The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion News deserts are a civic crisis

A GateHouse Media-owned Palm Beach Post and the Gannett Co.-owned USA Today are seen for sale at a newsstand in 2019, the year the two chains merged. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
5 min

“It should be clear to any reasonable person that there are too few funnels through which will flow most of the world’s entertainment and information. Too few funnels suggests too few individuals making too many decisions about what the world’s population needs to know.”

That observation, from legendary television producer Norman Lear (who turns 100 on July 27!), might sound like a blunt assessment of contemporary journalism — but Lear wrote those words in a special issue of the Nation, where I serve as publisher, in 1996.

Since the frenzy of Big Media consolidation that rocked the 1980s, journalists, media figures and scholars have been issuing such warnings. Yet, for decades, the number of newspapers has kept shrinking — and a report from Northwestern University confirms the severity of the trend. The United States has already lost a quarter of the newspapers that existed even in 2005; each week, two more shut down.

As a result, the number of Americans living in news deserts — communities with no functioning local news outlet — has grown to an astonishing 70 million. As private equity firms and hedge funds snap up half of the country’s daily newspapers, they’re emptying newsrooms and disinvesting in local coverage. Some news deserts harbor a “ghost newspaper” that lingers as a shadow of its former self, absorbed by a larger paper or slashed to a staff you could count on one hand. Others have lost their papers altogether. The upshot: Across the country, particularly in rural, low-income communities, people are losing access to relevant, trustworthy news — and we’re suffering consequences in real time.

Those who live in news deserts are forced to turn to national news sources and social media platforms. The former often fails to provide any information about their local communities, while the latter often profits from misinformation.

This warped information landscape has coincided with an unprecedented erosion of trust. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 16 percent of Americans reported having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers — the lowest rate Gallup has ever recorded.

That distrust could prove dangerous. Local journalism has historically been crucial to holding leaders accountable and ensuring the government serves the people. Since the water crisis in Flint, Mich., began in 2014, the Detroit Metro Times has investigated its causes and publicized its coverup. In 2019, the Connecticut Mirror uncovered intentional segregation in local towns, exposing zoning board officials who created those injustices. Local news sources were essential to disseminating crucial information about the coronavirus — from mapping testing sites to clarifying vaccine availability.

Indeed, local news helps build a robust civic life by not only informing people but also involving them in community conversations. It has the potential to create a shared reality, so when we disagree, it’s about the solutions to problems — not whether such problems exist.

As journalist Bill Moyers once observed in a speech to the National Conference for Media Reform, “The quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined.” The precarity of local journalism today is a civic crisis. Media columnist Margaret Sullivan illustrates the repercussions: “As local news disappears, bad things happen: Voter participation declines. Corruption, in business and government, finds more fertile ground. And false information spreads wildly.” We might add to that list: Local government officials aren’t held accountable for corruption, and the influence of dark money becomes all the more pervasive.

To revive local journalism, shouldn’t we value it as a public good essential to democracy? And to that end, wouldn’t a Democratic-controlled Congress want to boost the government’s investment in news? That could be made clear in existing proposals, such as the payroll tax credit for local news organizations that was embedded in the Build Back Better bill. There’s also the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, first introduced in 2020, which creates tax credits for local newspapers and other critical stakeholders, such as subscribers and advertisers. (Institutionalists, take heed: Both of these steps can be taken through budget reconciliation — without any need to eliminate our precious filibuster.)

But government funding alone won’t be enough. A transforming media landscape creates opportunities to reimagine local newspapers altogether. The Saving Local News Act — backed by Reps. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) and Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), among others — would make it easier for local newspapers to become nonprofits and shift their incentives to serve readers over advertisers. We’ve already seen success stories of how the nonprofit structure can benefit coverage — including the Texas Tribune boasting the largest state house bureau in the country, the Colorado Media Project pooling the resources of local media organizations, and two new New York nonprofit media outlets, the City and New York Focus. And to combat the existential threat of media consolidation, we urgently need to increase antitrust enforcement over newspaper mergers and acquisitions — which so often lead to slashed investment in local reporting.

Moyers, in that same speech, invoked the words of communications scholar Patricia Aufderheide to define the role of public media. As she put it, public media exists “to create a public — a group of people who can talk productively with those who don’t share their views, and defend the interests of the people who have to live with the consequences of corporate and governmental power.”