016 election stories, that much of its political reporting was underwritten by the foundation of J. J. Abrams, the liberal Democratic filmmaker and Star Wars creator. Several writers said that those stories should have identified donors who have specifically earmarked money for a particular line of coverage, as many other news organizations do.

It is clear that foundations will be called upon to play a more significant role in supporting quality journalism. Yet nonprofit news organizations already get about 60% of their budgets from foundation grants and another 15%–20% from individual donations. Whether this support will be sufficient to stop the spread of local news deserts is another matter. In June, a study of some 30,000 grants totaling $1.8 billion from more than 6,500 foundations that supported journalism between 2010 and 2015 concluded that almost a third of the money went to university programs, professional development centers, and research, technology, and development groups, but not directly to news-gathering.32

“While enlightened government intervention could force greater accountability... poorly conceived regulation could exacerbate the newspaper industry’s woes.”

Nor was giving evenly distributed across the country or among outlets. While public media, for instance, received 44% of the $1.8 billion, 70% of that went to 25 public media stations and content producers in 10 states. University-based journalism initiatives aimed at producing either local or national public-affairs coverage got 2% of the $1.8 billion, and five universities accounted for half of that. Sixteen of the top 25 grant-receiving campuses were based in either California or the Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., metro areas—hardly news deserts. Local and state news nonprofits received 5% of the total pool. Many of those interviewed expressed frustration with what they called “pack philanthropy.”33

In many communities, however, individual and foundation giving has been vital to sustaining local news coverage. Macon, Georgia, which I visited twice in 2018, is not yet a news desert. But it would have been by now, were it not for the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

One of Knight’s largest ongoing commitments in Macon began in 2012, when private Mercer University, supported by a $4.6 million, five-year Knight grant, invited the Telegraph, Macon’s struggling daily newspaper (once owned by Knight-Ridder) and its Georgia Public Broadcasting station to collaborate on news coverage and occupy adjacent office space just off campus, creating the Center for Collaborative Journalism (CCJ). A $1 million grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation helped the Telegraph move offices.34

Since then, journalists from print and radio have collaborated on other investigative projects. The local CBS affiliate, WMAZ, joined the partnership and began accepting Mercer journalism students as interns. Another $2.2 million Knight grant in 2017 extended CCJ’s work in the community. Debbie Blankenship, a former Telegraph reporter and the center’s interim director, said that collective investigation of Macon’s housing “blight,” for instance, prompted passage of a $10 million county bond to demolish run-down structures.35

Similar collaborations and cost-sharing arrangements among “anchor” universities and news organizations are occurring throughout the country—yet another model aimed at maximizing the use of scarce resources. In Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal, which is older than the city itself, rents space and “partners” with its local NPR station, WKSU. The five major Ohio papers have shared news feeds and some content for years to reduce costs.36

Whether such cost-sharing will be able to save fragile for-profit papers is unclear, as recent cutbacks at Macon’s Telegraph, the city’s oldest continuously operating institution, suggests. Sold to the McClatchy chain in 2006 for $4.5 billion in cash and stock, the paper wound up $2.5 billion in debt and hence, with a desperate need to expand its shrinking circulation and boost revenues.37 By 2018, despite the Knight Foundation’s support, the Telegraph’s news staff, which in 2006 stood at nearly 320 full- and part-time employees, had shrunk to 11, including eight reporters and writers. The paper’s staff is spread so thin that important issues and constituencies go uncovered.38 Even Robert Reichert, Macon’s mayor, complained about the lack of coverage of important local news.39 Meanwhile, the price of a daily and Sunday print subscription to the Telegraph has risen to $780 a year, though many readers pay less because of occasional promotions and sales.

Given its owners’ cost-cutting, UNC’s Abernathy says that the Telegraph is on the verge of joining the ever-growing number of “ghost” papers that are so hollowed out that they exist in name only.40

McClatchy claims a commitment to quality news. But the growing concentration of community and other local newspapers in the hands of private hedge funds like Tronc, Inc. and Alden Global Capital has swollen the ranks of ghost papers. As of 2012, the six largest investment entities operated more than 1,059 newspapers in 41 states—more than 15% of all U.S. newspapers. Focused mainly on a paper’s bottom line, such owners have stripped away staff, sold assets for short-term gain, and cut reporting expenses to the bone. In April 2018, Alden, which owns the Denver Post, triggered an unusual staff rebellion over debilitating staff reductions. In August, Tronc, the hedge fund that bought the storied New York Daily News in 2017 for $1 while assuming its substantial liabilities, fired its two top editors and half the editorial staff.41

Tim Franklin, a journalism professor and associate dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, argues that the milking of their papers for short-term cash flow by newspaper chains and, especially, hedge funds is ultimately counterproductive. “You can’t cut your way to prosperity,” he says.42

Some analysts see salvation in the revival of an earlier model of American journalism—an individual owner with deep pockets (often a political partisan), willing to lose megabucks in the short run to invest in long-term profitability. The most celebrated recent example of this new-old model is billionaire Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO. Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million and has invested millions more in the paper’s news budget. This past July, L.A. biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong paid Tronc $500 million for the 136-year-old Los Angeles Times (as well as the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Spanish-language Hoy, and several community papers). Soon-Shiong named veteran journalist Norman Pearlstine as the Times executive editor. Pearlstine, 75, who has been a senior editor at Time Inc., Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and Forbes, said that Soon-Shiong has authorized him to hire “dozens” more reporters and do “whatever is needed” to make the Los Angeles Times an editorial and financial success again. Pearlstine has not yet said how he intends to accomplish that. But while Soon-Shiong has said that he wants to run the Times like a business, his stated devotion to print journalism makes clear that return on investment isn’t his priority, given the high cost of publishing a daily print paper.43

Another newspaper survival strategy is diversification—seeking alternative income streams related, but not necessarily tied, to reporting news. The Pilot, a privately owned community paper published twice a week in Southern Pines, North Carolina, by the Daniels family, which also owns Raleigh’s News & Observer, has bolstered The Pilot’s bottom line by revenue from a monthly state business magazine, three lifestyle magazines targeting different North Carolina cities, a digital media services agency, a telephone directory service, and even a bookstore.44

Many papers, including the New York Times, now earn revenue from hosting special events, classes and seminars, travel tours (even to countries like Iran, which raises serious conflict-of-interest issues), and other activities that have little to do with their core mission, journalism. But according to SEC filings and other company reports, print subscriptions remain overwhelmingly the largest source of revenue for the Times.

As print subscriptions and ad revenues continue to fall, many analysts have increasingly advocated directly targeting the Internet and social media platforms—particularly Google and Facebook—for added revenue. Rupert Murdoch, for one, has long argued that these two companies, as well as others that post news with little or no compensation, should be required to pay newspapers and broadcast media whenever their users share their content.

David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, a trade association of some 2,000 print and digital newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, is pushing for a change in antitrust law that would give news organizations the right to negotiate collectively with Google, Facebook, and other social media giants for compensation. He dismisses their spending and programs ostensibly aimed at boosting local journalism, such as Google’s $300 million “news lab” and other initiatives. The digital giants, he complains, don’t employ reporters. “They don’t dig through public records to uncover corruption, send correspondents into war zones or attend last night’s game to get the highlights. They expect an economically squeezed news industry to do that costly work for them.”45

Chavern wants stronger intellectual property protections for papers, better support for subscription models, and a fair share of revenue and data. So far, he argues, the Federal Communications Commission and other antitrust enforcers have declined to act against the tech giants’ growing dominance.

Harvard’s Minow argues that the federal government should consider the Internet and its platforms a public utility to which access, accuracy, and transparency are vital. Google and Facebook should be regulated, she says, if they won’t do more to prevent foreign political meddling, protect user privacy, and accept responsibility for what appears on their sites.46

Others claim that, at the very least, Google, Facebook, and others should be forced to be more transparent about and accountable for their operations and the algorithms that increasingly decide what will and will not be posted. (Neither Google nor Facebook would respond to several requests for an interview about how they see their role and their often tense relations with the newspaper industry.)

Peter D. Barbey, whose family has long owned the now-struggling Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania and who was forced in August to close the Village Voice, says that legacy media publishers are partly responsible for their plight. Too many of them have made social media platforms “overlords responsible for curating, cultivating, and monetizing the news and information their newsrooms spent sweat and equity to create,” he says.47 For some, economic reality gave them little choice. Struggling newspapers need the exposure that Google and Facebook provide to keep readers loyal and companies buying ads. But Barbey worries that it might be too late even for financially stronger news organizations to reclaim that authority.

Caution is clearly warranted. While enlightened government intervention could force greater accountability and transparency and constrain social media platforms, poorly conceived regulation could exacerbate the newspaper industry’s woes. But momentum for reining in “big tech” is building in Washington. Social media may not be the legacy newspapers’ enemy, but there is little reason to see it as their friend, much less a potential savior. Google and Facebook are classic economic disrupters, Nicco Mele reminds us.

The news industry’s desperation has also triggered support for alternative community-based business models once dismissed as too radical. In July, the New Jersey state legislature passed and Governor Phil Murphy approved $5 million for a new Civic Information Consortium—in effect, a public charity that would award grants for specific projects in underserved communities. Though the Wall Street Journal 48 and other media watchdogs have criticized the initiative as a “government press corps,” the consortium is not dramatically different from the concept of public broadcasting, which also uses federal taxpayer dollars to support investigative journalism.

Another model gaining traction is local activists who use the Internet to disseminate information of interest and importance to concerned groups and communities. While “citizen journalists” have their champions, it remains unclear how many of their ventures are editorially and financially sustainable. Minow praises such efforts but argues that “citizen journalists” are no substitute for professional journalism.


For all the experimentation under way, the outlook for traditional local newspapers and local news-gathering by TV stations—the so-called legacy media—is grim. There is no shortage of potential solutions to news deserts—such as requiring Google and Facebook (through negotiation with newspapers or government action, or both) to pay for content and be subject to the defamation, libel, and privacy laws that apply to newspapers and broadcast media, or demanding greater transparency about the algorithms and systems that they use to post or bar content. Other proposals include increasing support for public broadcasting and enacting a new “fairness doctrine” to ensure that a diversity of views can be read and heard. Some of these proposals may seem implausible, given the current political climate. But several of them may be essential, if newspapers are to survive.


  1. Estimate by Penny Muse Abernathy from “2018: The Expanding News Desert,” a report to be published in October 2018 by the University of North Carolina, Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media.
  2. Thwarting the Emergence of News Deserts,” University of North Carolina, Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media, March 2017. Updated figures provided by Penny Muse Abernathy, the study’s editor.
  3. Penny Muse Abernathy, “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” University of North Carolina, Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media, October 2016 (with updated figures from Abernathy).
  4. Martha Minow interview, Sept. 3, 2018; Minow, “The Changing Ecosystem of News and Challenges for Freedom of the Press,” forthcoming in Loyola Law Review, Fall 2018.
  5. Penny Muse Abernathy interview, August 2018; UNC reports previously cited.
  6. Yemile Bucay et al., “America’s Growing News Deserts,” Columbia Journalism Review, Spring 2017.
  7. Abernathy interview; updated statistics from “2018: The Expanding News Desert.”  
  8. Abernathy interview.
  9. Robert Seamans and Feng Zhu, “Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets: The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers,” Management Science 60, no. 2 (February 2014): 476–93; Pengjie Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” SSRN, May 8, 2018.
  10. Nicco Mele interview, July 9, 2018.
  11. Hamza Shaban, “Quarterly Earnings for Google, Facebook Reflect Growing Dominance in Digital Ad Market,” Washington Post, July 27, 2017.
  12. Elizabeth Grieco, “Newsroom Employment Dropped Nearly a Quarter in Less than 10 Years, with Greatest Decline at Newspapers,” Pew Research Center, July 30, 2018.
  13. Evan Horowitz, “Even Fishing and Coal Mining Are Not Losing Jobs as Fast as the Newspaper Industry," Boston Globe, July 3, 2018.
  14. Steve Forbes, “Trump’s Newsprint Tariff Is a Tax on America’s Free Press,” Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2018.
  15. Catie Edmondson and Alan Rappeport, “Trump’s Tariffs on Canadian Newsprint Are Overturned,” New York Times, Aug. 29, 2018.
  16. Mele interview.
  17. Jon Levine, “Warren Buffett Says All but 3 American Newspapers Are Doomed,” The Wrap, May 7, 2018.
  18. Local TV News and the New Media Landscape,” Knight Foundation, April 2018. See also Karen Rundlet and Sam Gill, “Beyond ‘Live at Five’: What’s Next for Local TV News,”, Apr. 5, 2018.
  19. Marty Kaplan interview, Apr. 24, 2018; see also Kaplan, “Local News Can Be for the People Even if It Is Not by the People,”, Apr. 25, 2018.
  20. Howell Raines interview, Mar. 28, 2018.
  21. One early study documented the correlation between the existence of a newspaper and voter turnout; see Alan Gerber, Dean Karlan, and Daniel Bergan, “Does the Media Matter? A Field Experiment Measuring the Effect of Newspapers on Voting Behavior and Political Opinions,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1, no. 2 (April 2009): 35–52.
  22. Michael Barthel et al., “Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits,” Pew Research Center, Nov. 3, 2016.
  23. Gao, Lee, and Murphy, “Financing Dies in Darkness?
  24. Ibid.
  25. Quoted in Helen Branswell, “When Towns Lose Their Newspapers, Disease Detectives Are Left Flying Blind,”, Mar. 20, 2018.
  26. Minow interview; Minow, “The Changing Ecosystem of News and Challenges for Freedom of the Press,” Alexander Meiklejohn Lecture at the Watson Institute, Brown University, Mar. 6, 2018.
  27. Mele interview.
  28. Adam Ragusea interview, Jan. 12, 2018. I worked as a freelance reporter in Washington for NPR in the mid-1970s, before joining the New York Times in 1977.
  29. Howard Husock, “To Combat the ‘Rigging’ Charge, National Public Radio Should Be More . . . National,”, Nov. 1, 2016; idem, “Reform Public Broadcasting to Save Local Journalism,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 24. 2018.
  30. Kyle Pope interview, July 26, 2018.
  31. Stephen Engelberg interview, Mar. 18, 2018.
  32. Matthew Nisbet et al., “Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media,” Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, June 18, 2018.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Interviews in Macon, Ga., Jan. 11–13, 2018, and Apr. 10–11, 2018.
  35. An even more sensitive joint project involved attitudes toward race, or specifically why, in a city whose population is 54% African-American, only 4,500 of the 25,000 students enrolled in Macon public schools are white. And why were there almost an equal number of white students enrolled in some 35 private schools?
  36. Doug Livingston (reporter, Akron Beacon Journal) interview, April 2018.
  37. McClatchy, the new owners, urged the Telegraph’s editors to monitor Internet “clicks” assiduously to assess their stories’ appeal and distributed a nine-point “Checklist for Audience and Mission” to editors for all nonbreaking news stories to guide them in determining whether a story might pass digital muster. A reporter’s hunch or suspicion would no longer suffice. A copy of the “Checklist” was shared with this reporter.
  38. The paper has no Hispanic reporter, despite a growing Hispanic population of an estimated 3%–5%. (Hispanic and other minority publications have been particularly battered by news desert pressures. A Pew Research study found that while Hispanics constituted nearly 17% of the U.S. population in 2014, only four Hispanic newspapers were classified as dailies, a significant reduction from the 35 dailies in 2002.) 
  39. Robert Reichert interview, Jan. 12, 2018.
  40. Abernathy interview. The Telegraph is not the only McClatchy paper saddled with debt and an increasingly problematic business model. The Columbia Journalism Review recently reported on the lingering effect of McClatchy’s decimation of the Miami Herald’s news staff in 2009—the firing of 250 people at the height of the 2008 financial crisis and another 175 the following year, plus mandatory furloughs, pay cuts of up to 10%, and pension freezes for the remaining employees. See Rowan Moore Gerety, “Steadying the Miami Herald Newsroom, After Cuts and a Digital Reinvention,” Columbia Journalism Review (June 8, 2018).
  41. Tronc’s gutting of the iconic New York Daily News staff in August was widely covered by the print and broadcast media. See, e.g., Jaclyn Peiser, “Daily News Newsroom Cut in Half by Tronc as Top Editor Is Ousted,” New York Times, July 23, 2018.
  42. Tim Franklin interview, June 29, 2018.
  43. Media analysts say that the single largest cost of producing news, after labor costs (reporters and editors), is printing a physical newspaper, given the high cost of paper, ink, printing presses, and trucking and other transport costs. The high cost of print, or so-called legacy costs, as opposed to digital, online publishing, is part of what makes Nicco Mele, of the Shorenstein Center, and investor billionaire Warren Buffett pessimistic about the future of printed papers.
  44. Abernathy interview; “Small-Town American Newspapers Are Surprisingly Resilient,” The Economist, June 23, 2018.
  45. David Chavern, “How Antitrust Undermines Press Freedom,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2017.
  46. Minow interview; Minow, “The Changing Ecosystem of News and Challenges
    for Freedom of the Press
    .” (Brown University lecture and forthcoming
    Loyola Law Review).
  47. Peter D. Barbey interview, June 15, 2018.
  48. A Government Press Corps,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 5, 2018.


Judith Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and Fox News contributor. 

This piece originally appeared in Urban Policy 2018