The state of local journalism is widely, and correctly, understood to be grim. About 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics.
Yet what is missing from these raw facts — depressing as they sound in the abstract — is a detailed sense of what, exactly, is being lost: the local controversies, wrongdoings and human-interest tales that are severely underreported or entirely untold. In this special issue, we asked local journalists to tell some of those stories.
Every piece in this issue originates in a news desert. Penny Muse Abernathy — who until recently was the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is now a visiting professor at Northwestern University — defines a news desert as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grass-roots level.” In practice, this means counties with few — sometimes zero — print newspapers of any kind. And in many cases, there’s no alternative to replace the important community reporting, backed by sizable newsrooms, that print papers once did.
The below stories, photos and stand-alone illustrations are all by people who were living in or near the areas where the events took place. In their bios at the start of each piece, we’ve provided context about the journalists themselves as well as the newspaper landscape in the story’s setting.
Some of these stories have been previously covered by outlets that are trying against long odds to preserve a market for local journalism, and we are indebted to their work; other stories are being told here for the first time. What all these stories have in common is that they deserved more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.
Plenty of local and national outlets are working mightily to fill in the gaps created by the diminished state of local news: nonprofit regional newsrooms, local radio and TV stations, digital news sites and national organizations with branches dedicated to supporting community journalism. In the years to come, many more efforts along these lines will be needed — at the national level, the grass-roots level and everywhere in between. Because when we lose local journalism, we lose a fabric that holds together communities; we lose crucial information that allows democracy to function; and at the most basic level, we lose stories that need to be told.
— Whitney Joiner & Alexa McMahon, Co-Editors, The Lost Local News Issue
Richard Just, Editor, The Washington Post Magazine
The lost local news stories
Erosion threatens an Alaskan Indigenous community’s school
Grizzly bears are protected under federal law. When three were killed in an Idaho community, it didn’t seem like a coincidence.
These Georgia residents had seen enough. And now they’re getting results.
In Washington state, a goat becomes a celebrity
In late 2020, drivers along Washington state’s Route 14, between Carson and Stevenson, began to notice a mountain goat overseeing road construction. The goat — nicknamed Sweeney for her presence in an area known as Sweeney’s Corner — soon became a local celebrity and garnered fame on social media. Nearby residents and visitors captured photos of Sweeney snacking on grass and watching traffic from a hillside. Mountain goats in the area were largely wiped out by early settlers and further by the 1980 eruption at Mount St. Helens, so sightings of them are a positive sign that the population is growing. In the spring of 2021, Sweeney disappeared from her spot. Although residents miss seeing her, experts think she moved higher up the mountain as the weather warmed — or perhaps to avoid the growing paparazzi.
Kendra Binney is an artist in Vancouver, Wash. This piece is set in Skamania County, Wash. (population 12,000), which has one weekly newspaper, the Skamania County Pioneer.
How a West Virginia reverend created something distinctive: a diverse congregation in an overwhelmingly White area
In northern New Mexico, a district court judge has a radical approach to addressing addiction
In Colorado, a community weighs whether to remove a “loudmouth liberal” from its school board
In Hawaii, a local twist on the potato chip
Jimmy Chan, right, began experimenting with making purple sweet potato chips in his home kitchen in 1998, with nothing more than enthusiasm and brief video instruction. His first batch burned, but he kept trying — eventually launching the Hawaiian Chip Company in 2000. Within a year, Jimmy and his close friend and investor Mathew Kaneshiro, left, began selling a variety of chips at local events. He met other business owners who helped him navigate his journey, grow his company and open a storefront. “That validation combined with successful cash-and-carry sales led me to believe I could make and sell sweet potato chips as a full-time gig,” says Chan. Now he offers to mentor other local businesses, and even provides his kitchen as a location for others to sell their goods and services.
Mae Waite is an artist in Honolulu County, Hawaii (population 975,000), which has one daily newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
A small town in southern Utah wanted to suppress dust on its roads. Not everyone was pleased.
Many Mississippi Delta houses are in desperate need of repair. Here’s how one woman’s home renovation dream came true.
This vital Kansas ecosystem is rapidly shrinking. Its future depends on private landowners like Lorna Harder.
In Michigan, the evolution of a theater
The Soo Theatre in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., was built in the 1930s as a vaudeville theater and operated as a cinema from 1974 until 1998, when it fell into disrepair and closed. It opened again in 2005 as a live performance venue, and, slowly but surely, more improvements are being made. Although the facade is rough, the building has good bones. This illustration depicts a production of “La Traviata,” with English translations of the Italian opera projected on the wall. I love being able to experience theater in a place that has so much history but is still a work in progress.
Katie Eberts is an artist in Cedarville, Mich. This piece is set in Chippewa County, Mich. (population 36,000), which has one daily newspaper, the Sault Ste. Marie Evening News.
In Oregon, two men give unclaimed human remains a proper burial
A single school recently won every award at the Indiana High School Architectural Design Competition — thanks to the vision of one teacher
How a self‑taught painter and sculptor in Alabama has created an enduring legacy using found objects
In New Jersey, a hot air love story
In 2001, Giulia Grotenhuis and her husband, Fred, began a hot air balloon festival at the Warren County Farmers’ Fair in New Jersey. They’d met in 1989, when Giulia started working for Fred’s quick print shop in Easton, Pa. Fred was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War; after the war he continued to fly helicopters, small planes, hot air balloons, powered parachutes and, eventually, paragliders.
Fred died more than six years ago, but Giulia continues his legacy by hosting the hot air balloon festival every year. She has since expanded it to several events throughout the year in Warren County.
Daniel Hertzberg is an artist in Morristown, N.J. This piece is set in Warren County, N.J. (population 109,000), which has one weekly newspaper, the Star-Gazette.