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When rural areas lose their local newspapers, the news that takes its place centers around national politics, as the Daily Yonder reported back in 2018. This shift in focus can weaken community engagement with local government.

Communities living in news deserts have few-to-no journalistic sources to rely on for local news. Northwestern University’s The State of Local News 2022 report found that nearly all of the 2,500 papers lost since 2005 were weeklies or non-dailies. 

Weekly newspapers are the most common form of traditional journalism serving rural areas, said Joshua Darr, professor of political science at Syracuse University. 

The lack of local journalism makes it harder for rural residents to find unbiased information about what goes on in their communities. From cable news to social media, the information that is most readily available tends to focus on national-level political conflict, which increases partisanship among its viewers, Darr said.

Report: Rural Communities Explore New Alternatives to Closing Local Newspapers

“If it’s easier to find information on the indictments of former President Trump than on the minutes of your county board meetings, that will have polarizing effects on the political outlook of news consumers.”

The locally-focused news media that does show up in these areas also tends to be partisan. Quoting a 2018 Politico article, the Daily Yonder reported that conservative outlets posing as nonpartisan newspapers have popped up in news deserts, putting a spin on local issues in hopes of influencing elections. 

Julie Reynolds, co-founder and writer for news site Voices of Monterey Bay, has observed a similar trend with talk radio while reporting in California’s Salinas Valley, an area composed of small agricultural towns.

“I think radio is really the place that’s filling that void, at least in our region,” Reynolds said. “I think a lot of people are picking up talk radio where people talk about the news, but they’re not reporting the news. And there’s a huge difference, of course. And so opinion is passing as fact in a lot of these areas.”

As Texas A&M Today reported, national news outlets often don’t have the resources to cover state and local government leaders in the way they cover national congressional members. So when local outlets close, rural communities often lose their only connection to their local government.  

Darr said that this loss of connection lowers community engagement, leading to lower voter turnout and more straight-ticket voting among those who do vote. And this lack of engagement can also lead to instances of misconduct going unreported.

“It’s not only political corruption, but also corporate malfeasance that can lead to pollution and mistreatment of communities, that a weak local news environment can enable,” Darr said.

Speaking to Texas A&M Today, Johanna Dunaway, professor of communication at Texas A&M, said that the dominance of national news media gives politicians more incentive to cater to their party rather than their constituents. This combined with the lack of journalists acting as watchdogs makes it harder for communities to hold their leaders accountable.

Rural communities have found less polarizing ways of communicating to each other about local issues. According to reporting from the Daily Yonder, local governments may post meeting minutes in banks and storefronts, while remaining local news outlets may partner with larger regional outlets to cover local stories. So while these solutions can’t make up for the loss of a local paper, there’s reason to be optimistic, Sudan City Secretary Mechele Edwards told the Daily Yonder.

“We’d much rather have a small-town newspaper,” Edwards said. “But in this day and time, we have a little more options to reach people than we used to.” 

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